“We’re in East Germany! We better get the hell out quick!”
It began as a routine trip to test artillery battalions. It ended as a minor international incident that lasted several weeks and potentially could have been even worse. In 1958 Colonel Frank Athanason, then a captain, and eight others lost their way and crashed in a forest in East Germany. They were picked up by the East Germans and interrogated by the Soviets. In these excerpts, Athanason talks about spending July 4th in captivity, their eventual release, and the surprising revelation regarding a counter-intelligence agent. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in June 2005.
“That SOB is lost”
ATHANASON: There was one training area in Germany called Grafenwoehr where all the units used to go to fire live ammunition… One of the jobs I had in the operations was to test units in the field. We would set up test teams and go to Grafenwoehr. When a battalion was ready to take their test, we would act as umpires and we would test and score them. That meant going to Grafenwoehr often and we used to go back and forth from Frankfurt to Grafenwoehr by helicopter, these test teams.
One particular time that I was back home for the weekend, simultaneously with that, the artillery came out with a new insignia that had a missile vertically between the two cannons. No one had bought those yet because they just came out. I happened to go to the PX that Saturday and they had them for sale and I bought the new insignia. The next morning, early, we went to church and I was in my class A uniform (summer khaki which is bloused) with my new insignia. After church, they dropped me off at the helicopter pad.
[The year was] 1958. So, I was dropped off at the air strip to go back to Grafenwoehr. I did not change clothes. I was still in Class A uniform. There were eight others waiting there on the same helicopter to go… There were nine total in the helicopter.
It was normally a two-hour flight from Frankfurt to Grafenwoehr….Pilot and copilot sat up high. In the passenger compartment, you were sort of looking at the heels of their boots at your level. They were all in fatigue uniforms, all of them, except for me. I was the oddball because I went straight from church. We took off….
I was reading till I started getting a little drowsy. The weather was great, sunshine. I laid the book down and sort of closed my eyes and dozed off awhile. Then, I looked at my watch and it was two hours. By this time I was getting a little woozy because I didn’t like flying in a helicopter that long. I was wondering…I nudged the major and said, “We should be there by now.” He said, “Well, I don’t know.”
All of a sudden the helicopter made a 180-degree turn. I asked him, “What the hell’s going on? I think we’re lost.” He said, “No, no, he hit a checkpoint.” I said, “We don’t hit a checkpoint and make a 180 turn.” So I reached up and grabbed the pilot’s boot and shook it. He looked down at me and gave me a look on his face like ‘I don’t know what the hell’s going on.’ I went and sat back down and told the major, I said, “That SOB is lost.” We looked out the window and saw the Autobahn with no cars on it. I said, “We’re in East Germany because the Autobahn should be full of cars.” He said, “No, no, we couldn’t possibly be.”
We flew over this building that had a lot of red flags on it. The pilot circled the building twice. Then we saw guard towers and he took off in a different direction. We saw a farmer with a couple of horses plowing a field and we landed the helicopter right next to him. One of the captains spoke a little German so he went out and asked the farmer, “Where are we?” He came back and said, “We’re in East Germany! We better get the hell out quick and go in that direction!” The German was trying to help us. The pilot took off.
We saw the Autobahn again and saw a lone car going down the Autobahn. So he on his own landed the helicopter in front of the car. The pilot didn’t even have a map with him. They had flown that mission every day, the milk run. They didn’t even carry a map with them. They just sort of slept/put on cruise control. But that day something happened. We got out of the helicopter. The man in the car had an old Shell map from the 1930s, a road map. He showed us where we were and told us where the border was. He suggested we take off in a hurry. They were all very helpful once we talked to them.
