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Berlin 1961: Staring Down a Soviet Tank’s Barrel

How did a tense scene at Checkpoint Charlie in 1961 almost lead to nuclear war?

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  • Pike knew from his training that the scene unfolding before him could escalate to war — perhaps even a nuclear one.
  • Ten American M48 Patton tanks were poised at the Friedrichstrasse crossing, facing an identical number of Soviet T-54 tanks about 100 paces away.
  • It was "the first time that the forces of the two wartime allies, now the world's biggest powers, had met in direct and hostile confrontation."



U.S. Army First Lieutenant Vern Pike had two concerns as he looked down the enemy tank barrels, adjusted his green army helmet with the bold white “MP” emblazoned across its front, and ensured his M14 rifle had its safety off, a bullet in its chamber and its bayonet unsheathed.

Foremost in his mind, the 24-year-old U.S. military police officer was worried for his wife, who at age 20 was increasingly pregnant with their twins. Pike had decided against sending her home for Christmas, as the young couple didn’t want to be separated for that long, but now that decision looked irresponsible.

That was due to his second fear. Pike knew from his training that the scene unfolding before him could escalate to war — perhaps even a nuclear one — and take with it him, his young bride and their unborn twins, not to mention a good portion of the planet. All it would take was one nervous U.S. or Soviet trigger finger, he thought to himself.

It was just past nine in the evening, and ten American M48 Patton tanks were poised at the Friedrichstrasse crossing, facing an identical number of Soviet T-54 tanks about 100 paces away.

The showdown had begun to unfold several hours earlier in the afternoon when U.S. tanks had clanked up to the border as they had the two previous days to back up what were already becoming routine military escorts of American civilian cars into East Berlin.

At precisely 4:45 p.m., after another successful and uneventful operation, U.S. commanders had ordered the American tanks withdrawn to Tempelhof Air Base. Pike, whose military police platoon supervised Checkpoint Charlie, then took a cigarette break with Major Thomas Tyree, who commanded the tank group. From the warmth of a drugstore on the corner of Friedrichstrasse and Zimmerstrasse, they looked out the window toward the East and turned to each other in disbelief.

“Do you see what I see?” said Tyree to Pike.

“Sir, those are tanks!” Pike responded with alarm. “And they aren’t ours.” He calculated that they were no more than 70 to 100 yards from where they stood.

Though they looked to be newly built Soviet T-54 tanks, their national markings were obscured. All the more mysterious, the military personnel driving them and manning their guns appeared to be wearing unmarked black uniforms. If they were Soviet — and it was hard to imagine they were anything else — they were preserving deniability.

“Vern,” said Tyree, “I don’t know whose tanks those are, but get the hell to Tempelhof and get me my tanks back, quick as you can.”

“Yes, sir,” said Pike, glancing at his watch. The U.S. tanks had left ten minutes earlier, so it would not take long for him to catch them. He jumped into his military police car, a white Ford, and raced through Friday rush-hour traffic, weaving in and out with his siren blaring and his “gumball machine,” as he called his rooftop light, rotating. He caught up with the tanks just as they were arriving at their base.

Pike shouted out his window at the lead tank, which was driven by his Berlin neighbor, Captain Bob Lamphir. “Sir, we’ve got trouble at Checkpoint Charlie. Follow me and let’s get back there as fast as we can go.”

“Whoopee!” yelped Lamphir as he ordered all the tanks to turn around and head back to the border.

Pike later recalled how the thrill of impending danger surged through him: “Here we are at five o’clock in the afternoon rush hour on an October Friday in Berlin, racing down Mariendamm towards Checkpoint Charlie with my little MP car going bebop, bebop out
in the front. And every living Berliner within eyesight gets the hell out of the way.”

Just before the American tanks had returned to the scene at 5:25 p.m., the Soviet tanks had withdrawn to parking areas on a vacant lot near East Berlin’s main boulevard of Unter den Linden.

If not for all the potential peril, the scene had the atmosphere of a French farce, with the Soviet actor rumbling behind the curtain just as their American counterparts rushed onto the stage. In expectation that their opponents might return, the U.S. tanks remained and arranged themselves in defensive positions.

Some 40 minutes later, at just past six in the evening, what appeared to be Russian tanks returned and assembled themselves with guns pointed across the line. A Washington Post reporter who had gathered at the crossing with dozens of other correspondents announced it was “the first time that the forces of the two wartime allies, now the world’s biggest powers, had met in direct and hostile confrontation.”

Washington required confirmation that the tanks were Soviet. It was not an academic point: For the United States, the danger of a confrontation with Soviet tanks was that it could turn into a general war. East German tanks posed another sort of difficulty, because their deployment was prohibited in East Berlin under the four-power agreements.

Under orders to ascertain the tanks’ origin, Pike and his driver Sam McCart climbed into an Army sedan. When they reached the area where the tanks were parked, Pike was surprised at the tanks’ illogical two-three-two formation, which made it impossible for the rear tanks to fire upon the enemy.

Pike walked up to the rear tank and saw nothing to help his investigation: “No Russians, no East Germans, no one.” So he climbed onto the tank and down into the driver’s compartment. There, he confirmed it was Soviet by the Cyrillic script on the controls and the Red Army newspaper by the brake handle.

The tanks’ crews, about 50 men in all, were sitting on the ground a short distance away, apparently getting briefed on their mission. Pike walked up close enough to hear they were speaking Russian.

After driving back, they reported to their superior that the tanks were Soviet. “They are Soviet, sir,” Pike said.

Editor’s Note: This feature is adapted from “BERLIN 1961” by Fred Kempe. Copyright 2011 Putnam. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher.

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