It was the early 1970’s, at Andrews Barracks in Berlin, where a stern looking Special Forces Sergeant Major paced down the hallway for roll call. Daily army accountability formations are normally held outside, but due to the extremely classified nature of the mission carried out by the Special Forces soldiers standing in the hall that day, roll call had to be done indoors where they would not be spied on or photographed by enemy agents.

“It is the anniversary of the D-day landing,” the Sergeant Major told the Green Berets. “Who here participated in D-Day and would like to go to the reunion in France?”

A surprising number of men in the hallway had served in Special Forces units in Vietnam such as MACV-SOG and Project Sigma, but a handful of men there that day had in fact participated in D-Day. There were some Johns, Dicks, or Harrys, that raised their hands. The Sergeant Major doing roll call then got to the last soldier raising his hand and began to write down the name Gerhard Kunert. His pencil suddenly stopped scrawling across the clipboard.

“Wait a minute, Kunert? You were not even in the American Army in 1944!”

Kunert, a member of team six, clicked his heels and replied, “I was in the 7th Panzer, I was in Normandy, and I want to go to the reunion!” Kunert was not alone, also on his team was a German who served on U-boats during the war.

The unit was commanded by Sid Shachnow at one point, a Jewish holocaust survivor who immigrated to America and eventually became a Green Beret, but in the unit’s ranks were a number of former Nazis. The Lodge Act, named after Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, allowed displaced persons from World War II, hailing from countries like Ukraine, Hungary, Germany, and Czechoslovakia to join the United States Army, many of them joining Special Forces and bringing with them much sought after foreign language skills needed as the Cold War escalated. Some had served in the Warsaw rebellion against the Nazis, others had fought in the 1956 Hungarian revolution, and some had even been a part of the Finnish underground during the war.

“It was a fast track to [American] citizenship,” Warner Farr said and Bob Charest added that, “you felt like you were in a foreign Army.” The Lodge Act Green Berets could be identified by looking at their US Army serial numbers which all carried the same prefix at the beginning: 10812. “I bet at that time [1971] there were no more than 15 Americans in the unit,” Farr said, referring to native-born Americans as opposed to Lodge Act soldiers and naturalized citizens. Gradually, the unit did become more Americanized as the Cold War progressed and World War Two veterans began to age.

Special Forces Detachment A: an elite Cold War unit

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The unit was called Detachment A, with the then classified name of 39th Special Forces Operational Detachment (SFOD), a clandestine Special Forces unit. Technically illegal under the Four Powers Agreement, Det A was on twenty-four hour standby in Berlin in the event that the USSR pushed over the wall from East Germany and invaded Western Europe. Secreting themselves in safe houses, the Det A members would activate once the forward line of Soviet troops passed over their positions and then carry out acts of sabotage and guerrilla warfare.

The Berlin Wall

Formed in 1956, Detachment A originally consisted of four A-teams which were each assigned an area of responsibility in Berlin, on the north, south, east, and west sides of the city. Later two more teams were added. “The big mission was the stay behind mission for World War Three,” Colonel Warner “Rocky” Farr said. Teams consisted of eleven men, with a B-team above them making the entire unit no larger than eighty or ninety people at any given time.

While most are familiar with the three main methods of infiltrating behind enemy lines by crossing overland, by parachute, or by sea (including sub-surface with dive gear), fewer are familiar with the concept of stay behind teams. Forward deployed to Berlin, the Green Berets assigned to Det A were already in their area of operations, infiltrated before the outbreak of projected future hostilities.

During the cold war, Berlin was a place of uncertainty, intrigue, and subterfuge. “East Germany looked like the war had just stopped about a month ago. There was rubble everywhere,” Sergeant John Blevins described, “deserted buildings, stuff falling down, empty lots where the rubble had been cleared off. Back in Western Germany you could hardly tell that a war had been fought except for quite a few buildings that had a lot of holes in them from machine gun bullets.”

At the conclusion of World War Two, Berlin was occupied by the countries who had liberated Germany from the Nazis, including the British, French, Americans, and Russians. Already envisioning a future conflict between the red menace and the West, the Russians controlled East Germany and West Germany was split up amongst the other three nations. This arrangement was formally codified by the Four Powers Agreement years later.

Bob Charest sporting relaxed grooming standards and common fashion at the time to blend in with Berliners.

The Russians erected the Berlin Wall in 1961, after having already imposed draconian travel restrictions on the citizens of East Germany since the mid-1950’s. The public reason for the wall was to prevent the infiltration of Western agents, but the reality is that it was a way for the Soviets to control citizens of Berlin, many of whom were desperate to escape communist-occupied East Germany. “When the wall went up we were going home at night with our radio and our weapon,” James Wild said, due to the escalating tensions with the Soviets at that time.

Det A was known as a hidden gem, being the best assignment in Special Forces, however those who knew about the unit were few and far between. More often than not, Special Forces soldiers volunteered for Det A because an assignment in Germany sounded appealing or because their senior Sergeants highly recommended they take the job. Many had no idea what Det A’s mission was until they arrived in their team room in Berlin and began receiving classified briefings on the stay behind operations.

Assigned to 10th Special Forces Group in 1958, radio repairman Private James Wild was selected to go to Berlin, despite his objections as he wanted to stay with an A-Team. Trucked over to Munich, and then taking a train to Berlin, he was picked up by several Det A members. He was only read on to the mission several years later when he became Special Forces qualified and was promoted to sergeant. “It just scared the crap out of me,” Wild said as he got the impression that their job was a one-way trip.

Blue Light (Part 3): Learn how British Special Air Service (SAS) influenced American special ops

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Det A preparing for a parachute training jump in the 1960s

When 2nd Lieutenant John Lee arrived at the airport in Berlin in 1968 wearing his class A uniform, two Det A soldiers in civilian clothes met him and asked why in the world he was in a uniform. “Because I am American soldier!” Lee replied. “Not today you’re not,” they said before bundling him up in an overcoat and rushing him off to their base where he was to take charge of team two. Until receiving his in-brief, Lee knew absolutely nothing about Det A.

Farr took a Defense Language Institute (DLI) assignment to learn German with a follow-on rotation to Berlin and wound up assigned to team three within Det A in 1971. “Herman Adler was my team leader who was a great guy,” Farr recalled. “He had been in the SS during World War Two. He was an SS officer…he fought his way out of Russia through the snow. We used the call him the Schwarzer Adler: the black eagle.” Adler later went on to run some selection courses for Special Mission Units and was retained by the US Army as a Captain due to his expertise.

Arriving at Andrew’s barracks, the men of Det A found fairly typical team rooms, but the building they worked out of was actually a former base of the Waffen SS. The facilities included an olympic size swimming pool, which was great for morning physical training and scuba training. There was also an old firing range in the basement, where the SS had reputedly executed a few people during the war. Next door was a building belonging to the Army Security Agency, who widely believed Det A to be an assassination unit, which simply was not true.

Coming in Part 2, Det A’s unique training and unit members wine and dine with East Germany’s feared Stasi police!