I saw the pilot and copilot get into an argument. I said, “What’s going on?” The copilot said, “We don’t have enough fuel to take off. The pilot said, “We’ve got to go, no question, we’ve got to go.” The copilot said, “No, if we start to take off and if the engine quits, we’ve had it.” I turned around. Again the two majors sort of sat there silent. I spoke up and I said, “What will happen if the engine quits?” The pilot said, “Well, if I’m up high enough, there’s no problem. I’ll bring it back down.” I said, “Quit arguing. Let’s get the hell out of here, right now.” He said, “Okay.”
I said, “Does anyone have any classified documents with them?” This first lieutenant who I didn’t know put his hand on his pocket and he said, “I have the division SOI [Signal Operating Instructions, a type of combat order issued for the technical control and coordination of communications within a command] here”, which were all the codes. I said, “Give me the damned thing.” He said, “No, I’m signed for it. I can’t let anybody have it.” I said, “Quit arguing and give it to me.” I got a lighter from somebody and we burned it right there and left the ashes. We got in the helicopter and took off.
We were headed towards the border. We were up about two and a half, three minutes and the engine quit. But he was high enough like he said that he was going to come down, but unfortunately, we were over a thick forest area. He was looking for a clearing, he saw a little clearing towards the front and he put it into a steep glide to make that clearing. I guess he picked up too much momentum and he couldn’t slow it down or he didn’t have enough experience to slow it down. We crashed and flipped end over end a couple of times. But there was no fire because there was no fuel. So we sat there. No one was hurt. We were wondering, what next?
Farmers started appearing around the perimeter of this opening. None of them approached us. They stayed at a distance. About fifteen minutes later, three vehicles drove up. Two of them were Mercedes, open, convertible type sedans, just like the old German movies, you know, the “Hogan’s Heroes” types, and the other was a small Opel. They unloaded a truck that had soldiers in it. They made a perimeter about two hundred yards around us. No one approached us. When we were all in place, one of the officers started walking toward us. Our senior major went out to greet him. Then he came back and he said, “We have to get loaded in the vehicles.” We assumed they were going to take us home or back to the border. They took me aside and loaded the others in the cars. They put me in the Opel with two thugs in the back seat. There was just enough room, they were both big guys. I realized they were treating me differently for some reason.
We headed on the Autobahn and passed a place called Karl-Marx-Stadt….Then they turned off the road and went to an abandoned concentration camp, barbed wire and all. We drove through the gate and stopped the car and looked at me and then they started laughing, then they drove away again. I guess they were trying to get my reaction. They took us in to the town of Zwickauer. The others had already gotten there and they were in a big room. They took me past them in to a cell by myself. A little bit later, I could hear the others were eating some sausage and bread. We left around noon from Frankfurt so we were all hungry. We didn’t even eat lunch. We thought we’d be in Grafenwoehr by two o’clock. They didn’t give me anything to eat.
They started interrogations that night. They were East Germans, they were not Russians. That night a bunch of high-ranking Russians arrived. They were waiting for them to arrive before they talked to us. They interrogated the group before they got to me. They were interrogating them as a group, but they took me in by myself. There were four or five Russian generals sitting at a table. They put me in a chair in front of them. There were statues of Karl Marx, Engels, and Stalin. Actually it was a picture of Stalin. Karl Marx and Lenin. First question the Russian general asked through the interpreter… He was a young, East German lieutenant. Nice looking young man. They wanted to know who these [statues] were. I said, “Karl Marx, Lenin.” They said, “You’re the only one of the nine who know who these men are.”… They asked me what unit I was from. I said, “It’s right there, there’s the patch: Third Armor Division.”
I gave them my name, rank, and serial number. I wouldn’t answer any other questions. They said, “Are you a special artillery man? You have a missile. You wear a different uniform. We are very interested in your Honest John.” (That was the only rocket we had at the tactical level.) I said, “I know nothing about Honest John.” They questioned me for several hours. I wasn’t answering. They were doing the talking. They finally took me back to the cell. I was starving by that time. The next day around noon they came and got me again and took me into a mess hall and gave me a couple of chunks of pork — they were deep fried — and some boiled potatoes. It tasted great.
