You can read part I here.
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 the 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’d gotten the impression that their job was a one-way trip.
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 an 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. There, he wound up assigned to Team Three within Det A in 1971. “Herman Adler was my team leader. He was a great guy,” Farr recalled. “He had been in the SS during World War Two. He was a Waffen 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 U.S. Army as a captain due to his expertise.
Arriving at Andrews Barracks, the men of Det A found fairly typical team rooms, but the building out of which they worked was actually a former base belonging to 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. The Agency widely believed Det A to be an assassination unit, which simply was not true.
Det A members received formal school training but also on-the-job training in Berlin from their peers. Members of the clandestine unit had to know how to arrange secret meetings with sources, conduct live drops, dead drops, and brush passes, conduct surveillance detection routes, and master all of the other tradecraft normally associated with the CIA rather than a bunch of Snake Eaters. “We had a safecracking and [lock]-picking course,” Blevins, who served as a radio operator, recalled. They also learned to use invisible ink and to encode messages. “We used a one-time pad. You would write your messages in plain text across the top of it and then use something called a trigraph to encode it,” Blevins added. This method is known to be impossible to crack if the message is intercepted.
Formal school training was achieved by completing the Special Forces Operations and Intelligence (O&I) course. Some Det A members were also allowed to attend the CIA’s demolitions course at Harvey Point, North Carolina, where they learned all sorts of sneaky stuff. There were also numerous opportunities for Det A members to attend foreign special operations courses ranging from the Danish scout-swimmer course to the GSG-9 German counterterrorism course. The first two American graduates of the latter were pinned by Colonel Wegener, who led the Mogadishu aircraft takedown in 1977. Other members attended German Ranger School. Being airborne qualified, the Det A soldiers would also travel to 10th Special Forces Group at Bad Tölz to complete their monthly jump in order to stay current, as well as to conduct yearly ski training in the Alps. The men of 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group stationed at Bad Tölz (separate from Det A) were prepared to carry out Operation “Falling Rain,” which would have seen them inserted by parachute into Eastern Europe to conduct unconventional warfare.
Det A members also became combat-diver qualified by attending a course in Crete run by SEAL Team Two. Since their dive gear also had to be indigenous, they acquired Dräger LAR III rebreathers that were so state-of-the-art that not even the SEALs had them yet. “The Kampfschwimmer Kompanie gave us the rebreather training as well as passing on their refined expertise in harbor and inland waterway operations,” Lieutenant Grayal Farr said. Before that they had Dräger dual-stage oxygen tanks, which some Det A members used when they swam up into canals in Berlin, looking for ways to penetrate the border in 1973.
Sergeant First Class Ron Braughton initially served as a medic on Team Five. As a practitioner of several martial arts, he led hand-to-hand combat training for his fellow unit members. “It was mission-oriented, not a bunch of fluff,” Braughton said. “I am a senior black belt, so I took the real combative aspects of that. Stick, knife, improvised weaponry, hands, knees… there were days set aside where I would train the whole unit for PT.” Of course, Det A members also conducted close-quarter battle training, including concealed carry, drawing, and shooting their Walther P38 pistols.
Detachment A members worked in a decentralized manner, choosing and developing their sabotage targets in both West and East Berlin. They were also responsible for developing their own extraction plans and the cover under which they would operate. “Det A never had any robust support from the Special Forces community during that time,” Mike Mulieri said. “You had to build your own cover legend. Because I spoke Greek and German, it played into that. I came up with my own persona and documentation.” Attending a few classes at a German university, Mulieri collected student identification cards and other pocket litter to support his cover story.
Some Det A soldiers posed as Turkish or Greek guest workers, called Gastarbeiter. Others were able to document themselves as plumbers with union or guild cards. One guy even came up with a cover as a magician. The cover had to hold up well enough for the Special Forces soldiers to move around Berlin during Soviet occupation, reach their targets, sabotage the bridges, radio towers, rail stations, power plants, or other objectives, and then carry out their escape and evasion plan. But as German-speaking Americans, their covers were only so strong. “Only a handful of men [in the unit] could have stood up to interrogation by an East German officer,” Mulieri said.
Another precarious situation unfolded when three Det A members were rolled up in the British sector of Berlin. In 1974, a training mission was devised between Det A and the Berlin Police Counter-Terrorism Unit, which would test Det A’s capability to conduct sabotage operations and the German police’s ability to respond. The Special Forces men were to attack a local waterworks, but the scenario was canned as the Germans knew the Det A men were coming and snuck police officers into the facility. A battle with blank fire ensued and Det A was repelled from the water plant. Another Det A element in a nearby ambush position decided to withdraw as the mission was compromised.
