Our Armed Stand-off with U.S. Army at the Iron Curtain
The Czechoslovak Iron Curtain ended at the border landmark HM13/9 and continued into East Germany where it was guarded by East German Border Troops. The closest East German town was Pabstleithen and the closest one in West Germany was the town of Prex.
The position of the 1st Border Guard Company.
The position of the 1st Border Guard Company.
Our patrol took us to the HM 3 border landmark near the Bavarian farm of Hollerung and from there to the HM 1/1 landmark that stood exactly on the border of three countries.
To our right side, we could only be seen by East German Border Troopers, who manned their concrete towers scattered along their border, and by the residents of picturesque Bavarian villages and farms in West Germany. West-German Federal Border Police and Bavarian Border Police were also stationed nearby and their presence was usually demonstrated by a marked Audi or VW.
We slowly approached the Tri-border HM 1/1 landmark. This was a small clearing, in the middle stood a low wooden fence that divided Czechoslovakia from West Germany. No one was on the West German side of the fence, we saw no civilians, no West-German police officers, and their small parking lot about 200 meters from the border landmark was empty as well. We saw no one on the East German territory behind their fence either—no troopers, nor their military vehicles IFA, Trabant, or UAZ.
We had some time left and I decided to conduct a small experiment. About 100 meters from the border landmark and inside the Czechoslovak territory was a ruin of an abandoned house. I brought a hand grenade imitation, known as a V-10b in the Czechoslovak Army. This grey-white cylinder-shaped thing was used for exercise purposes. The white flash and acoustic effect of its explosion imitated an explosion of a real hand grenade.
I told my soldiers that we should find out what the imitation grenade can do in the basement of the house. I pulled the grenade pin and threw the grenade into the basement. The strength of the explosion took us by surprise at first, but then we realized the explosion had been enhanced by the small enclosed space of the basement.
We were going back to our unit when we heard the roar of several military vehicles on the West German side. A short silence followed, only to be broken by the thudding of heavy army boots as several U.S. Army soldiers appeared on the Tri-border clearing. Probably 2nd Armored Cavalry. They wore their typical fatigues, brandished M16 automatic rifles, and carried large radios. They stopped at the wooden fence on the Tri-border clearing.
This was the very first time I ever saw real U.S. Army soldiers and they stood just a few meters away from me. Until then, I had only seen American soldiers in war movies. I never considered American soldiers our enemies, but rather an opposing force. They were soldiers just like us who by the dealings of fate wound up in the place of their duty on the border.
We were curious and approached the Tri-border clearing. An old Czech proverb says that curiosity can make you old, but in this case, our curiosity came close to making us dead.
After the rattle of all the weapon-readying on both sides died down, we, the Czechs and the Americans, stood there pointing weapons at each other in complete silence. Adrenalin boiled in our veins, our nerves stretched to the max. Had someone coughed or sneezed, we would have probably shot each other.
At that moment, I prayed for a patrol of West-German Federal Border Police or Bavarian Border Police, or at least West-German Customs. I could speak to them in German and explain the situation. My English was nil, except for “Hello baby,” and I thought the Americans might not appreciate that or even mistake it for a battle cry. Why is it that when you need a cop, there is never one around?
It occurred to me that I could order a slow retreat. However, I was only 18, a young sergeant full of ideas and pride, and worried that such a retreat might look as cowardice in front of the Americans as well as my men.
It was all over, I had my order, and now we could retreat with dignity. The men put their Vz. 58 weapons on safe, slung them over their shoulders, and slowly marched to the truck. The Americans lowered their weapons and incredulously watched us leave.
In my youthful inexperience, I caused an international incident. My fate was sealed and it wasn’t going to be pretty.
Our Battalion commander called me on his carpet. I shook in my boots during his “sermon” and shame prevents me from replicating his words here. At the end he said, “Sergeant, I will not decide your punishment. Others will. Dismissed!”
He made it sound as if I would be shot by a firing squad at dawn, or at least get court-martialed and then spend a long time in a military prison.
The next day I was sent to the 2nd Border Guard Company in the area of Pastviny to see the Military Intelligence Chief in the rank of a colonel. I had no idea what kind of punishment he had in mind for me, but when he saw me—a shaking pale young man—he was visibly taken aback.
“How old are you, sergeant?” the colonel asked.
“Eighteen, sir,” I barely breathed.
“Jesus,” he said, “some of my privates are older than you.”
He thought for a moment. Then he said, “Sergeant, yesterday you pulled some really stupid cowboy shit! I am giving you three days of house arrest. Never, EVER do anything like that again! Do you hear me?”
To this very day, I don’t know why I got away that easily. Perhaps, the colonel felt sorry for me or perhaps he liked the fact that I didn’t retreat in the face of the opposing force. Probably both.
LT (ret) Zdenek
Czechoslovak Border Guard
From the Czech original translated by Mirek Katzl.