The interpreter was interested to find out if I’d ever seen Elvis Presley because he was in our division. I said, “No, he’s not in my town, he’s in a different town. I’ve never seen him.” They liked Elvis Presley.
That afternoon the East Germans, in my sight, signed a receipt for us and took control. They put us in the sealed up truck. We drove for a couple of hours and came to what looked like an abandoned warehouse. They already had nine cots set up in one room. The interrogation continued, but this time by East Germans. When I was called in, they had my book laid on the table, the Liddell Hart book. They wanted to know if it was my book. I said, “Yes.” They said, “We’ve looked at it. It’s all wrong.” And, they had a pile of ashes on the table. They wanted to know what those ashes were. They said, “You burned something, what was it?” I didn’t give them any information.
Celebrating the Fourth of July
We stayed there about a day and a half. Then they put us in a closed truck again and drove a couple of hours to a very nice villa. It had a walled in yard. There were a lot of guards there. We ended up staying there for about a week. A lot of things happened during that week. They were interested a lot about the artillery. They called me in one day and said, “We brought an artillery specialist from Berlin and he wants to talk with you.” He [the artillery specialist] said, “I’m artillery, you’re artillery. We are comrades. I’ll tell you all you want to know about my artillery and you tell me about yours.” I said, “I don’t give a damn about your artillery. I don’t want to know anything about it.”
He said, “Aren’t you interested?” I said, “No, not interested.” He said, “How do you shoot your artillery?” I said, “An officer says fire, an enlisted man pulls the langer, and it goes bang.” He said, “No, no, no, I don’t mean that.” He asked, “From the observation post…” I said, “You get a big long rope and you pull it.” The guys had their ears to the wall upstairs.
He said, “I don’t mean that, how do you fire it?”
I said, “Long rope.” They started hollering up there, “Long rope, long rope” and they were beating the floor with their feet. They got mad at me and threw me out. So I got to be known as “long rope” after that. When they took the sergeant in, he would only answer their questions with two words, “bull crap.” The more they would ask him, the louder he would get until they’d get sick of him then they’d throw him out.
We found that they were threatening us. But I don’t think they were going to do any harm to us because they allowed us to walk in pairs in the yard twenty minutes a day… And then they moved us three or four more times. Usually in the middle of the night they would wake us up and tell us to dress. They gave us athletic clothes to wear. We went to another big villa. It had a wall around it again. Obviously nobody had lived in it for years… That’s where we were on the 4th of July. Of course we had 48 states then.
The major who was in charge of the interior guard didn’t speak a word of English. At every meal he would come in and click his heels and say, “Bon appetite.” And we all in unison would say, “We hope you choke.” And he would say, “Danke schoen.” This went on (because when we move, he moved with us) for six weeks. He came in on July the third and said, “Tomorrow is an American holiday. So is there anything special you want?” One of the guys said, “I want ham and eggs.” He said, “We can take care of that.”
Because our meals were all basically the same: in the morning, we’d have hot tea and brown bread. At lunch we’d have hot tea, brown bread, and cucumbers. At night, hot tea, brown bread, cucumbers, and potato soup. We never had a drink of water in six weeks. Now they ate the same thing. They didn’t have anything more to eat than that. So when we asked for ham and eggs, it was something special. They said, “We can take care of that.”
They turned around to me and said, “What do you want?” I said, “I want four tanks to fire a forty-eight gun salute and an American flag I can raise up.” They said, “No, no, no.” This was going through an interpreter so the major is smiling like “yes, yes” then when he hears what it is, “no, no.” Something like ham and eggs, “okay.”
The next morning we had ham and eggs and lo and behold, three Russian tanks came by. I told the interpreter, “Thank the major, but I want to know where the fourth tank is.” He said, “Those are not your tanks …” We did everything we could to needle them and make their life miserable. One morning we got up and noticed a lot of flags hanging everywhere, red flags. A couple of television cameras were set up. They all seemed to wear a clean collar because they always seemed to wear filthy collars (they had high top uniforms). They wouldn’t let us out of our room that morning for breakfast.
