The Checkpoint Charlie /BUSMVA Trip Part I

In late 2017 I was made aware of the Berlin U. S. Military Veterans Association. Any U.S. military personnel is eligible for membership if they served in any capacity in Berlin. The Checkpoint Charlie Foundation supports many groups and causes such as the City of Berlin Scholarships, School Partnerships, Issuing Grants, and The School Teachers Enrichment Program (STEP) The Checkpoint Charlie Foundation, and BUSMVA coordinate an annual “Welcome Home to Berlin” trip. You can learn more about the trip on the BUSMVA page. I urge you to check it out. If you qualify to become a member please consider joining. We are a small group of qualified applicants. By the luck of the draw I earned a spot on this 2018 tour. I was pleased to return to my favorite big city, Berlin.

If you qualify and get selected for the trip, your hotel will be paid for during the tour. Any extra days at the hotel will be your responsibility. The cost of the airfare is also your responsibility. You will need to pay for your meals and other incidentals. Tour activities and transportation are covered by the Checkpoint Charlie Foundation.

Thursday September 20th-

I arrived early to the Hotel Air in Berlin near Wittenbergplatz. It was reasonably priced. The room was small with a full bathroom including a shower. I spent very little time in the hotel during my stay. It provided a place to sleep, shower, and occasionally relax.

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The Kaiser Wilhelm Church Memorial

 

Jet lag was heavy on that first day. I kept myself awake with a walk on the Ku-Dam and a trip to the famous KaDeWe department Store. The Ku-Dam is the large shopping area of former West Berlin. It was the showcase of the West during the Cold War. The Kaiser Wilhelm Church Memorial is maintained in its post WWII state. It is sometimes referred to as the bombed out church. One look and you can see why.

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KaDeWe (short for Kaufhaus des Westens, or “The Department Store of the West”) is the second largest department store in Europe. Each of the eight stories features a specific shopping department. The seventh floor is my favorite. This floor features foods of every kind interspersed with restaurants. I caught an early evening meal at the Bistro towards the front of the store. The salmon was very good.

My head was fuzzy from a lack of sleep. I dragged back to the hotel where I remained until morning.

Friday September 21– On the second day, I was fortunate enough to run into two of the other nine tour group members at the front desk. I first met Jerry. While we were making our introductions, Joan showed up. We decided to take the U-Bahn to Potsdamer Platz. We boarded the old familiar line two at Wittenbergplatz emerging from the underground to the bustle of a busy Berlin street scene. Potsdamer Platz used to be an undeveloped section along the Wall. Now a broad street cuts through from the Reichstag, past the Brandenberg Gate, the U.S. Embassy, Potsdamer Platz and beyond. We posed for photos among displayed sections of the Berlin Wall, and caught a glimpse of the modern Sony Center, shopping, and entertainment building. It reminds me of a giant circus tent.

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At the U.S. Embassy

We walked past the U.S. Embassy where we spoke briefly with some guards, and posed with a Berliner Bear statue decorated as the Statue of Liberty. The Embassy is directly next to the Brandenberg Gate. We Walked through the gate. Touching the columns is always an emotional experience. This area once stood in “No Man’s Land” between the Eastern and Western sections of the Berlin Wall. It seemed it would never be accessible to anyone but the East German guards.

We joined the crowd milling around the plaza in front of the Brandenberg Gate before returning to the U-Bahn and the hotel.

Saturday September 22nd – I met other members of our group the next day. We took a trip to Potsdamer Platz. We walked a wide ten blocks circle to find the German Spy Museum back at Potsdamer Platz. Had we looked left while exiting theU-Bahn we would have realized that we were already there. Instead we had managed to take an unnecessary tour of the surrounding neighborhoods, to include the large new shopping mall, Mall of Berlin.

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The German Spy Museum at Potsdamer Platz

The German Spy Museum was worth the visit. It provides a hands on view of the world of espionage. We got lost amongst the displays ranging from the ancient world of spies to the more modern world of technological espionage. I recommend it for any age group. Please check out their site: https://www.deutsches-spionagemuseum.de/en/ .

That evening we had our first official tour meeting at the Air in Berlin Hotel. We met our hosts Ina Frost, Claudia Eule, and Tatjana Schell on the first floor of the hotel. A meeting table had been set up in the landing area. After introductions we were briefed on the “Welcome Home Tour and presented with a gift bag loaded with information. The Checkpoint Charlie Foundation presented each individual with a cash per diem to help with meals during the tour. I did not expect that, but it was greatly appreciated.

