Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Great Berlin Tunnel Mystery

Original post: 8 September 2012
Updated: 23 Nov 12

Chapter One. Fort Monmouth
"Corporal Kregg! Eugene N, RA 19450328?" shouted the first sergeant when I poked my head into the Orderly Room for news about my status on what had become a daily morning ritual for the past three months. No one knew why I was there, living out of my duffle bag at the transient barracks of Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, headquarters of the U. S. Army Signal Corps, and ready to deploy at a moment's notice. 
When I nodded a silent yes to his query, he shouted even louder, WE KNOW WHO YOU ARE!" 
Thus begins a story launched in Phyllis Barber's writing workshop at the recent Sunstone symposium at the University of Utah. I was one of at least ten participants, two males, as Phyllis urged us to think of a single subject that we wished deeply to write about. My long-ago Berlin experience leaped to mind.

"Begin it with a specific point in time and place and flesh it out from there", she instructed.

Welcome to the process, dear readers.

The Pentagon
"Colonel Nichol in the Pentagon wants to see you NOW!" The sergeant bellows. "Get your butt gone! Here are your traveling orders." 

This was surprisingly great news. At last I'm going somewhere, but where? And why the Pentagon? I hope at least to get out of this hell hole and away from all that meaningless drudgery, dodging KP, cleaning latrines and cutting hedges. Summer 1955 had been the worst summer of my life with a hurricane parked off Jersey's coast, ravaging the territory with 100% humidity and 105 degrees. I am an Arizona boy, well used to the heat, but not the humidity.

It can't be an overseas assignment,  I muse, since I have only six months left in the service and the minimum time left must be at least nine months. Why the hell did I have to spin my wheels for three wasted months?! and away from my wife, new baby and that great country club job in the Russian Division at the Army Language School?

Boy, was I mad!

I don't remember how I got to DC from Ft. Monmouth, but I find myself walking the corridors of the Pentagon in my summer khakis and corporal stripes, carrying my duffle bag, surrounded by bustling brass (military officers) of all types, and looking for the Colonel's office. I find it full of colonels and generals and other VIP-looking guys. When I meekly identify myself, they rapidly scatter and I enter his now empty offices.

The colonel gestures for me to sit and apologizes for the wait. "Corporal, I cannot tell you the nature of your assignment, but you are to take the next plane to Berlin with orders to bump anyone off if there is no room, no matter what their rank. The minimum time-of-service-remaining restriction for you is waved. Here are your orders and good luck."

Mine is the only name on the paper and they are signed by General Maxwell Taylor, Chief of Staff for the U.S. Army.

Wow! What is going on?

Chapter Two. Berlin

(click on image to enlarge) 
U.S. Army Orders to Berlin
More traveling blur--don't remember the flight to Frankfurt to change planes for Berlin, but I do remember that awful DC-3 garbage flight to Berlin's Templhof airport. Literally for garbage and mail. No passenger seats: a strictly cargo flight. But it was the quickest available way to Berlin. I sit on the bare floor in the tail of the plane among the mail sacks, still in khakis with my duffle bag. No seats. No heat. No cabin pressure. Cold as hell. By the time the flight arrives at Templhof, I've frozen my butt off and am blue and shivering. Damn! Where am I going now?

Templhof International Airport, Berlin

I run to the nearest phone booth and dial the number the colonel had given me. "Corporal Kregg! Corporal Kregg! You're here! You're here! Stay where you are! We'll be there pronto!" exclaims the soldier on the other end of the line. Ah, somebody knows me, I say to myself and begin thinking that every Army vehicle passing by was now meant for me. After an hour of wondering how long "pronto" meant, an Army Jeep screeches to a halt at the telephone booth. A couple of scruffy M*A*S*H-looking guys in a sort-of-uniform, but with Argyle socks, pile out of the vehicle. One looks at my orders, the other takes my duffle bag and off we go "pronto", driving wildly through rutted, winding muddy roads and an occasional village for the hour back to wherever they came from.

Chapter Three. The Rudow Compound  

As we approach our destination near the little village of Rudow, which is exactly on the border of the East Zone of Berlin, I am surprised by a compound surrounded by a double chain-link fence topped by barbed wire and illuminated with high intensity flood lights on all sides. On the East Zone side of the border off in the distance I see East German Vopos (police) with their German Shepherd guard dogs. I see three buildings inside the compound, the largest of which has an array of large radio antennae on its roof. It is obviously a super sophisticated U.S. Army Signal Corps. listening post.