“You’re not a damn sovereign country”
We’re sitting there in our underwear trying to see out of a crack of a window. We were trying to see what’s going on outside because we could see a lot of cars coming, pulling up. All of a sudden flash cameras went off behind us. We turned around and there were a bunch of people standing there with cameras. We had a few choice words about that. But, they said, “These are journalists that want to ask questions and we’re going to have a press conference downstairs. So, get dressed. You all can come down, but only one person is going to be allowed to talk. And that’s the senior man. He’s the only one that’s going to be allowed in the room. The rest of you must sit in the hall and wait.”
So then we told him to get the hell out and we’d talk about it. As they moved out of the room, one of the guys handed one of our guys a slip of paper, wadded up in his fist. They left the room and closed the door. The fella who had it opened it and the paper said, “I am a journalist with
United Press. My name is Seymour Topping. I was called to East Berlin this morning and wasn’t told where I was going, but they said get in the car. They brought me here. Please don’t refuse to have a press conference because we don’t know what’s going on and only through a press conference can we find out what’s going on.”
We discussed that and the consensus was this was a trick. We weren’t going to have a press conference. I and one of the others insisted that we do it because we had nothing to lose. We finally agreed to it. We went downstairs. The major — they sat him in a room by himself, but we could see what was going on because there was a half door, you could see over it.
They started peppering him with questions like: Why did you come to spy on a sovereign country? Why did you bring in these secret, dangerous weapons? Like I said, he was the weakest person in the whole group. Rather than fight back at them, he just sat there. The spy equipment that we had aboard, I think he was a first lieutenant, he had a camera, an Argus C3 personal camera. The major carried a plastic .45 in his holster because he didn’t like to clean his real weapon.
That was the extent of our weaponry and spy equipment. They hammered on this business of a sovereign country. ‘We are East Germany and we have nothing to do with the Russians. You came and violated our territories. You are war criminals.’ Well, I heard as much of this as I could take and I busted in the room and told a few of them what I thought of them, especially the ones from England and France. There were reporters from the Communist papers. The Daily Worker was one.
I told them what I thought of them and in the meantime they tried to drag me out. I broke lose from them and said, “You’re not a damn sovereign country. I was interrogated by Russian generals. The Russians signed a receipt when they turned us over to the East Germans and the East Germans accepted us from the Russians.”
Seymour Topping was writing like mad and the others weren’t writing anything.
They drug me out of the room and the next night we were put in the closed truck and moved again to another location. At that location, it was the first time they brought a television set. Their TV programs were all propaganda films. They couldn’t stand Hitler so I and three of the others grew a mustache like Hitler. That irritated the hell out of them.
Political programs, quiz shows like “For five [Deutsch]Marks, Where was Karl Marx born?” It was that kind of stuff. We didn’t want to listen to their damn television and told them to turn it off. But the guards for the first time had seen television so they wanted to watch it. They would sit there with their noses glued to the television. The only way we could get them to turn it off was if we asked to go to the bathroom….
“He said I would never see my family again”
Before we moved to the new location, I was called up in to the attic one night. I sat in a chair with a bright light shining down on me. I couldn’t see the face of the person talking to me. He shoved two documents in front of me to sign. One was in English and one was in German. I was denying ever making statements that the Russians had ever seen us. What we didn’t know was that Seymour Topping, the very next day, put in the New York Times saying that we said that the Russians had control of us. The Russians had denied any knowledge of us in the past.
There was some agreement between the status of forces that they were supposed to release anyone who came across the line and we were supposed to do the same thing. So that put the Russians in a bad position. That’s why he wanted me to sign the document. I refused to sign it. He threatened me that if I didn’t sign it, they would take me out the next day and I would never see my family again. So I said, “So be it. Let me go back downstairs.” We knew we were in a stalemate then.
