CPT Wilbur Wolf, Jr. – Eye in the Sky

York, PA native Wilbur Wolf, Jr. graduated from Penn State University as the Distinguished Military Graduate in the Reserve Officer Training Corps in 1959. The son of a career employee of the Certainty Products Corporation, Wolf came from a family with a rich tradition of military service.

M48 medium tanks of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment responding to an alert in Germany, 1962, something Wilbur Wolf would experience numerous times during his deployment to Europe. Photo Courtesy of the U.S. Army Center of Military History.

“I had eight uncles that served in World War II. I think there’s an obligation to serve your country in one way or the other. When I was in school, every male student at a land grant college had to take basic ROTC for two years. I took the first two years then had the opportunity to continue and get a commission [as an officer]. I thought it wasn’t a bad idea because at that point 50% of the males were being drafted, and it seemed to me that being an officer might be a better option than drafting. Then in my junior year, I was selected to take ROTC flight training, so that was another incentive.”

“In 1955, there were probably 15 or 20 of our students who were Korean War vets who had come back under the GI Bill. ROTC wasn’t all sweetness. We had some incidents at night where we were drilling and marching through the campus and people decided they wanted to throw water balloons out the windows at us, and some stuff like that. We had a few romps up the stairs to find them. But it was serious, World War Two was not that far away, Korea was certainly not that far away, and there was a sense of… I don’t want to say anxiety, but yes there was anxiety as to what would be the next thing that would happen. And you accepted the fact that as a male you had to potentially go out and be in harm’s way.

“I graduated June 6th of 1959 and went directly to Fort Meade to the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. I was there for about two months then went off to Fort Knox Basic Armor Officers School. Came back to Fort Meade to the 3rd Cav. in late October, early November until March of 1960 when I got married and went off to Fort Rucker for flight school. Completed that training in January, 1961, and returned to the 3rd Cav.

In the early morning hours of August 13, 1961, East German military forces began building the Berlin Wall. The construction sparked an international crisis, resulting in a build-up of U.S. and NATO forces in Germany.

“In the fall of 1961, we were sent to Germany in support of the Berlin Wall build up. At that time, it felt like it was a precursor to a Soviet invasion or at least some heightening of the Cold War, and we shipped out on short notice, about eight weeks. And that was a pretty significant event, to load up a whole Armored Cav. Regiment and put them on boats and put the airplanes on aircraft carriers and take them to Germany and unload at Bremerhaven and then convoy down through Germany to the Baumholder, Kaiserslautern area. So, it was tense. I left the wife and an eight-week-old daughter behind, so we were tense. And they said we couldn’t bring our families over so that also kind of lent some credence to the fact that things were getting scary.

Ships like the USNS General Maurice Rose (formerly the USS Admiral Hugh Rodman) transported hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops to Bremerhaven, Germany, on the North Sea. Photo Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Historical Center.

“They loaded all our equipment on a troop ship out of Baltimore Harbor, put the aircraft on aircraft carriers, and we went into Bremerhaven. Probably took us, I don’t know ten days, a couple weeks to get over there. When I got to Bremerhaven, we unloaded the trucks and all that stuff, and I lead a convoy of a hundred vehicles, two hundred men, from Bremerhaven to Kaiserslautern. It was an interesting experience because it was very cold and the trucks did not have as much canopy as they should have, or windshields, [so] the troopers were cold at the end of the day. When we got to [the first overnight stop], I signed for blankets for all of them, but did not have them all sign for the blankets, I went back out on the road with the tow truck drivers to recover the vehicles [that had broken down]. Next morning, we got up and about 60 of the blankets didn’t get turned in. And they weren’t OD blankets, they were special issue. I know, they were cold, these guys were cold, and they’d been on the road without canopies or windshields, and it was probably 40 degrees. [So] I ended up paying for 60 blankets. But it was a good trip: I saw the resilience of the troops.

“The initial idea was that we were simply going over there as support troops and would probably withdraw within a short period of time. And that didn’t work out because 3rd Cav. stayed there for years. But it was, I wouldn’t say it was stressful, but it was stressful. You would have an alert, you would go to the airfield and the trucks would start up and down the road and tanks would start running up and down the road, and if you can imagine: a narrow two-way street with a column of tanks going through it. That’s what we were doing in the German communities. When the alarm went off you never knew if it was real or not. In the end, it was never real and that was good. But the tension was there.

“The following June or July, a number of us paid to bring our wives over. We went looking for places to live on the German economy because there were no quarters available to us. I went to one house and said “I was told you might have a place to rent”. The man said, “Yeah come on in. I have rooms out back here, but there is a hole in the roof where the bomb went through, and if you fix up this, you can live here for the rest of your time in Germany free.” There I was looking out through a hole in the roof made by a bomb in World War Two. It must have been a dud, must not have exploded. But that was the atmosphere there. It was interesting how well accepted we were by the German populous, I mean they were happy to have us there.