At the only entrance to the compound a young officer carefully checks my papers, then allows the jeep to enter. I am told that the large warehouse looking building with the antennae is restricted and I am not to enter it until briefed by the commandant of the outpost, a Colonel Helgestad, who is away for a week or so. One of the other two buildings is a power plant for the facilities and the other a combination barracks and mess hall for the soldiers. The mess hall is spacious and well stocked on a 24-hour basis. I am shown my bunk on the second floor and turn in for the night, head now spinning with all the newness and secrecy.

"What the hell is all this and what am I doing here?" I think to myself as I drift off to sleep....

Chapter Four.  First Morning

The next morning, sometime in September 1955, I wander around the mess hall for breakfast. No one has talked to me yet about anything other than the guy who showed me my bunk last night. Breakfast consists of just about anything one could want. Wonderful bacon and butter from Denmark. Eggs anyway you want. Hash brown potatoes. Sausage, too.

I notice four or five older guys over in the corner talking quietly. They don't look like soldiers and are dressed in non-uniform type clothing. Strange. I hear a British accent from the guy with a mustache and glasses. He looks like a professor. They don't pay any attention to me and I don't dare get too near them. Soldiers are quietly going about their business moving in and out of the building without greeting me or anyone else.

Soon Captain Livingston, the Executive Officer, makes his appearance and introduces himself. He gives me an official welcome and takes me for a tour of the compound, making sure to tell me that "the big warehouse" (the one with the antennae) is off limits under any circumstances. He tells me that until the colonel comes back from off site TDY (temporary duty) to brief me on my regular duties, I'll probably pull guard duty occasionally in one of the guard booths built around the outside of all buildings. I'm so intimidated and awed by all of this that I can't ask questions.

And so that evening I stand guard in a little kiosk the size of a telephone booth on the southeast corner of the barracks building. I can see the Vopos with their dogs walking along the fence of East Berlin side of the border nearest the compound. They can also see me and we signal to each other with mute, but internationally recognizable hand and arm insults, grinning at each other as they slowly walk by and beyond.

Several days go by as I wait for the colonel's return. I can't remember speaking to anybody during those days except the Executive Officer. In my boredom during guard duty breaks, I typically take out my chess set to work through various classic chess openings, using a well-known reference titled The Ideas Behind the Chess Openings by chess Grandmaster Rubin Fine. One day the other captain comes by my bunk and sees my chess pieces set up to start a game. He is pudgy and slightly unkempt, not crisp and sharp like Capt. Livingston. I don't think much of him.

"Ah, I see you are a chess player!" the captain says to me. Yes, I nod, thinking to myself, 'I have learned this game from expert native Russian instructors at the Army Language School. Russians play a mean game!' "And I see you have Rubin's book", he continues. 'Rubin?' I think to myself. What does that mean?' "Would you like to play a game?" he asks. Of course I can't say no. And we begin.

I doesn't take long for him to win my surprised respect, frumpy clothes or not. I am shocked to realize I am no match for him! As we play and talk he reveals his secret: Rubin Fine (one of the greatest players of the game) and he were friends and chess-playing college roommates! Yikes!

Chapter Five.   The Strange Men

Captain Livingston comes to escort me to the forbidden warehouse. The colonel is back and wants to see me immediately. Livingston doesn't speak until he slides a large door open, gestures me inside, and slides it tightly shut. He speaks conspiratorially,  "Corporal, this is not an Army installation as you might have thought. It is a CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) operation. The Army is simply a cover. Follow me." I don't know what he is talking about, since I've never heard of the "CIA"! But I say nothing and follow him with increasing awe and wonder.

Entering the commandant's office, Colonel James E. Helgestad is standing waiting for us. "Corporal Kregg", he barks, "You are standing in the hottest intelligence operation going on the face of the planet! But we don't know if you will make it. You are the bottom of the barrel--a last resort--since the CIA has run out of available agents. You were recommended by the ALS administration as someone with potential. We will soon see. Come with me."