This first meeting coincided with my birthday. The personnel of the foundation presented me with a book and a pen. The book was Mark Twain’s “The Awful German Language”. Twain happens to be one of my favorite authors. I was happy to be recognized with the gifts. The book is partly in German so it will take a while to read. I asked the Checkpoint Charlie Foundation members to sign the book to commemorate the day.

We walked from the hotel to the Kartoffelkiste restaurant at the Europa Center. The meals were geared towards a tourist Bavarian style. It was a good ice breaker and a chance to talk with the group members whom I had not yet met, as well as our hosts. The evening event broke up early and we returned to the hotel or other places.

Sunday September 23rd- A Trip to Potsdam

I met with other members of the group at 7:00AM to enjoy the hotel buffet and an extended breakfast. We were due for the tour around 8:00 AM. Tatjana joined us on the bus as we headed south towards the famous Glienicker Brücke (Gleineke Bridge), also dubbed “The Bridge of Spies”. We picked up Claudia along the way.

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Glienicker Brücke
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Plaque On Glienicker Brücke

The group posed for photos on the former West Berlin side of the bridge then walked across to rejoin the bus on the former east side. I took a moment to pose with Bob on the demarkation of the border, with one foot in the east and one in the west.

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The Berlin Wall Marker on Glienicker Brücke Where East Meets West
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Bob and Me Pose on Glienicker Brücke

The bridge is a historical border crossing between the two halves of the formerly divided city. Multiple prisoner exchanges occurred here between the Soviets and the United States. If you wish to learn more, this link explains the history of the bridge: http://www.glienicke-bridge.com/pageID_1283824.html . You can also check out a recent movie, “The Bridge of Spies”, starring Tom Hanks.

Our next stop was Cecilienhof in Potsdam. The residence palace was erected by the Prussian Hohenzollern family between 1913 and 1917. It was constructed in the English Tudor architecture style replete with English landscaping.

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Cecilienhof
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Cecilienhof Courtyard

The historical site is best known as the location of the Potsdam Conference held between the allied leaders, from July 17th until August 2, 1945 after the defeat of the Nazi government. U.S. President Harry S. Truman, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, and British Prime Ministers Winston Churchill, and Clement Attlee met at Cecilienhof to decide the fate of Germany and the German people. The division of Germany eventually led to the Cold War and the border separations between East and West Germany and East and West Berlin, including the Berlin Wall.

We did not get to tour the interior of the palace. Instead we walked the gardens directly connected to the building and bought various items in the gift store.

Our next stop was Sansoucci, the lavish two hundred acres palace grounds of Fredrick the Great of Prussia. The French term Sansoucci means care free. The summer palace offered a retreat from the daily concerns of the aristocracy. The buildings were constructed between 1745 and 1747.

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Sansoucci
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Sansoucci Gardens

The bus driver dropped us off at the parking lot below the Orangery and the Sansoucci Palace. These two buildings are on the upper level of the tiered garden that slopes downward towards a large fountain. We freely walked the large extravagant park for twenty minutes after which we gathered at the Orangery for a group photo.

We boarded the bus, and after a quick rushed driving tour through the Russian neighborhoods of Potsdam, we enjoyed a leisurely lunch at the Restaurant Alter Stadtwächter.

The morning activities had taken longer than expected. Also, it had started to rain. The scheduled trip to Babelsberg was cancelled. With our stomachs full, the bus ride back was very quiet. The remainder of the day was designated free time.

I took time to rest at the hotel. Later I met Jerry and walked around the Ku-Dam before stopping at an Imbiss at Wittenbergplatz for a quick meal. We stopped at the EDEKE grocery store before calling it a day.

Monday September 24th-A Tour of Little America and the Bundestag

We met shortly after 8:00AM in the hotel lobby. Our bus drove through the city to the southern Zehlendorf district. Our first stop was the Allied Museum where we met our museum guide for the day. The museum is located at Clayallee. Clayallee served as the U.S. military outpost during the extended allied occupation of Berlin. There was a PX, an electronics store, book store, travel agency, and other beneficial shopping needs for the U.S. military and other personnel. Many of the historical military exhibits are housed in the post theater. Some are in a large building next door. There are several outdoors exhibits including the French Duty Train, the U.S. Checkpoint Charlie Guard House, An East German Berlin Wall guard tower, a section of the Berlin Wall, and the Royal Air Force Handley Page Hastings plane.

