Updated: Apr 3, 2020
10:00 am, December 14, 1982.
74th Warhead Detachment, Schwabstädl Kaserne, Lechfeld Air Base, Bavaria, West Germany.
The mess hall was almost completely full. Everyone from Alfa, Bravo, and Charlie Teams as well as Headquarters personnel were waiting for the Commanding Officer, who had called this assembly. Delta Team was on duty at our remote site in the mountains. The door flew open and Sergeant-Major Parks strode in and yelled “Attention!” We all rose and stood at attention while the CO, Major Wilson, walked into the hall. He went to the podium, faced us, and said, “As you were. Be seated.”
“As everyone knows, the holiday season is here and we need volunteers for duty at the Q. The duty will go from December 21st until January 4th. Everyone who volunteers will get two four day passes that will not count against your leave time. Let your Team Sergeant, your Team Leader, or the XO know by the end of the day. We need a minimum of two A-men and two B-men. If I don’t get that, I will have to select people to ‘volunteer’. That is all. Dismissed.”
Before I go any further, let me explain a few things. We were an Army unit of approximately two hundred personnel attached to German Air Force Missile Wing One. This was one of the special units that had nuclear missiles. NATO had decided that although the Germans could have missiles, they could not have the warheads that went with them in order to be in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. So, the Army had not only physical control of the warheads, but also the arming codes and launch codes. Our job was to keep those warheads safe and, if need be, to arm and launch the missiles. In the Bavarian Alps, the Germans had a firing site which was officially known as the Quick Reaction Alert Site, or Q for short. At that location, we had guards on the launch pads and two men in the control room. There were three launch pads, each having three Pershing Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles. The warhead for each missile was a W50 type thermonuclear device with yields ranging from sixty to four hundred forty kilotons. In comparison, the Hiroshima bomb was thirteen kilotons. The control room was where an A-man (officer) and a B-man (non commissioned officer or sergeant) were on duty. Each had a key to open the safes that had the arming codes and launch codes.
The special background investigation for my Top-Secret clearance had been completed a month earlier and I had just finished my B-Man training. I was especially proud of the fact that I was the first E-4 to be qualified as a B-Man. Two four-day passes! I could have a good time in Nuremburg or Munich. I turned to our acting Team Leader, First Lieutenant Ed Baker, and said “I volunteer”. He nodded and said, “Me too. My wife is going back to the States to spend the holidays with her parents. I would rather have needles stuck in my eyes than spend two weeks with those two.” He walked up to Major Wilson and said something, then pointed to me. Major Wilson looked at me and nodded.
A week later, we were on the bus to the Q. It was a strange group as far as the Army went. We had personnel from infantry, artillery, air defense, armor, and even a truck driver. If you could get a Secret Clearance and pass the psych evaluations, you could be assigned to one of the special weapons detachments. If you had a top- secret clearance, you could even work on the warheads. And, if you had a background investigation as well, you could be an A or B man. I was glad to not have to spend that winter outside as a pad guard. It was going to be a very cold winter.
When we arrived, I slung my duffel bag over my shoulder and went into the American building. After stowing my bag in the bunk room, I met up with Lieutenant Baker and we went to the control room. We conducted the routine inventory of the safes to make sure the arming and launch codes weren’t compromised, then settled in for our twelve-hour shift. Only one other A-man and B-man had volunteered, which was ideal, because that meant we would have twelve hours on and twelve hours off, which would make the two weeks pass quickly. The only free time activities at the Q were sleeping, eating, cards, movies (there was no TV reception), and weightlifting. It got boring very quickly.
