It was the early 1970s at Andrews Barracks in Berlin. 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 large number of men in the hallway had served in Special Forces units in Vietnam, such as MACV-SOG and Project Sigma, but only a handful of men there that day had participated in D-Day. There were some Johns, Dicks, or Harrys who raised their hand. Then the Sergeant Major doing roll call 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 Lodge Act, named after Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, had 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 joined Special Forces and brought with them much-sought-after foreign language skills that were needed as the Cold War escalated. Some had served in the Warsaw Uprising 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,” Colonel Warner “Rocky” Farr said. Bob Charest added, “You felt like you were in a foreign army.” The Lodge Act Green Berets could be identified by looking at their U.S. Army serial numbers, which all carried the same prefix at the beginning: 10812. “I bet at that time  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 WWII veterans began to age.
The unit was called Detachment A, with the classified name of 39th Special Forces Operational Detachment (SFOD). It was a clandestine Special Forces unit. Technically illegal under the Four Powers Agreement, Det A was on 24-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, then carry out acts of sabotage and guerrilla warfare.
Formed in 1956, Detachment A originally consisted of four A-teams that were each assigned an area of responsibility in Berlin — on the north, south, east, or west sides of the city. Later, two more teams were added. “The big mission was the stay-behind mission for World War Three,” Colonel Farr said. Teams consisted of 11 men, with a B-team above them making the entire unit no larger than 80 or 90 people at any given time.
At one point, the unit was commanded by Sid Shachnow, 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.
Although most are familiar with the three main methods of infiltrating behind enemy lines — 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, having 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 said. “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 WWII, Berlin was occupied by the British, French, Americans, and Russians. Most already envisioned a future conflict between the Red Menace and the West. The Russians controlled East Germany while West Germany was split up amongst the other three nations. This arrangement was formally codified by the Four Powers Agreement of 1971.
The Russians erected the Berlin Wall in 1961, after having, since the mid-1950s, already imposed draconian travel restrictions on the citizens of East Germany. The pretext for the wall was that it was meant to prevent the infiltration of Western agents. Yet, the reality is that it was a way for the Soviets to control the citizens of East 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. This was due to the escalating tensions with the Soviets at that time.
Det A was known as a hidden gem, 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.
Continued in part II.
Editor’s note: This article was written by Jack Murphy and published in 2017.