When I left the meeting at the Pentagon in late June, 1955, I had everything I needed to proceed to Norway, where I would take part in an intelligence operation aboard a Norwegian sealing vessel, operating in Svalbard, a far northern island group belonging to Norway. (The operation itself is described in my posting “Spy Ship” dated August 9, 2013.)
“Everything” included military travel orders, a security checklist defining procedures to follow and people to contact, a travel advance check, and a passport of the kind normally issued to tourists, not to government employees on official business. “Everything” did not include an airline ticket to Europe. We would be flying on the Military Air Transport Service (MATS).
I had met Bruce, a civilian contractor with the Office of Naval Intelligence. While I would be investigating potential sites for large military airbases, he would study navigation conditions, harbors, and sites for ports or beach landings to supply these bases.
I had also met the other three Americans who would be joining us – all experts in electronic intelligence: Fred, a captain in the Army Signal Corps; Doug, an Air Force captain; and Fritz, a civilian technician skilled at installing electronic devices and keeping them running. Fritz never identified his employer; I suspected either the National Security Agency or the Central Intelligence Agency. The mission of these three men would be to record signals from radars in the Russian mining settlements in Svalbard and along the nearby shores of the Soviet Union.
Once again, we had been warned of the need to maintain tight security on this mission. If the Russians suspected our mission at all, particularly its electronic aspects, they could easily board our ship and send us all to Siberia, or worse. We must appear at all times to be tourists.
The Rhein-Main airport at Frankfurt, West Germany was our point of entry into Europe. At that time there were two terminals on opposite sides of the main runway. The German civilian terminal handled commercial flights. The other terminal, operated by the U.S. Air Force, handled military flights. It was proudly labeled “Rhein-Main Airbase, Gateway to Europe.” The five of us were to assemble in Frankfurt and travel together by train to Norway.
As Bruce and I were waiting to board our flight at Washington National Airport, one of our project officers came by and asked me to join him on the aircraft parking apron for a confidential chat.
Word had just been received that Fred, Doug, and Fritz had a disastrous arrival in Frankfurt two days earlier. The passports of the first two had been stamped ENTERED – U.S. AIR FORCE EUROPE, a brand that would expose their U.S. Government affiliation at every border crossing – including the crossings into Communist East Germany — and hotel check-ins for the rest of their time in Europe. Perhaps even worse, Fritz avoided the stamp, but only by bolting from the immigration line and disappearing from the terminal. He was now being sought by the German police. (As I learned soon afterward, Fritz had dashed across the runway to the German civil terminal, melted into an immigration queue to get the needed entry stamp, and then slipped quickly out of the country and on up to Norway.)
After all this bad news, the project officer was pleased to announce that measures had been taken to make sure there would be no repetition of the fiasco for Bruce and me. An agent of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI) would board our plane in Frankfurt to escort us off and make sure that our passports got the proper entry stamps by German civil authorities.
What had happened was perfectly predictable, except that nobody had thought of it. The bosses in Washington hadn’t foreseen that a MATS flight would arrive at the military terminal, where the military stamp would be applied to all passports.
I was getting the sinking feeling that there would be no end of installments to this one continuing lesson: Make your own travel arrangements, or beware! After all the rigid secrecy and expense involved in mounting this expedition, we couldn’t manage to get five commercial airline tickets to Frankfurt that would have allowed our team to travel like the private citizens we were pretending to be.
And now I was further concerned that an electronic spy ship had been selected as my means of transport to Svalbard. My own work, related to airbase construction, would not pose any imminent threat to Soviet security, but the electronics intelligence most certainly would. If the Soviets found out what we were up to, they might take drastic measures.
Our flight to Frankfurt lasted 20 hours, including a refueling stop at Lajos airbase in the Azores. After touching down at Rhein-Main, the aircraft taxied up to the military terminal. As soon as the portable steps were in place, a man in civilian dress climbed to the top. When the cabin door was opened, he stepped inside and asked for Bruce and me by name. We came forward. He flashed his OSI identification and asked us to follow him. We moved quickly into the empty special lounge for VIPs (Very Important Persons). He was curt and appeared tense. “Give me your passports and baggage tickets. I’ll be back in ten minutes.”
As we waited, I considered the attractive surroundings and the service being rendered, and reflected that we had “arrived in style.” Our man returned on the dot of ten minutes. We checked our baggage and it was all there. We checked our passports and, yes, they had been stamped. Stamped ENTERED – U.S. AIR FORCE EUROPE.
I voiced the obvious: “These passports have an Air Force stamp in them.”
“But that’s just what you were here to prevent.”
“No one said anything about that. I was told to expedite your passage through the terminal.”
We thanked him for his kind efforts and pondered our situation after he left. It was clearly time to call Mr. Sylvester. This code name identified us and our mission. Bill, an Army intelligence agent in Frankfurt, answered our call. He picked us up within the hour, and together we began a three-day process of figuring out how to resolve this latest fiasco. Bill decided immediately that we would have to take up residence in the bachelor officers’ quarters at the airbase; any hotel in town would want to see our passports.
This unwelcome confinement was relieved by daily outings with Bill, mostly to the U.S. Consulate where we had repeated interviews and saw much shaking of heads. We visited the basement room where documents were forged and altered, but even there the man shook his head, saying U.S. passports were too difficult to alter. An elderly, corpulent German lady at the reception desk quizzed us daily about our evening exploits. As we shook our heads, she shook hers too in disappointment, admonishing with a twinkle in her eye that Frankfurt was a great place to have a ball; we needed only to name our pleasures.
On one occasion, Bill took us to his office at the I. G. Farben building, the Nazi-era headquarters of the huge chemical concern, and still the largest office building in Europe. The Allies had spared it during the wartime bombings, earmarking it as a postwar military headquarters and administration building. In familiar Nazi style, the building dwarfed individual humans and incorporated the latest mechanical efficiencies.
One of these was the use, instead of elevators, of endless conveyor chains in constant motion. I have read of the “Paternoster” cabs mounted on these chains, but my experience was more primitive: no cabs, only exposed foot-perches and handholds at regular intervals along the chains. Regular users were rather graceful on these gadgets, but I had to make a nervous leap when a perch arrived, hold on for dear life, and leap off at the desired floor. I had a nagging fear that this technology had been adapted from the abattoir, and that there could be a meat grinder at the roof or basement level.
On the second afternoon of our stay, Al Nicol came in from a field office of the U.S. Geological Survey near Heidelberg, some 60 miles distant. Al was an engineering geologist of wide experience, great abilities, and highly acclaimed reputation. As previously arranged, he would stay overnight to give me an extended tutorial on geologic field procedures that could be useful in my assignment. But first, Al’s presence with an auto gave Bruce and me our first chance to sample the Frankfurt nightlife. So Al kindly escorted us through a night on the town that lasted till two in the morning. In the downtown area surrounding the main railway station, the U.S. forces had commandeered all the hotels and public buildings, and among them had sprung up a string of night clubs, beer halls, snack stands, and assorted dives that catered mainly to Allied military people. It was a throbbing Times Square atmosphere 24 hours per day.
Next morning, my first act was to hold my head beyond the edge of the bed as I threw up on the floor. After a failing try at breakfast, I spent the next three hours flat on my back as Al patiently delivered his tutorial. I would frequently grunt and occasionally even ask a question to assure him that I was still conscious. I took in and remembered a lot more of his points than I ever expected.
Shortly after Al left, Bill returned with great news. The passport dilemma had been solved! The consulate would issue us new passports and keep our present ones in a safe. After the expedition, we would exchange passports again and return home on the original ones. I admired the beauty and simplicity of the solution, and wondered how many high-powered government officials had been needed to think of it. If it were an option at all, this solution would have seemed obvious from the start, before we wasted several days seeking other means of solving the problem.
Before the day was out, Bruce and I moved to the luxurious Frankfurter Hof hotel where Fred and Doug had been waiting for us. The tab of 16 dollars per day was way over my per diem travel allowance, but well worth the experience for a short time. As we stood on the roof garden surveying the city, it really did seem fair now to say that we had arrived in style. Frankfurt, a sprawling city of perhaps 600,000 inhabitants at that time, was fast rebuilding from the war. Nevertheless, from our rooftop we could see in nearly every block at least one burned-out building shell or cratered vacant lot.
But we still had lots more arriving to do, specifically in Norway, and there now seemed no reason for any further stay in Frankfurt. Correction! Doug had a reason. Far from his wife and small children, he had named his pleasure in the person of a female roommate whom he was not anxious to leave just yet. And Fred, the senior member of our group, always seemed most anxious to please Doug. So we all agreed to round out the week in Frankfurt. During the remaining days, Bruce was mostly with a flight attendant friend he had met on the MATS flight. Doug stayed in his hotel room. Fred and I became tourists and sightseers for real.
Frankfurt was full of fascinating sights and sounds. Aside from the sideshows around the main railway station, the real spectacle was the German people, endlessly energetic, working long hours six days a week. Their average personal income was about 100 dollars per month, I was told. Thanks to a favorable exchange rate of 4 marks to the dollar, Americans could order steak dinner for about a dollar and a half. But it was obvious that here was an economy on the rise, and that these people would soon work their way up from such low estate.
There was one untoward effect of all this energy and ambition that I found astonishing. This was the apparently reckless abandon with which German drivers plied the roads. Bill had introduced me to this on the autobahn, a rambunctious scene of weaving, bumper-riding, and split-second maneuvers at breathtaking speeds. Bill pointed out that one could easily tell the maximum speed of each vehicle, for that was precisely the speed it was going. His explanation for this was that an entire generation nearing middle age was now experiencing its first car, hence was only in the teen-age of driving maturity. (Maybe so, but I didn’t note much change when I came back in 1960.) The auto accident rate in mid-fifties West Germany was about four times that of the United States, and one motorcycle owner in ten did not live to make the final payment.
One week after Bruce and I landed at Rhein-Main, we gathered with Fred and Doug in the railway station before dawn to board the express to Copenhagen and Oslo. The trip was roughly a thousand miles and would take somewhat under 30 hours.
Shortly before reaching Grossenbrode, where we would take the ferry to Denmark, we crossed a corner of East Germany with all the train’s window blinds tightly closed. The conductor warned that peeking could cause nasty problems with the local authorities. Our second ferry, from Denmark to Sweden, embarked from Helsingør, Shakespeare’s Elsinore. From the ferry we saw “Hamlet’s Castle”, appearing by its style to be several centuries too young for the sweet prince, but nevertheless picturesque. The central wharf area of the town was overshadowed by a decidedly un-picturesque ESSO sign, the largest I had ever seen. We slept through Sweden, and arrived in Oslo the next morning.
This posting is a selection from my book, The Cold Coasts (Kindle, Paperback, and Hard Cover)