The Germans had a new Group Commander, Major Steiner. Lieutenant Baker and I had not met him yet, but it was rumored that he was a real hard ass. The German Group Commander was in command of the site. As to the site, there were three launch pads: each with their three Pershing missiles. In between each pad was a grassy area that was about two hundred yards wide. The three pads were connected by roads at both ends of the pads. That road also went to the guard building, then through the gates and out to the other buildings. Surrounding the pads was a 50- yard wide grassy area, then a chain link fence with concertina wire and guard towers every 100 yards. Outside that fence were the roving guards with their German Shepherds. A middle fence divided the dogs from the outer minefield. Finally, an electrified fence with huge warning signs in German and English. Back inside the site, it was verboten (forbidden) to walk on the grass. This was not an environmental concern, but a security rule. Everyone who was supposed to be at the site knew to stay on the road or the pads hence, anyone on the grass was an intruder and intruders were to be shot. That was the rule that was constantly being stressed: Stay on the pads or the road.
We had gone on duty at noon, so we would be off at midnight. The next morning, we were in the small cafeteria when a German officer came in. He came up to our table and said in his best English, “Lieutenant Baker, I am Major Steiner.”
“Good morning Major. Would you like to join us for some coffee?”
Major Steiner looked at me and haughtily said, “In the Luftwaffe, we do not socialize with the enlisted ranks.”
Ed looked at him and said, “Corporal DiMarco is my B-man. You can either join us or have your coffee to go.” I wasn’t really a Corporal; there were no Corporals in Pershing, but Major Wilson and the Sergeant-Major decided that any Specialist Four who became qualified as a B-Man would be given Corporal stripes.
The Major looked taken aback, as if no one had ever spoken to him like that before; especially a lowly First Lieutenant.
“I meant no offense Lieutenant; I will join you for coffee.”
“I didn't say anything, just continued to sip my coffee. I was known as quite a smart ass and the last thing I wanted was for something I said to get Ed in trouble.”
I didn’t say anything, just continued to sip my coffee. I was known as quite a smart ass and the last thing I wanted was for something I said to get Ed in trouble.
Ed looked over at the Major. “So Major, what do you think of this place so far?”
The Major took a swig of the coffee that the orderly had placed in front of him and said, “I am concerned. I think the guards are sleeping on the pads during the night. I watched them when they came off duty and they did not look like men who had been awake all night. If they are sleeping, I am going to catch them and they will be punished. Do I have your support on this Lieutenant?” “Of course, sir. We can’t have guards who sleep on duty. They are only out there for two hours at a time.” Ed looked at me and asked, “You used to be a pad guard; what do you think?”
“Well sir, it can get hard to stay alert at three in the morning. I rarely had trouble staying awake because I’m an insomniac. When I did get drowsy, I would walk around the pad really fast for 10 minutes or so. Not enough to tire me out; just enough to get the blood pumping.”
Ed turned to Steiner, “There you have it, Major. If you are going to try and catch them sleeping, don’t forget to stay on the pads or the road.”
He rose out of his chair, gave us a curt nod and left.
“What do you think of that one, Jim?”
“Like most of the other German officers I’ve met, he seems like a jerk. I heard that he was in the Hitler Youth at the end of the war. He would be about the right age. Did you catch the use of ‘Luftwaffe’? It’s supposed to be German Air Force; ‘Luftwaffe’ was a term eliminated after the war. Also, I would think he had more important things to do than catch people sleeping. That’s what the Sergeant of the Guard is for.”
On Christmas Eve, I was in the cafeteria, eating my lunch when Flip Gibson came in. Flip’s real name was Dennis; Flip coming from he and his friend’s nocturnal alcohol-induced activity of flipping over calves on his father’s ranch. We had been in the Army together since the first day of basic training and had served in the same artillery unit at Fort Sill and had been roommates. We became good friends and every two or three weeks we would drive down to his parents’ house in Johnson City, Texas. Dennis got a sandwich and sat down opposite me.
“You off duty at midnight?”
I nodded while chewing my sandwich.
“Me too. Maybe we can get Butch and Pete to play some spades tonight.”
“Sounds good.” Flip looked at me with a grin. “How’s B-Man duty?”
“Interesting, but Lieutenant Baker is a night owl and wants to play cribbage half the night. I would rather read the warhead manuals and the target packages.”
“Well, that’s better than what we’re doing. That new German Major is all over the place at night. Last night, I was standing next to the number three missile on pad C and all the sudden, he was standing next to me. He’s been sneaking around, trying to catch someone sleeping out there.”
