Many soldiers ride trains to and from duty assignments, but a handful of U.S. Army personnel stationed West Berlin and Frankfurt, Germany, serve theirs aboard a train—one that winds 110 miles through Communist East Germany in the dark of night.
It's the Berlin Express, one of the key links between Communist—surrounded West Berlin and free Germany. It made its first run through Russian-occupied East Germany in 1945, and, except for the year of the Berlin Blockade, it has maintained a regular schedule ever since.
The rail corridor agreed on by the Soviets runs on a single track from Marienborn to Berlin. The line belongs to the Communists and one of their engines pulls the train through West Germany.
Originally, it was agreed that the United States, Britain and France could use the line and all passengers would be documented by military ID cards, or passports and official Russian-translated "flag orders" certifying they are entitled to be on the train in accordance with the quadripartite agreement. These documents are collected prior to boarding by personnel of the U.S. Army Rail Traffic Office (RTO) and presented to Soviet officials at Marienborn (regardless whether the train is going to or from Berlin).
Shortly after Army passenger service began, the first incident occurred at Marienborn. When the Soviets refused to accept the documents and insisted they be allowed to board the train to check the identity of passengers, RTO personnel refused admission and warned that the United States would use armed guards on the trains if it became necessary. (At that time, no guard personnel were assigned to the trains).
The next incident occurred in 1948, when the Soviets again insisted on boarding the trains, claiming they were searching for black marketeers and spies. Again transportation personnel refused admission and the trains returned to their points of origin. Military Police were then added to the crews and have been riding the trains ever since.
Regular Run. Today, four trains run to and from Berlin nightly, connecting with Frankfurt and Bremerhaven. One train leaves each of these towns for Berlin; and the other two depart from Berlin to those points.
Each train is assigned a train commander, an NCO conductor, several Military Police and a radio operator. The crew rides in a special escort car equipped with dual radio systems. Typically, the train commander is a Transportation Corps second lieutenant, a graduate of the school at Fort Eustis, recently assigned to the Berlin Brigade.
"We make several runs with an experienced train commander, read volumes of after-action reports on past trips before assuming command," 2LT Jeffrey A. Feiser reports.
The duty provides a unique opportunity for junior officers, he feels. "Few jobs offer as much responsibility. Even though we normally have constant radio contact while we are in the East Zone, the safety of the entire train and the reputation of the United States rests on the train commander's shoulders."
SP4 Will Schlegel, radio operator, has his tense moments, too. If an escort car goes into the shop for repairs, backpack radios are taken aboard. Occasionally, with this type equipment, contact may be lost between the train and West Berlin.
MPs protect the passengers and enforce regulations governing the behavior of U.S. travelers. While the train is in the Soviet Zone, no one may get off or speak to Russian or East German guards. Only exceptions are the train commander, an interpreter and the senior MP, who disembark at Marienborn to process the papers and inspect the train.
Typical Run. Normally, the Berlin train consists of three compartmentalized sleeping cars, an escort car, mail and freight cars. U.S. personnel also operate two freight runs monthly hauling household goods from Bremerhaven port.
Tours of duty vary with the assignment. Train commanders serve a maximum of eight months. Military Police, conductor, and radio operator serve longer, usually 12 to 18 months.
Each evening about 7 p.m., the RTO crew reports to the Rail Ticket Office at Berlin where they check the passengers' papers and ascertain that everything is in order. The train pulls out at 8: 15 p.m. sharp. As passengers settle into their sleeping compartments, MPs make certain all doors are locked. Near Potsdam the train stops at the point where the Communist zone begins. The train commander and senior MP get off and make a visual inspection while Soviet soldiers also pace the length of the train.
After an East German engine is hooked up, the train moves slowly on its 1l0-mile journey. On this single track used by many trains, the trip takes about six hours to complete, with frequent stops on sidings.
Observation towers with floodlights and armed guards dot the route. The right-of-way is cleared for many yards on either side of the track and, wherever the train slows down, floodlights illuminate the area.
Helmstedt is the half-way point-the first town in West Germany. There the Communist engine is replaced by a West German unit and all the RTO crew except the conductor and one or two MPs leave the train. The conductor assumes responsibility, and the train continues on to Frankfurt or Bremerhaven.
Return Trip. After about an hour's rest, the RTO personnel who left the train at Helmstedt board one going to Berlin and reverse the process. They work two days on and two days off, with slightly more than 12 hours duty each day.
Last year this small group of RTOs and MPs handled more than 84,000 passengers. For six hours per trip they command a caravan of freedom moving through a night of oppression—a task they have performed with efficiency and keen awareness of the many responsibilities involved.
"Night Train to Berlin," by John Penman Jones, Editor, Army In Europe magazine.
Army Digest, August 1969, pp. 26-27.
Want to see what it was like to ride the Duty Train? The depiction of the interior of the RTO (Rail Transportation Office) Duty Train to Berlin in the movie Berlin Express (1948) is essentially the same way that I remember it from my tour in Berlin in the mid-1970s, which reinforces the evaluation of the New York Times review that Berlin Express had "the authentic impact of a documentary."
While you are here, check out these other interesting links:
Berlin in Early Cold-War Army Booklets. This is a reprint of a series of six army booklets on Berlin, covering the period from 1946 to 1958. The booklets are written from a single institutional viewpoint, that of the United States Military Command in Berlin. When read in parallel, the booklets create a sense of living history, because, while they cover the same topics of interest about Berlin, their coverage of these topics changes as the series progresses, and you can see the political relationships of the time change before your eyes.
The feature article in the May 1959 issue of Army Digest was on Berlin. Follow me to read it.
Berlin in Early Berlin-Wall Era CIA, State Department, and Army Booklets. This is a reprint of three booklets that the historical context of The Day Before the Berlin Wall. They cover the period from 1958 to 1966, spanning the critical year in which the Wall was built: 1961.
The November 1961 issue of Army Digest carried a photo montage of the U.S. Army responding to the Communist challenge on the front lines of freedom in Berlin.
Also by this author: three award-winning Berlin novels: