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We Gave Peace a Chance

In the closing years of the 1960’s, I was a university student. Like all students, I was aware of the conflict raging in Southeast Asia, but I was focused on my schooling and the adventure of starting my adult life, so I was not troubled. It was not until the spring of 1971 that I realized fully that young men might still be asked to serve their country, possibly in dangerous places in the world. When I received my notice from the Selective Service, I did some research and found that if I chose the right MOS, I might be spared participation in a shooting war and might instead be sent someplace “peaceful.” With that in mind, I enlisted in the US Army for a three year term and chose the MOS of Pershing Missile Crewman. I endured Basic Combat Training at Fort Campbell KY, living in barracks vacated by the 101st Airborne Division, who were then in Vietnam. I then went on to Ft. Sill OK for my Pershing training at the Field Artillery Training Center there. It was only then that I began to understand the mission of the US Army in Europe, and it’s commitment to the defense of the western way of life.

When I arrived in Germany in the summer of 1972, I had no idea what to expect. The United States was trying to achieve an honorable resolution in Vietnam, where the last ground troops were preparing to leave, and the draft was winding down to a projected 50,000 for all of ’72. I knew that there was a long-standing US military presence in Europe where I was headed, but had little understanding of what it meant.

I quickly learned that although the US still had a strong and enduring commitment to the defense of Europe, they had committed 10 year’s worth of emphasis and resources on the conflict in Vietnam. What I found in Germany was aging equipment and worn out facilities. My unit fielded vehicles that had been made during the Korean War, 20 years earlier. The physical facilities were in many cases dilapidated relics of WWII and in dire need of repair. Among the troops a somewhat less than vivid understanding of why we were there. Such was the Cold War, as I entered it in 1972.

The Cold War, to most Americans, appears to be a remote and distant period having something to do with ICBMs, submarines, and the Berlin Wall. The history in schoolbooks says little about it. Even popular slick pictorial histories written today tend to gloss over and minimize the events. One such recent publication seems to suggest that the US Army participated in WWII, Korea, Vietnam and Grenada and the Gulf War, with only a page or two was devoted to the ongoing continental European conflict that lasted from 1945 until 1991. Even then, the pictures shown are the usual ones; the Berlin Wall and the Soviet army parades in Red Square being reviewed by grim-faced Soviet officials.

What goes unacknowledged in the pages of books and the minds of Americans today is the arduous service of hundreds of thousands of Americans in military posts large and small throughout Europe for almost 5 decades. Without their service, the Soviet Union would probably not have been brought to the bargaining table, communism might not have collapsed, and the western world would not be the one we live in today.

Going back to the 40’s

At the end of WWII the US Army found itself occupying a defeated Germany, and facing a dubious ally in the east. As the work of rebuilding Europe under the Marshall Plan got underway, many units simply took over former military installations built and used by the defeated Germans. Names like Bismark Kaserne, Merrill Barracks, Goeppingen, Hohenfels and Grafenworh are a few among the many names of places where three generations of American soldiers served. Installations that were once used by the German Wermacht became the homes US Army units for decades on end. Some installations saw a succession of units housed there which reflected the change in weapons and military philosophies.

The Army in Europe

As the mission in Europe changed over the years, so did the weapons and the tactics by which they were used. The direction in which they faced, however, never changed. Attention always focused east toward what were considered to be the logical invasion routes to be used by the Warsaw Pact, the Fulda and Hof Gaps on the border between east and west Germany and the heavily fortified Czech border. Technological changes brought a succession of new weapons, from the M1 rifle of the 1940’s to the M-16 of the 70’s and 80’s. Also present was a succession of guided missile systems, each designed to be more accurate, more powerful and longer ranging than its predecessor. From the early days of Corporal, Sergeant and Redstone missiles, technology and research brought forth Hawk, Honest John, Pershing, and the Lance missiles. Each had a distinct mission in the theater, and each was represented and served by hundreds of trained servicemen and women. These thousands of veterans are thought by many to have been given an “easy” tour, when in fact the tour of duty was arduous to the soldiers and critical to the nation.

The US Army never felt as though it had been defeated in Vietnam, but at the same time there was certainly no “flush of victory” among the men and officers being reassigned from there or from stateside posts. Low moral was a severe problem, as were the drugs that seemed to be everywhere in the 70s. Among the lower enlisted ranks at least, the defense of democracy meant far less than the desire to go home. Reenlistment NCOs had the daunting task of retaining trained soldiers, who clearly understood that “re-upping” meant more service in the same dreary posts. Many of the officers felt their careers were grinding to a halt.

