Brandenburg Gate; and Our Heroes at Check Point Charlie

By David A. Black, Sr.

On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin and said, “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace; if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe; if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

On November 9, 1989, just two years after Reagan’s Brandenburg Gate speech, the people of Germany did tear down the Berlin Wall, and hundreds of millions of people were liberated from communism.

Berlin just celebrated the twentieth anniversary of that momentous day.  Unlike our fearless “Commander and Chief”, I chose to acknowledge it.  I did so by talking to retired Veteran I know.

I wanted to present his thoughts of the subject as a tribute to Veteran’s Day this year.  I will apologize for failing to meet my self-imposed deadline, but the message is too important to allow, a little issue like, timing to prevent its telling.

Let me introduce you to a man I know as Paul.  Twenty years ago, he was known as Chief Master Sergeant, stationed at Templehof Air Force Base, Berlin, Germany.

“I was there.”  Paul informed me.

“There?”  I inquired, noticing he was reading a VFW magazine article about the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“Here!”  He said, holding up the magazine to display a picture.  “Berlin, Germany, November 9, 1989.”

“Really?”  I replied, inquisitively.  “What was it like?”

And this is what he had to say…

…My wife and I were living off base in Berlin.  Scattered information was all over the news.  We did not know exactly what was happening yet, but I knew something big was in the works.  I told my wife that we needed to go see what was happening, that we could possibly witness history.

We hailed a cab and when the cabby asked where we wanted to go, I told her, “We want to go see what is happening!”

“Me too!”  The cabby responded, and then drove us to the Check Point Charlie.

When we arrived, my wife and I found a large crowd of people at the gate and we edged as close as we could.  On the East German side, a great number of people had amassed.  The crowd was growing exponentially by the minute.  As the crowd grew, the people began to surge toward the gate, each time edging nearer and nearer to the “No Entry Zone”.

I think everyone there was collectively holding their breath, in fear that the soldiers would begin firing at the crowd.  We all knew the soldiers were trained to “shoot to kill”, but the people continued to chant and cheer raucously, and the surging continued, closing the distance to the gate.

A collective sigh of relief came when, instead of drawing their side arms, the East German soldiers, guarding the gate, interlocked their arms, forming a human wall.  The crowd continued surging right up to the soldiers.

Suddenly, the soldiers broke ranks, stepped to the side, and tossed their helmets into the crowd, joined in cheering, and allowed the people to pass freely.  The crowd rushed the gate and began to pour through.  The cheering grew unbelievably louder, and as East Germans streamed through Check Point Charlie, they fell upon the ground, hugging the pavement of the street, kissing the ground, almost every one of them dropping to their knees.

As the people passed through the gate, we picked them up, we hugged them, we kissed them, welcoming them with open arms and hearts to liberty and freedom.  Everybody was hugging and kissing, chanting, yelling, and crying.

I can only tell you, I had never seen anything like it before, and have never seen anything like it since.  It was amazing to see the people react to each other.  It was happiness beyond compare.

At one point, my wife stood upon my shoulders, her hands braced on the wall, as she peered over the top to see the mass of people still making their way to freedom.  Only an hour before, she would have been shot dead for even getting close.

The things you remember.  Some of the people that came through the gate had never tasted an orange or a banana.  They could not get fresh fruit over there.

An impish smile creased Paul’s face, remembering a long passed sight.

It’s funny, we used to toss oranges over the wall, before all this happened.  We would watch people sneak over to pick them up and secret them away.  It was amusing to us, yet made us feel sorry to know that little things we took for granted, were so cherished by others.

We have pieces of the wall, my wife and I.  We kept them all these years to remind us of how special that day was.  We did witness history in the making, and it was amazing.

I made arrangements to speak with Paul again and mentioned that I would like to write his story to share with others.  Paul was all too happy to oblige me.

When next we met, Paul showed me a plaque, presented to him upon his retirement, to commemorate 33 years of service to our military.  A beautiful brass map of Germany, etched with the names of significant cities and appropriate borders.  He also has a toy car he keeps as a reminder, a replica of the type commonly driven in Germany at that time.  And then he handed me a chunk of concrete, about the size of my fist, with his and his wife’s names carefully scrawled on it, identified as a piece of the wall from Check Point Charlie.

I asked Paul, “How significant, do you believe, was President Reagan’s ‘Brandenburg Gate Speech’ in promoting the fall of the Berlin Wall?

“It was very important.”  Paul informed me, a matter of fact.  “You have to understand that the movement toward freedom started long before President Reagan.  President Reagan voiced support for the people, and that acted as a catalyst.  In the end, the people proved to be a task that could not be controlled by the communists.  The people wanted freedom, and they would not be denied.”

“Paul.”  I inquired.  “As a member of the United States Military, stationed in a foreign country, in a non-combative role, when you watched the people surge toward the gate, and finally pour through to a free world, how did it make you feel?”

“Let me tell you.”  Paul said, his face brightening, and eyes sparkling.  “At just over five and a half feet tall, I’m not a big man; but that day, I felt like I was ten feet tall.  I was proud to be a witness to it, and I was proud to represent our nation in support of the people abandoning the tyranny of communism.  Not only was I proud to be in the military, but mostly, proud to be an American, welcoming those people to freedom.”

Paul, my friend, I believe I echo the sentiments of anyone that reads this article when I say, “Chief Master Sergeant, thank you.”

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2 Responses to Brandenburg Gate; and Our Heroes at Check Point Charlie

  1. M Smith says:

    Chief Master Sergeant, Truly… Thank you! I have been to the Brandenburg Gate but it was well after the fall. While it still holds a memory, for all old enough to remember what it stood for before the fall, now it symbolizes the freedom of a people.
    I remember watching TV here in the States when it came down and rejoicing.
    Again, thank you Chief Master Sergeant.

  2. Marcie S. says:

    Chief Master Sergeant Paul, thank you. You are a wonderful man and this country is lucky to have had you serve. Your wife is also a wonderful woman for supporting you for all those years.
    I remember as a girl of 12, watching the people dancing on top of the Berlin Wall and thinking how wonderful it must have felt to be able to breath free air.
    My father spent two years watching the Czech border when he was in the Army: Third Infantry, First Cav.
    He never had anything like that happen. When I called and told him of your experience, he laughed and said that you, Chief Master Sergeant WERE ten feet tall that night. You stood and welcomed those people to freedom.
    Chief Master Sergeant: words fail me… Thank you.

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