That the checkpoint Harry Daniels set up separating West Berlin from East Berlin would become historically significant, much less an iconic artifact of the Cold War, never occurred to him. It was just the next letter in the NATO phonetic alphabet.
VANCOUVER, Wash. — It was late in 1961 in Berlin, and the Soviets and East Germans had started sealing off the city and country, one of the major crises of the Cold War.
“I can’t remember what day it was. We were working around the clock and days ran into each other,” said Vancouver’s Harry Daniels, who was in his mid-20s when the Army sent him off to Berlin.
A superior cornered him in a hallway and knew that Daniels, a lieutenant, had experience handling road traffic, working with Russian representatives and setting checkpoints through his time overseeing the comings and goings on the 110-mile stretch of Autobahn from West Germany into Berlin.
“He approached me and said, ‘You have two checkpoints. You know how to run up a checkpoint. Establish one there at Friedrichstrasse,’ ” Daniels said.
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“I said, ‘OK, when do you want it done?’ He said, ‘4 o’clock today,’ and this was 2 o’clock in the afternoon.”
“Sir?” he recalled asking, laughing.
Following World War II, the Allies split up Germany and the city of Berlin. On Aug. 13, 1961, East Germany began building a border wall through the city. That the checkpoint Daniels set up would become historically significant, much less an iconic artifact of the Cold War, never occurred to him. It was just the next letter in the NATO phonetic alphabet.
“I had Checkpoint Alpha here at Helmstedt, near Magdeburg; Checkpoint Bravo, which is east over in Babelsburg, which is just before you enter West Berlin,” he said. “So I said, ‘Let’s call it Checkpoint Charlie.’ That’s how it got its name.”
Political divisions between the Soviets and other allied powers grew in the years after the end of the war, as the superpowers worked to consolidate their position in the postwar world order. Social and political control of East Germany and other Eastern-bloc countries tightened, and growing emigration from East to West Germany steadily increased, leading to problems with the Soviet-aligned country’s labor force, which in part led to the closing of the border.
“Normally, they would expect about 100, maybe 150 people a day coming across, but before the wall went up, it escalated to almost 1,000 people a day,” Daniels said.
He remembered the Allies’ surprise when, on Aug. 13, 1961, East German personnel began sealing off half the city. Before the wall, he said, Allied troops made regular trips into East Berlin, to check whether they still had access, and to get a sense of what was going on.
“I had a pretty good feeling of what the Russians were like and what they were up to. There was always something mysterious about the Russians when something was going to happen,” he said. “We didn’t think about anything happening in East Berlin.”
He saw multiple escape attempts, as refugees made a break for the West German side of the growing partition. Others weren’t so fortunate, he said, and were shot by East German guards.
The stakes were clear, but the front-line men at his level could only glean details of the larger diplomatic gamesmanship, he said. Other times, the comings and goings of the higher-ups were more opaque.
About two weeks after the border closure, Daniels was told he was to brief a four-star general on the situation at the crossing. As he was waiting, another soldier driving a lowboy trailer carrying a very large, white “thing” with still-wet paint pulled up.
“I thought, well this is great. I’m expecting a four-star general — to brief him, and I’m a lieutenant — and here’s this thing and I don’t know what it is!” he said.
Daniels had the driver drop off the “thing” and scram, then German police escorting the general’s motorcade started to arrive.
The general’s car pulled up, stopped about a block away, and the general rolled down his window.
“I’m standing there waiting for him, wondering, ‘Well, am I supposed to go up there, or is he coming down here?’ ” Daniels said. “My answer came very quickly. He rolled up the window and they drove off.”
The big white “thing” turned out the be the building that became the checkpoint.
Daniels served for about 30 years, then went on to work as a project manager for General Electric and the Westinghouse Electric Corp. That experience with international relations was helpful in each job, he said, as stressful as his time in Berlin might have been.
“You mature quickly,” he said. “American soldiers were screened before they went to Berlin, because you could create an international incident very easily. So you’re under a lot of pressure.”
For someone in their 20s, he said, it was a “very mind-expanding experience.”
“You learn not only about serious international things but you learn about yourself as well,” he said. “And these responsibilities come to you pretty quickly. Fast and furious, sometimes. … Like when those tanks were lined up.”
In late October 1962, a dispute over whether East German guards were authorized to examine a U.S. diplomat’s travel documents escalated into an international incident, and a tense 16-hour standoff between columns of Soviet and American tanks facing off at Checkpoint Charlie.
“I kept thinking, ‘I’m here in the middle of this with a number of other people, and if a person makes a mistake in that tank and fires off a round, that’s it,’ ” Daniels said. “That is it.”