Well the drones were theoretically to be sent out over the battle lines, take pictures and then come back and pop the parachute and come down and then we’d take the cameras that were in the drones to the photo lab and they would be developed. I don’t know that they were ever used in combat, but that was the theory behind it. You could go places that you couldn’t send a human, or you could have sent a human, but you put them at greater risk. These were more beyond front lines to try to get pictures and the Air Force had much more sophisticated things, but this was theoretically the Army’s answer to the quicker gathering of intelligence.

I flew the L19 Cessna [TOP] and the De Haviland Beaver [BOTTOM]. I flew the Cessna most of the time. It could land in the cow pasture, it could land on the highway, it could land on an aircraft carrier if you wanted it to. It flew as they said, low and slow. It could be down flying between the trees. It was a marvelous piece of equipment. The De Haviland Beaver was bigger, slower, more cumbersome. It was for transporting supplies and people whereas, the L19 was for flying over the battle lines and had somebody in the backseat observing visually either with his eyes or binoculars collecting data and transmitting it. I don’t know anyone who flew the L19 who didn’t think it was just a wonderful piece of equipment. Photos Courtesy of the U.S. Army.

A surveillance drone returning to earth via parachute somewhere in Germany. “We had a photo lab with the unit ,and had a technician in the lab who would take the cameras and develop the film, but it was still a half day process to get it done. But it was still better than anything you had, other than the human eye.” Photo Courtesy of Wilbur Wolf, Jr.

My role in the aerial surveillance platoon, which was not direct combat, was to go out, either with a drone or an observer, and fly out to the front lines and get a visual of what is happening out there and report back. The drone didn’t work for me, it was better to put a human in the back [of the plane].

“It was an interesting time. We had complete control over the air, we could fly low, we could fly slow, we could fly and land almost any place we wanted to. You know if you can imagine when we were doing exercises we drove into people’s field and parked the tanks and set up the bivouac and some damages were paid but not always. The German people were willing to let us do most anything in the way of training because they were concerned. They did not want the Soviets coming west. [We went] from World War Two when we were mortal enemies… to a place where we were embraced by most of the population.

Wilbur’s duties also included serving in the tank units that were part of the 3rd Cavalry:

A motorized patrol from the 3rd Armored Cavalry, August 1962. Part of the Army’s mission in Germany was to demonstrate to the Soviet and East German forces that the U.S. was alert and ready to respond to any provocation. Patrols like this sometimes covered 50 miles a day while searching for any sign that Communist forces had or were preparing to cross the border. Photo Courtesy of the U.S. Army Center of Military History.

“You ride in the top of a tank with four others with you, going down the road. There’s nothing there bigger than you are. The tank platoon that I was in had M46s, but the Calvary platoon had M41s and they were very quick vehicles. They were going 45 miles an hour down the road. I mean they would fly. With twin Cadillac engines in the back as a propulsion unit and some leavers to steer it, it would just go. And once or twice I got to drive them. You get the driver out and say, you know: “I would like to take it” , and he would say “Okay Lieutenant okay you can drive for a while.” So I did.

“We were on, almost on, the French border. We were in the very western part of Germany because we were the support troops. But then we would have some of our armor battalion periodically go to Grafenwoehr for training and also to support the troops that were there. I was not, I was in the aerial surveillance platoon and was not directly attached to them. They had combat support aviation with them. So, I did not get to go there very much, but we did fly back, periodically back and forth carrying supplies or taking mail or transporting people.

“It was interesting being in Germany. In the air, when we were flying, we could see both lines: the fortifications and the Siegfried line and the Maginot line. They were still there, those bunkers out there that they had built prior to World War Two.

Wilbur returned from Germany in 1964. When asked about why he left the Army he said:

Vietnam for one. A bigger thing was I was an only child, and I had in my mind that I needed to be there for my parents, they were almost 50 years old. But that was one of the things, that if I were to get killed who would be there to support them down the road. That was probably the bigger factor, I really didn’t want to go to Vietnam. I was really disturbed with, not that we shouldn’t have been there, but I was disturbed by what I was hearing from the people as to how the war was being conducted and how we were putting troops at risk unnecessarily. But again, the bigger thing I felt I had fulfilled my obligation and my parents were I felt I didn’t want to go on an additional risk and leave them with no support.

When asked for advice for young people entering military service, Wilbur said:

Embrace it, go into it with an open mind, realize you are going to be challenged beyond what you think you can do, but you will react and you will learn, and you will do it. Do not be afraid of it, and understand that you are serving your fellow citizens… And without you this country cannot exist, you and the others that choose to make that commitment. But look at it as an opportunity. It was an opportunity to learn, it was an opportunity to see things that you wouldn’t see, and opportunity to meet people you wouldn’t meet. I think it also helps you to understand that if you keep your ears open and your mouth in motion limited times, you find out how much someone else knows that’s important, that you might not expect to come from that body or that head or that background. It’s there, and that kind of stuff helped me tremendously when I got out into the civilian world and into my job, you just have to listen.

This story was developed from an oral history conducted by the Army Heritage Center Foundation. We present his story here as he told it, with minor editing for clarity.

Research/Oral History Intern:  Faith Swarner

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