By this time, I was not allowed to speak to anyone because I was giving them a hard time. I was only able to speak through the ranking man. I insisted that he demand that we see the East German President, Walter Ulbricht. They asked why and I said, “Because you keep telling us that our country can come and get us anytime they want as long as they sign a receipt for us. The receipt would have a letterhead on it that said German Democratic Republic and that’s why our government will not sign it. So we want to propose to Ulbricht to turn us over to Czechoslovakia.” They said, “No, you can’t see Ulbricht.”
e days later we saw the flags go up, the TV. cameras set up, the clean collars come out and they had a green felt cloth on a table with a microphone and a chair behind it. They told the ranking man, “Sit behind the microphone.” He said, “No, you sit there because if it’s Ulbricht, you talk to him. I don’t want to talk to him.”
So I sat behind the microphone. They didn’t object to it. In walks a very impressive looking gentleman about six foot two wearing a nice suit with white hair and a Red Cross button on his lapel. He introduced himself in perfect English as being head of the East German Red Cross. He said we were going to be released that day. He said, “Go upstairs and get your belongings. Be out here in twenty minutes and load onto this bus and we’ll take you to the border.”
We didn’t have any belongings up to that point because a few days before that they’d given us some boxes received from Frankfurt, stuff that our families had sent us. Vickie had sent me some red slippers, some cigars, someone else got a beret.
We got in the bus. This time they didn’t blindfold us or block out the windows. We drove straight to the border. There was another distinguished looking gentleman; he was head of the American Red Cross. He said, “Please be on good behavior. They haven’t agreed to let you go yet. We’re going to negotiate and I refused to negotiate unless they brought you all here. So I can see that you all are well.” We told him that if things don’t go well, drop a pen on the floor and we’re going to take off.
There were tourists crossing that border crossing. And no way were we going to go back. They could shoot us if they wanted, but we didn’t think they would dare do that if we got mixed in with the tourists. He said, “No, please don’t do that” and he took extra pains to hang on to his pencil. He turned around and smiled at us and nodded his head to say, “Everything is all right.” They agreed to pay for our room and board and we agreed that we didn’t want the helicopter.
They killed a top counter-intelligence agent
We walked across the bridge, each of us carrying a cardboard box. They took us down the road and there were some tents set up and there were field rangers and they were cooking steaks, they had a nice table set up and we had steak. Then we went back to Frankfurt and then we had debriefing for two days from our own intelligence people. They wanted to know minute details about what sounds we heard, anything we could describe where we were. Of course, we didn’t know where we were, but there was one location with a train that came by a certain time of day and we told them about that.
I told them about the incident in the attic where I refused to sign the paper. No one told me whether they believed me or not, they didn’t comment on it. They just said, “Fine.” Then we went back to work. There was no fanfare, there were no yellow ribbons, or any of that kind of stuff, we just went back to work. We shaved our mustaches off.
Then about a week later, it was about ten o’clock at night, someone knocked on my door, there was a young man there, he showed me his identification. He was counterintelligence — U.S. — and he said he wanted to come see me earlier, but he couldn’t. But now certain things have happened and he was able to talk to me. He was a Greek-American and because I was Greek-American, he wanted to tell me how proud he was that I refused to sign that document. The way he knew that I refused to sign the document was because it was one of our top agents telling me to sign the document.
They [the East Germans] found out about him being a U.S. agent and he was killed, but they were able to get his wife and child in to Switzerland. Now that he was dead, [the counterintelligence agent] was able to come talk to me. That made me feel good. Also, that was the first point that I knew that the [U.S.] knew where we were all the time. Why they were asking us all those questions was maybe to verify secondary information. But they knew where we were all the time. It made me feel good to know that we had somebody, somebody planned it at that high level.