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Commemoration Plaque at the Allied Museum

 

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The U.S. Checkpoint Charlie Guardhouse

The group was led along Clay Allee to the U.S. Embassy. This embassy has been in use for many years and continues to serve the area. I was issued my first passport from there in 1982. We continued on foot through various neighborhoods that once housed U.S. military personnel. Private firms have remodeled many of the old family housing buildings into high end apartments. New apartment construction mixes with the old throughout the neighborhoods.

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The Chapel

We passed the former U.S. dependents school. The school is still in use by the German people. We continued to the old U.S. Chapel that serves as a multi-religion worship facility. From there we returned to the Allied museum to freely explore the exhibits at our own pace.

The indoors exhibits included a section of tunnel from under the Berlin Wall, and the facade from the original Checkpoint Charlie guardhouse. A large diorama of occupied Berlin is also on display. The exhibits are vast and cover from post WWII through the withdrawal of the allied troops after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was a highly valued stop on the tour.

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Presenting the Poster to the Allied Museum

When I was stationed in Berlin I rescued two security posters from the dumpster. I had brought one of the posters back to Berlin to donate to the Allied Museum. It depicted an old style winter scene of skaters with the caption “Without Security We’re Skating on Thin Ice” I presented it to a museum employee who expressed interest and appreciation in the poster. It will most likely be added to the archives.

We ended our visit to Clayalle and were bused to my old assigned compound at Andrews Kaserne (Barracks) in Lichterfelde. Members of my MOS (electronics repair) were billeted in the Headquarters and Service barracks (H & S). While many of the old buildings still stand, the H&S barracks has been razed and a new building has been erected in its place. This was very disappointing given the memories, and historical significance of the barracks.

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Andrews Kaserne
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The DDR Archives in the Old Chapel

Andrews Kaserne was established under the Prussian Empire in 1874 as the Imperial “Hauptkadettenanstalt” or main military academy. After WWI the academy was closed by agreement of The Treaty of Versailles. In 1933 it became the home of Hitler’s bodyguards “SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler” After WWII the U.S. military established a barracks compound at Andrews. It was dedicated on July 4, 1945. The ceremony at Andrews served as the official takeover of the U.S. forces from the Soviet forces in the newly established U.S. sector.

The newer barracks at Andrews have been converted into housing. The chapel is home to the German National Archives. The records of the former DDR are preserved there and available for research. The front gate is intact. Entry is on a controlled basis.

It seemed that there wasn’t much for me to see at Andrews. After a brief walk around, and a quick visit to the former chapel I was ready to leave. Our next stop would be McNair Barracks.

We drove through McNair Barracks as Jerry narrated the tour of his former home. The U.S. combat battalions, including the 40th Armor Division had been stationed at McNair. During WWII the barracks was home to the Nazi electronics research and development factory AEG Telefunken. The U.S. military took over the site as a part of the occupied U.S. sector after WWII. It remained a strategic combat unit throughout the Cold War. Nowadays it is a housing development.

The bus tour took us west past the RIAS Broadcasting Station. This was the U.S. military Radio in American Sector. It was established as a news and music source aimed at East Berlin listeners, as well as the West. The radio station was billed as “the free voice of the free world”.

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The Olympic Stadium

We made a brief stop at top at the Olympic Stadium. The site was host to the 1936 Olympics under the Nazi German flag. Most people recall this site for Jesse Owens’ victorious wins over the self proclaimed master race. During my service in Berlin, I had attended several concerts at the adjacent amphitheater including Queen, Mike Oldfield, Super Tramp, and The Rollingstones.

Our group rode the elevator to the top of the bell tower. From there you have a great panoramic view of the city and surrounding areas. The Grunewald forest is close by, home to my former work station, Field Station Berlin. I caught my first glimpse of the former military installation from from there. It is in ruins, a testament to the Cold War. As we left the stadium, it started to rain.

We drove west past Schloss Charlottenburg on our way to a tour of the Bundestag without making a stop. The bus driver dropped us off to the far north of the Reichstag. President Erdergon of Turkey, was in the city. Security was ratcheted up. We walked along the front of the Reichstag grounds to the southern side then cut back eastward to the building to wait for our time of entry.

