Behind the Iron Curtain: Captain Kevin Born and the Berlin Brigade

[This] photo is one of me in uniform in front of the Neue Wache on the Unter der Linden in East Berlin, with one of the ceremonial East German guards in the background. During East German times the Neue Wache was used as a Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism. It was one of the most visited sites in East Berlin for allied soldiers, because it was the only one that you could take photos of East German soldiers without harassment.
At the end of World War II, Germany was divided into four sectors, each controlled by one of the four major allied powers: the US, UK, France, and Soviet Union.  Berlin, the former capitol, was also divided among the four Allies.  While the Americans, British, and French worked to establish democracy in their sectors, the Soviets installed a communist regime in East Germany.  West Berlin, occupied by the Americans, British, and French, was isolated deep inside communist East Germany.  Throughout the Cold War the city remained an island of democracy and symbol of hope and freedom to people living under communist rule 110 miles behind the Iron Curtain.

For the next forty years the Soviet’s pressured the US and her allies to withdraw their troops and abandon the city.  The US was determined to remain, mindful of the importance of the city as a symbol of both the values of democracy and of US commitment to defend Europe against Soviet aggression.  As the years went by, a series of crises ensued.

I took [this photo] at the Steinstucken enclave in West Berlin which was a small village of around 200 that was completely surrounded by the Berlin Wall. The first photo is through a small gap in the wall, it shows the no-man’s land between the two fences that made up the Wall.
In 1948 the Soviets blockaded Berlin, prompting the US to initiate the Berlin Airlift to provide food and other necessary supplies to the Soldiers and citizens in West Berlin.  For almost a year the airlift kept West Berlin supplied until finally the Soviets withdrew the blockade.

In 1961 the communists built the Berlin Wall to physically separate East and West Berlin and halt the flow of East Germans defecting to the West through Berlin.  In response, President Kennedy traveled to Berlin to make a speech in which he stated:  “Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect. But we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in – to prevent them from leaving us.”  The Wall succeeded in reducing the number of defectors, but it also made West Berlin an even more potent symbol of freedom.

Kevin Born joined the Army in 1981 after receiving an ROTC commission from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.  In 1985 he was assigned to the Berlin Brigade.  “On a day to day basis it was like being stationed anywhere else in the Army,” he wrote.  “However being 110 miles inside Communist East Germany did drive home the significance of the freedoms that we take for granted at home.”

“The times that I really had a sense of the Cold War,” Born continues, “where the hair raised up on the back of my neck, was when I crossed into East Berlin, and travelling the corridor through East Germany to West Germany by car or Duty Train. Using the telephone was also an adventure. I remember those commercials on AFN-Berlin warning that Ivan may be listening in on conversations.”

 

Checkpoint Charlie, seen here with the East German checkpoint in the background, became one of the iconic symbols of the Cold War.
During the Cold War US Soldiers were warned that they might become targets for Soviet spies. The Army provided training and recources like this SAEDA card (Subversion and Espionage Directed Against the US Army) to help Soldiers identify and report such attempts. You can see the entire card in the primary sources section below.

Kevin Born remained with the Berlin Brigade until he was transferred to the 8th Maintenance Battalion in Hanau, Germany. From there he watched the destruction of the Berlin Wall in November, 1989, an event which signaled the end of the Cold War and set Germany on the path to reunification as a democratic state in 1990. The Berlin Brigade, having completed its mission, was deactivated in 1994. Kevin Born retired from the United States Army in 2003 with the rank of Major.

In his famous speech in Berlin, President John F. Kennedy said: “There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin.” Anyone seeking to understand the Cold War would do well to heed President Kennedy’s advice and listen to the stories told by those who were there. Stories like those told by Kevin Born and his comrades in the Berlin Brigade.

 

Primary Sources

John F. Kennedy’s “Radio and Television Report to the American People on the Berlin Crisis, July 25, 1961”

John F. Kennedy’s “Remarks at the Rudolph Wilde Platz, June 26, 1963 (Ich Bin Ein Berliner Speech)”

Travel Documents from the Kevin M. Born Collection, USAHEC Collection.

About these Documents    

SEADA Card 

Breakdown Slip

 SMLM Sighting Card

Travel Flash Cards  

 

Read More

The History of the Berlin Brigade

The 1961 Berlin Crisis

The Allied Right of Access

The Wall Comes Down

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