I follow him out of the office down some stairs to a large room full of electronic equipment including banks and banks of Ampex automatic tape recorders whirring and clicking on and off, on and off. Helgestad takes me to one particular machine, plugs a set of headphones into it and puts them on my head. I hear Russian being spoken very fast and my heart sinks. It's too fast for me, I can't understand a thing! But I dare not reveal this heart-stopping realization to the colonel. He says nothing but gestures to me to follow him again, this time to a small nearby work office.

As we enter the room I recognize the strange guys, all older than I, whom I had seen huddled and hushed in the corner of the mess hall. The colonel introduces me and leaves. My head is swimming and I feel panicky. "Fellows", I confess, stammering and shaking, "I'm afraid this thing for me is a big bust. When the colonel put those earphones on me, I couldn't understand a thing!"

"Relax, Gene", says big Bill Cockell now grinning, "We've all been through it!" Bill becomes my big brother helper. (One day in the dim future--the late 1980s--he will become Rear Admiral William A. Cockell, Deputy National Security Adviser to President Ronald Reagan.)

"Cool Ens" Cockell (sketched for office wall)

I breathe a huge sigh of relief and ask, "How long did it take for you guys to get up to speed?"

Bill answers, "About six months".

More panic! I only have six months left in the Service and am "the bottom of the barrel--a last resort". For what? I make a silent vow: to work harder than anybody else here. I have to get up to speed fast to make up for those three months lost at Fort Monmouth.

Chapter Six.  The Work

Thus begins a self-imposed, unsupervised regimen of 16 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week, month after month. Never have I been so driven, intuiting that one rarely gets a chance like this to discover what he is made of. I learn later that day from Bill that my job is to alert our CIA superiors to timely information that cannot wait to be processed in either London or Washington by linguistic experts with plenty of time. The CIA and SIS (Secret Intelligence Service, MI-6) are working a joint venture. The project has tapped into the top secret communication cables between the Soviet High Command based in Berlin and the Kremlin in Moscow. Both the Red Army and KGB use these lines.

I was soon to learn that Red Army and KGB people communicate in different ways. Red Army callers identify themselves by name over the supposedly "secure" telephone lines; KGB callers don't. In fact, callers from the latter group never finish a conversation: they break them into pieces by switching telephone lines.

(click on map to enlarge)
Operation Stopwatch/Gold: (top left) aerial diagram of the Berlin tunnel operation; (top right) map showing Red Army dispositions in East Germany; (bottom) cross-section plan of the tunnel.

I feel myself go into "overdrive" and within weeks am out producing the other agents. They are not so driven as I and rotate with each other every six weeks. I stay to myself in the compound without such relief intervals and without Army supervision. I answer only to the CIA section chief.

Chapter Seven.  First Snowfall

It is mid October and the first snow of the season has fallen. I have come to work early, but soon hear shouts and screams from soldiers in the east part of the warehouse. I come out of the office to look at what is happening. Several men are at the east windows pointing hysterically towards the outside.

"Oh, my God!" I gasp to witness a long bare strip of ground in the newly white landscape from the east pointing directly as an arrow straight to our building! The snow has melted atop the tunnel! The Army engineers have not accounted for the tunnel heat reaching ground level. The project is dangerously exposed!

London is called and refrigeration engineers are on the way. It may be too late. At any moment we expect the project to be shut down. It is panic-ville!

But nothing happens.

Within hours the British engineers arrive. Fortunately, it is also a dark, overcast day and the snow keeps falling. It soon covers the bare strip, but we do not yet know the damage done with this spectacular security breach. All we dare hope, as the hours and days go by, is to return to our posts and work as if nothing has happened.

Nothing continues to happen over the next few days, but it takes weeks to relax and push the near catastrophe from our minds.

Possible future chapters...

"A 'Mr. Green' wants to see you..".

Two German girls


The Colonel's chewing out

Pop ups


R&R in Garmish

Singing with balalaika band

Applying for college

Career decision

Sealing wax signature

Rogue's Gallery

Bill's advice

Crossing paths with the section chief

The Brit's complaint

The Lieutenant's boast

Crossing the Atlantic

Returning home

School with a vengeance

Orange Coast College

UC Berkeley
   The call

U of Utah
   The speech
   Seeds of dialogue
   Stake mission
   Vic's tests

First job after grad school


Miraculous dissertation defense

Dad dies
   My spiritual work begins
   The idea
   Meeting J. B. Rhine
   Project management

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