Flip was still a launch pad guard because the FBI had not finished his background investigation yet. He was itching to become a B-man, not only for the promotion to Corporal, but so he could get out of guard duty.
“Well, just stay awake. The last thing you want is to be court martialed and sent to the stockade just for falling asleep.” The cook brought the bag containing the dinners for Ed and me and I grabbed it and got up. “I’ll see you at midnight” I said, leaving to find the Lieutenant so we could start our shift.
At midnight, I went to my bunk, got a deck of cards from my duffel, and went back down to the cafeteria. Flip and Butch were there drinking coffee. I put the cards on the table and went to get a cup for myself. Pete wandered in and made himself a cup of tea and added a big glob of honey. I looked at him with raised eyebrows and he rasped, “I’ve got a sore throat. Maybe this will help.”
“Well, your throat wouldn’t be sore if you didn’t talk so much”. Everyone laughed at that because Pete rarely said more than ten or twelve words a day.
We had been playing for about an hour when we heard: “Whap!”, then about 5 seconds later, “Whap! Whap! Whap!”
Flip threw down his cards. “Those were rifle shots!”
Pete rasped, “Not an M16. Too low pitch. That was an HK. One of the German rifles!” As I ran to the ready room to grab my parka, the alarm klaxon went off. I still had my 45 belted on from being on duty and as I struggled into the parka, Ed came out of the officer’s room with his parka on and his gun belt in hand.
“What’s happening?” he shouted.
“I have no idea. Going to check it out now.”
Ed and I ran outside and were passed through the gates. We jumped into one of the jeeps kept inside the inner gate. As I started it, Sergeant Miller, the sergeant of the guard, ran out from the guardhouse and slid into the back seat. He blurted out, “None of the perimeter alarms went off, so the outer fence wasn’t breached.”
Flood lights lit up the site and we could see a lot of commotion on pad B. As we drove onto the pad, the four pad guards were all in a group looking into the grassy area separating pads A and B.
Lieutenant Baker jumped out of the jeep as I screeched to a halt and yelled, “What happened? Who fired their rifle?”
Steve Mitner, one of the American guards, pointed to a lump in the grass. “Konrad here, he saw this guy walking in the grass. He yelled at him to halt and I yelled at him to stop. He kept coming, so Konrad fired a warning shot. He didn’t stop, so Konrad shot him. I think he’s dead because I’ve been watching, and he hasn’t moved. Should we check him out?”
The Lieutenant stated, “Absolutely not. No one is to leave the pad. We’ll have to wait for the Site Commander”.
I looked at him. “He could be bleeding to death.”
“Tough. He shouldn’t have been there. Last year, before you transferred in, the Greens were protesting outside the wire. They managed to short out the electric fence and one of them got through the minefield, over the middle fence, past the dogs and was shot by the tower guards when he was on top of the inner fence. He fell inside the compound and bled out. No one could get to him in time because we had to wait for the German commander. As you know, he’s the only one who can authorize going off the road or the pads. Unfortunately for the protestor, the commander had a bad case of diarrhea that day and was in the latrine at the time. That was the price the guy paid for doing something stupid.”
Another jeep came flying down the road and stopped next to ours. Captain Marks, the German XO, got out. He spoke quickly to one of his guards, nodded, and looked over at the three of us.
“Lieutenant. We shall go see. Hans, call for an ambulance.” His driver got back in his jeep and drove back to the guard building. As Captain Marks and the three of us turned on our flashlights and walked off the pad towards the man lying in the grass, he said, “I have a bad feeling about this. The Major was not in his room.”
We reached the man and with our flashlights, we illuminated the dead face of Major Steiner, staring blankly into the night sky.
“I told him to stay off the grass” Ed said.
“As did I”, added Captain Marks. “I will wait for the ambulance. There is no need for you three to remain.”
We walked back to the pad and briefed the guards. Then Sergeant Miller, ever economical with words, turned to the guards and said, “Get back to your posts. Merry fucking Christmas.”