In 1964 as the Cold War raged, the US Army had its tentacles wrapped round the globe. GIs stood guard against the commies in duty stations from Alaska to Panama to Saudi Arabia to Japan to Australia and most points in-between.
Life varied for the troops in these various theaters. Korea had its brutal weather and uncertain future; Texas had its brutal weather and unfamiliar culture; Vietnam had its corrupt government and bloody civil war; Europe had its Iron Curtain and massed army, air force and assorted missiles facing off 24/7.
Within these various theaters, daily life during a hitch could vary dramatically. In Germany, for instance, an infantryman stationed in Kaiserslautern (K-town) could live in the field (i.e. dirt, mud or snow) for up to three weeks out of every 4. In Bad Kreuznach (Bad K, about fifty miles from Koblenz), the 101st Airborne trooper lived a strac (“strategic, tough, ready round the clock”) with spare scraps of time for leisure and personal development.
NATO war games, alerts and other such inventions of the ever clever military mind further restricted one’s opportunity for reflection, introspection and meaningful relaxation. However, a few places were exempt from these martial intrusions into one’s leisure.
The 16th Signal Battalion’s Detachment in Koblenz was one such place.
The detachment enjoyed rent free housing courtesy of the Bundeswehr’s III Korps (a 35,000 man army disguised as a Corps in order to comply with a prohibition against German re-militarization … for many good historical reasons). They gave us fifteen or so GIs a generous slice of a four story building in the Boelcke Kaserne situated near the confluence of the storied Rhine and Mosel Rivers.
Our job description was simple … provide line-of-sight radio communications (telephone and teletype) between the General Staff of the Bundeswehr III Korps and that of the US 7th Army. To do so we manned a radio shack located in the basement of the Korps HQ building next to the Rhine twenty-four hours a day. We narrowcasted a radio signal from the rooftop of the tall Korps building to a series of relay stations located on mountain tops in direct sight-lines to the 7th Army HQ.
Babysitting the radio and telephone equipment provided an operator abundant time for personal development, such as reading, relaxing, napping, playing guitar or just staring at all the lights, dials and meters of the equipment … all of which ran quite reliably.
That was it! No inconvenient NATO war games. No living in the mud and snow. No passes. No curfews. No officers. No confusing or inappropriate army protocols. No inspections (excepting a mandatory annual visit from the Inspector General).
And no bellyaching … especially considering the additional pay the army gave us for the hardship of living on foreign soil (i.e. not on a US Army base, such as Bad K), as well as for the hardship of living on the economy (i.e. having to buy our own food and hire our own personal cook). We bought most of our food in the Bad K post exchange at its low prices on our regular mail runs there, and the cook’s wages were ridiculously cheap, for at the time as the dollar was ridiculously, and artificially strong against the mark.
Then there were the truckloads of free flour. The army cooks back in Butzbach (our battalion’s HQ) liked to have extra flour on hand. Consequently they’d periodically give us hundreds of pounds of it (plus assorted crates of canned goods) to keep their stock fresh. We would in turn exchange this starchy windfall with our neighborhood baker, who, verifying the karmic hypothesis that good begets good, would give us free baked goods every morning of the week!
Not to be outdone, the army’s Special Services got into the act, sending us five feature films each week to relieve the inevitable boredom they figured we endured as a result of our separation from our brother GIs … to enjoy this luxury the detachment constructed a proper movie room in one of two cavernous spaces we had on the fourth floor of our billets.
Weighted bedsheets sewn together served as a screen; rows of couches and lounge chairs provided comfortable viewing (not to mention a great place to woo a girlfriend); and an enclosed, sound-proofed projection room available 24/7 for anyone who wanted to watch the latest Hollywood productions … quite a treat in pre-VCR/DVD/streaming days!
This was the wonderful world of the 16th Signal Battalion’s Koblenz Detachment … which I figure was about as close to paradise as anyone in the army could get!
Our typical day began with the arrival of Maria, our cook, around 5:30 am. Shortly thereafter the delivery boy from the baker would show up on his bike balancing two big baskets of oven-fresh, baked-to-perfection bread and brochens.
Grab a coffee, break open a brochen, throw-in some butter, watch it melt, add some jam and walk into a modern, commodious commercial kitchen to see what Maria, a perpetually singing, cheerful 50-something who always found the happy piece of any moment, had on the stove.
Eggs, bacon, hash browns, french toast, pancakes, sausages … you name it, Maria could cook it … and did! For my 21 year old palate, it didn’t get any better than that!
In addition to the kitchen, our quarters consisted of a motor pool for our half dozen vehicles with assorted trailers, a dining room (which could sit a couple of dozen easily), a spacious office, a lounge for hanging-out and a dorm with showers all the conveniences.
Our two-men rooms were spacious, airy and large, with high ceilings and large windows. Occasionally visiting sergeants from other army facilities would grumble about privates and spec 4s living in such opulence … compared to their cramped rooms, who could blame them!
It was truly miraculous! I’d joined the army under duress and heard nothing but horror stories about a soldier’s life. I’d expected the worst but when I found myself an under-worked, overpaid soldier in what everyone charmingly called a “cold war” living in a wonderfully picturesque, thoroughly European city with a lively club scene and stunning, beautiful women who loved to dance, drink and have fun I couldn’t help but think, “I must have led a saintly life my last time through to deserve this! Hell, I must have been martyred for my faith or saved a saint or rescued a hole bunch of people or some such thing! Wow, this is terrific!”
Coming next! How I Won The Cold War, Part 8 … THE KAISER’S COOK
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