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The Reichstag

We were processed through security in a similar fashion to boarding a commercial flight. Without a passport no entry would have been allowed. Everyone made it in then we were escorted into a waiting area where we were met by our tour guide. She was a tall thin woman dressed in dark colors. She seemed stoic and was strictly businesslike. One of the first things she mentioned was that we were on a tour of the Bundestag. You can refer to the building as the Reichstag, but the Bundestag is the German government. It needs to be referred to properly as the Bundestag. It did not take long for someone of our group to violate that rule while making an observation. It was an error that elicited a visible disappointment from our tour guide as she closed her eyes and exhaled before making a correction.

We were given historical facts about the building and the government as our guide raised her voice in competition with the other guides who ushered their groups by us. She became very upset at the other guides’ lack of cooperation with her tour.

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Segment of Tunnel That Connected The Reichstag to Another Building

We were shown a small museum that included a portion of tunnel that once linked the building with other buildings behind the Reichstag. It is believed that the Reichstag arson gained entrance to the building through this tunnel in 1933. The National Socialists seized this act to cement a totalitarian government under the Nazi Party.

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Floor of the Bundestag
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The Eagle Symbol Above Parliament

The group was ushered to the visitors area above the floor of Parliament and briefed on the workings of the German government. The seats are arranged according to party representation with the party having the most members electing the Chancellor from within their ranks. Chancellor Angela Merkel has served in that position since 2005 out of the ranks of the majority party, the Christian Democratic Union.

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The Dome Above The Bundestag From Parliament

Once our tour was completed we were led to the rooftop where we conducted a self guided tour of the Reichstag dome and rooftop. The rooftop offers a great view of Berlin. The Brandenberg Gate is practically next door to the south. Further away the Pope’s Revenge (Fernsehturm) is visible in that same direction. Nearby to the north is the huge glass facade of the Hauptbahnhoff (main train station). To the east the Siegesaulle graces the central intersection of 17 Juni Strasse and several side streets. Beyond that Teufelsberg stands above the Grunewald Forest.

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From the Reichstag Dome, Victory Column and Teufelsberg in the Distance

We left the Bundestag to board the mass transportation. The busses at the Reichstag were not running. We walked through the Brandenberg Gate to Pariser Platz to board the U-Bahn to end the day.

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Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial at Night

 

Tuesday September 25th-Bundeswehr Visit

We were picked up at the hotel in the morning for a meeting with the Bundeswehr (military) Command Center in Potsdam. A retired Bundeswehr NCO ushered us into a a room for a briefing by a military officer. The main things I took away from that briefing were: Germany will not go it alone; Germany reserves the right to not participate: Germany participates in Blue helmet UN policing actions; strategies have changed; enlistment numbers are down; attracting new recruits requires making the service “sexy”.

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Wald der Einnerung Memorial

After the meeting, we were led to the Wald der Einnerung (Forest of Memory) memorial. The memorial is a series of placards chronologically arranged along an irregular rolling paved path Each memorial represents a particular year and bears the names of German soldiers who have fallen in battle or as the result of having been in military actions since reunification. A majority of the names are from Iraq, and Afghanistan military actions. Our retired NCO guide provided insight into the various individuals whose names appeared on the memorials. A small chapel is provided at the end of the trail. We were invited to participate in a solemn moment of silence as we sat on the chapel benches.

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The Chapel

We moved past a series of memorials dedicated to specific theaters and were invited to walk through the woods on the hill above. The trees are adorned with memorandum provided by the families and friends of the fallen individuals. The decorations of the forest create a surreal environment that hangs between worlds. It is a personal link between the living and their deceased friends or loved ones.

The Bundeswehr tour ended by early afternoon. The bus returned us to the hotel by 2:30 that afternoon. We had time to ourselves until we were scheduled to meet again at 6:00PM.

That evening we met our guides in the lobby and traveled by U-Bahn to an acrobatic show, “Circa’s Peep Show”. The name was misleading, however one male performer wore a tight loin clothe that left little to the imagination. The Checkpoint Charlie Foundation paid for our tickets. It was dinner and an acrobatics show. The dinner was at our own expense. I had the cheese plate and a beer.

The acrobatic feats we witnessed were unparalleled. Each troupe member demonstrated a unique talent. Combined they exhibited amazing acts of strength, agility and grace. We all came away knowing we had been treated to a good show.

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