“As we [were pulling] our little red Fiat out of its hiding place in the woods, two VW buses full of the Berlin Polizei came upon us and began to chase us,” Staff Sergeant Bob Mitchell described. The three Det A soldiers got trapped in a cul-de-sac next to the British officers’ housing complex and engaged in a mock firefight with blanks against the Germans, but the Americans were overwhelmed and captured. The British provost-marshal witnessed the entire episode and believed that the Americans were British officers and that the black-clad German policemen were members of the IRA. Heavily armed British military police showed up, but by some miracle did not kill anyone — soon realizing that it was just a training mission.
“The provost marshal was so pissed that he had us all arrested and taken to the Olympic stadium to be put in jail,” Mitchell said. “Eventually, the commanding officer of Berlin, who was a three-star general, had to officially apologize to the Brits so that we could be released.” The incident was also reported in the local media that described the sabotage training and subsequent simulated firefight. One newspaper joked: “For the first time in war history, the British have ended a battle between Germans and Americans.”
At times Det A was also tasked by the CIA to dig up old caches in Germany left over from World War II. They discovered weapons, food, and ammunition, as well as medical supplies that needed to be replaced since they were well past their expiration date. Some caches could not be accessed because the Germans had built gas stations or other buildings over them. In other instances, Det A would bury caches at the direction of other parties. “It was a ruse,” Wild said, describing one technique used. “We would erect tents, usually a GP medium, put up barbed wire and telephone lines, making it look like it was a company headquarters. We would stay there for a few days, making it look like it was an exercise, but we were digging a hole under the tent to bury the cache. After we were done it would look just the same as when we got there.”
Tradecraft was also a challenge in a city packed full of foreign espionage agents and a citizenry that lived in a constant state of tension. “I have never seen a city so contaminated with load signals,” Warner Farr remarked. A load signal is a sign left in a public place that an intelligence handler leaves for his asset to see when walking past it later. It signals a meeting at a prearranged location. “When we would go to set up a drop, it was hard to find a place to mark because every damn pole in the city had marks all over it.” To avoid confusion, Farr would use circular paper reinforcements that he would stick on a wall or other surface, since they were distinctive next to the dozens of chalk marks left by other spies in Berlin.
Clandestine communications via radio were among the most difficult tasks Det A had to manage in Berlin. Antennas had to be camouflaged and disguised in an urban environment, sometimes even rigged inside buses or cars. While staying in a hotel, Gerald “Paco” Fontana of Team Six set up a 109 radio to send Morse Code, grounding the radio to two water pipes. “As I started sending Morse Code, all the lights in the hotel were flashing the code that I was sending,” Fontana said. The radio was sucking up enough power to dim the lights. The team quickly left and hotel rooms were not used as safe houses afterward.
Under the Four Powers Agreement, there were not to be any elite troops stationed in Berlin, but of course, the British Special Air Service, U.S. Special Forces, and the Soviet Spetsnaz were all present. “It was known within our circles, but officially we were not there,” Charest said. Ironically, the Spetsnaz element in East Germany probably had the same mission as Det A: to act as a stay-behind unit to conduct sabotage operations if NATO ever decided to charge across the steppes towards Moscow.
The Four Powers Agreement also stipulated that Russian and American troops could cross into each other’s territory if under supervision and in uniform. Det A members did this regularly, wearing class A uniforms with conventional Army shoulder sleeve insignias. Wild said that, during the late 1950s, “almost every day someone from the detachment went to East Germany from Checkpoint Charlie in a staff car driven by an MP and accompanied by a staff officer.” They had a very specific route to drive from which they could not deviate.
By the 1970s, Det A members could get out in East Germany and walk around while in uniform. Since the dollar had such a great exchange rate in East Germany, the Special Forces soldiers would take the opportunity to eat a gourmet meal for just a couple of bucks.
When asked about the infamous East German Stasi police, Warner Farr laughed and said, “We used to have lunch with them. There was a restaurant in East Berlin, called Ganymed, next to a canal. It was renowned for being the Stasi place.” On one visit the Stasi sat at a table next to the Special Forces men, loudly complaining that the Americans would come to East Berlin and consume all of the good food and wine. One of the Det A team leaders named Wolfgang Gartner stood up, turned around, clicked his heels, and said, “Gentlemen, let me introduce myself. My name is Wolfgang Gartner, I was born three blocks from here, and I will eat here any time I damn well please.”
While in East Berlin, the Green Berets cased their targets, knowing that they were being watched by the Stasi and Russian KGB. A few Det A members even infiltrated into East Berlin wearing civilian clothes, using the public transportation system, seeing how far they could push their limitations. In East Germany, they were usually followed and under surveillance. They would have to act as if everything were normal and behave like they were just G.I.s making a run over to East Berlin to take advantage of the low exchange rate to buy goods that would be expensive on the other side of the wall. Back in West Germany, there were enemy agents watching them parachute onto drop zones for training, keeping watch over Andrews Barracks, and occasionally tailing them around the city.
Continued in part III.
Editor’s note: This article was written by Jack Murphy and published in 2017.