To make matters even worse, in 1973 the US Dollar was devalued against the West German Deutschmark, and suddenly everyone’s income was cut nearly in half. Many families were sent back to the states, simply because it was too expensive to remain. Those that remained were among the poorest people in Germany. The standing joke in the town where I was stationed was that it had two slums: the two US Army Kasernes.

But the soldiers “soldiered on”. Through the tough tours, separated from family, the extended stays at Grafenworhr or Hohenfels ranges, the soldiers endured. There were month-long stays at CAS (Combat Alert Status) sites for missile battalions and endless road marches and tactical problems for armored units, who drove tanks and armored vehicles requiring almost endless maintenance. There were experiences with strange experimental equipment, such as the ill-conceived “Gamma Goat”, the Shillelagh missile -firing M60A2 tanks (mockingly nicknamed “Starships” by the soldiers because of their technical complexity and frequent breakdowns) and the XM551 Sheridan tank, which were so mistrusted by the soldiers who used them in Vietnam that they rode outside on the hull whenever possible.

Soldiers prepared for the worst, training in fallout prediction, decontamination procedures and poison gas defense, trying to learn to survive on what was all but promised to them: the nuclear battlefield.

None of this was “peace” the way many understood it, it was an almost-shooting war. In a very real sense it nearly became one when all of USAEUR was thrown on to full alert status on October 6th 1973, at the outset of the Yom Kippur War between Egypt and Syria and Israel in the Middle East. It has always been feared that such a conflict might spill over into southeastern Europe. With that in mind, we were “loaded out,” everything necessary was packed, and everything mission non-essential was to be abandoned or destroyed. The message to stand-down did not come for over a week. We were scared, but we were ready to go.

I once described that time to a Marine Vietnam veteran friend, who asked me how anyone could endure such an event. “At least in Vietnam the action had a beginning and an end. For you, there was only the beginning.” And so it was, the beginning of conflict, over and over. We trained for what might just be, for us, the unsurviveable war. The troops in Europe knew what the mission was; to buy time for the western nations to fully mobilize and react to a Soviet invasion. To those of us in Pershing, it was called “Fire and Fry”, because we knew that by the time we got our rounds fired, our adversaries’ missiles would be headed back at us.

In the 1970’s, the US Army struggled with the low morale and lack of resources resulting from the emphasis on the Vietnam War. In the 1980’s they endured protest movements and agitation at the very gates of the posts where they were stationed. The protests were generated by improvements in the Pershing Missile system, bringing about far greater capabilities than Pershing previously had in terms of range and accuracy. But these increased capabilities resulted in the talks that resulted in the INF treaty in 1987. The INF brought about the elimination of an entire class of medium-range missiles including the Soviet SS-20 and the Pershing II.

This “cold” war went on in Europe from 1945 until 1991, when the Soviet Union finally abandoned their territorial ambitions and collapsed, a period of 46 years which, in the minds of many Americans, merits only a footnote. In the minds of the many veterans who added their service to that huge, unsung effort, they can take satisfaction in the knowledge that they help create a better world.

Those who served during that time are thought of today as either peacetime/non-combat veterans, or in some cases, “Vietnam Era veterans” as though the Cold War did not actually take place. For myself, I do not lay claim to any association with that shooting war, or of the honor gained by the brave men and women who served in Vietnam. By the same token I do not think for a moment that that period should be labeled “peace.”

In April of 1999 Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen approved the issuance of a Cold War Recognition Certificate to those who served in the armed force or Federal civilian agencies during the period of Sept 1945 to December of 1991. The press release stated that “from the end of WWII until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a global military rivalry,” and acknowledges the “Many ...personnel performed their duties while isolated from family and friends and served overseas under frequently arduous conditions in order to protect the United States and achieve a lasting peace.” The Cold War Recognition Certificate is a step in the right direction in acknowledging what the Cold War actually was.

There are many who believe that the CWRC program doesn’t go far enough, and that a Cold War Service Medal should be issued. In the Defense Authorization Act of 2002, Congress recommended that the Secretary of Defense consider the issuance of a Cold War Service Medal. In October of ‘02 however, the Secretary of Defense declined to authorize the Cold War Service Medal, and pointed to the Certificate as being enough. The battle will continue.

I haven’t worn the uniform since 1974 after my three years were served, so a Cold War Service Medal would only be added to my box of remembrances. Instead I would like to see an increased awareness of what the Cold War was and how important winning it was to the survival of our nation and the western way of life. Most importantly, call us what we are, Cold War Veterans. Among the Pershing Missile veterans there is a motto: “We Gave Peace a Chance.”

Robert D. Martin served in the U.S. Army on active duty from January of 1972 to December of 1974. He was assigned to Service Battery, 1st Battalion, 41st Field Artillery (Pershing) in Schwaebisch Gmuend, Federal Republic of Germany.


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