April 5, 2004
OUR LAST COLD WAR CASUALTY…
JOHN J. MILLER
On New Year’s Eve in 1984, a small group of U.S. soldiers decided to exploit the Soviet weakness for drunken revelry to get as close as they could to a T-80 tank in East Germany. The men weren’t out on their own inebriated lark–they were part of a top-secret mission behind the Iron Curtain. A reporter once claimed that an Army major, Arthur Nicholson, was among them, though former colleagues insist he wasn’t. It hardly matters. The result was an intelligence coup for the U.S., as one of the soldiers not only observed the Soviet tank but also sneaked inside and photographed its interior. Nicholson certainly knew about the operation, even if he wasn’t directly involved. Within three months, however, he would be dead–very possibly as the victim of Soviet retaliation.
The name of the first man to die in the Cold War is well known, for better or worse. John Morrison Birch of Georgia was a Baptist missionary in China who assisted Lt. Col. James Doolittle after his daring bomber raid on Japan in 1942. Birch later enlisted as an intelligence officer; Chinese Communists executed him within days of Japan’s surrender. In 1958, he became the namesake of the John Birch Society, a fringe group that saw Red everywhere it looked.
Arthur D. Nicholson was the last American to die in the Cold War, but he is hardly a household name. His killing in 1985 made headlines everywhere and led to weeks of finger-pointing between the U.S. and the USSR–before it was efficiently whisked away as an unfortunate incident that could not be allowed to disrupt delicate superpower relations. Yet those who knew him well did not forget. Every spring since Nicholson was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery–in a place of high honor near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and close to the grave of Joe Louis–a group of former comrades have gathered to remember a fallen hero of freedom. Much of Nicholson’s work remains classified, yet a number of public documents as well as candid conversations with veterans who knew him make it possible to glimpse at his activities and those of his unit–and to learn untold stories of brave men who ventured everything to fight Communism.
IN THE HEART OF THE ENEMY
Nicholson was part of a unique organization called the U.S. Military Liaison Mission. Technically assigned to liaise with the commander-in-chief of Soviet forces in East Germany, the USMLM was a relic of the Potsdam conference, which determined the fate of postwar Germany. The Allied powers had assigned representatives to one another in their various zones of occupation. The idea was to coordinate efforts and keep tabs on German disarmament and demilitarization. As the Cold War split East from West, the liaison officers continued keeping tabs–not on the Germans, but on each other. This odd arrangement remained in place throughout the Cold War, with each side valuing the information its men retrieved. In practice, it meant that for 44 years the U.S. was able to send a handful of military officers into East Germany on a daily basis to gather data on Soviet deployments, equipment, and personnel.
These licensed spies weren’t allowed to go anywhere they pleased. Large sections of East Germany were designated off-limits. Because of their diplomatic immunity, however, they could behave in ways that would have gotten anybody else arrested for espionage. And with some 400,000 Soviet troops stationed in an area smaller than Tennessee–the largest contingent of Soviet forces outside the USSR–the USMLM enjoyed a target-rich environment for learning about Soviet capabilities and intentions.
Six months after the U.S. and the USSR agreed to establish these liaison missions in 1947, Arthur Nicholson was born in Mt. Vernon, Wash. The tall and ambitious son of a career naval officer, Nicholson entered the Army in 1969. Nick–as everybody called him–eventually enrolled in Russian-training programs. His fluency developed to the point where he qualified for the USMLM, which he joined in 1982. Perhaps more than any other officer at the mission, he enjoyed his forays into East Germany. When his commander reassigned him to a desk job, he complained for months until he was sent back into the field. At a memorial service in 1985, after a special act of Congress posthumously promoted Nick to lieutenant colonel, secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger described him as “consistently the most productive officer” in the USMLM.
More than a hundred times, Nick entered East Germany on a USMLM “tour,” as the operations were called. In the early days of the USMLM, the group’s chief function was to watch Soviet movements and warn of possible attacks on Western Europe. As air and space surveillance improved, this role diminished and the liaison officers focused their efforts on studying the Soviet order of battle and making close-hand observations of military hardware. They followed convoys, watched rail yards, and monitored river crossings. They carried no weapons, but an array of binoculars, cameras, and notebooks. “I never doubted that the Soviets would use tactical nuclear weapons in an actual conflict because I saw with my own eyes that tactical nuclear weapons were part of their training,” says John A. Fahey, who served with the USMLM in the 1960s. “I could follow Soviet war-game maneuvers by looking for the little mushroom puffs that were meant to simulate detonations.”
Tour assignments often included mundane objectives such as snatching a telephone book from a remote area. “High-risk adventure was not a large part of what we did,” says Paul Nelson, a retired Army colonel. Like a good beat cop who knocks on hundreds of doors to solve a crime, however, the officers could make a breakthrough by pursuing the mundane–so nothing was ignored. One of the USMLM’s most inglorious activities was collecting trash that Soviet soldiers discarded. Because toilet paper was scarce, the Red Army tended to use whatever was handy, from military newspapers that provided details on individual units to (much more rarely) maps and pages from field manuals. These items were then delivered to experts for review and appraisal. “We went through a lot of material with masks and rubber gloves,” recalls Mike Cakora, a Russian linguist at the Army Field Station in Berlin in the 1970s. As USMLM veterans like to joke, intelligence is a dirty business.
Despite this drudgery, USMLM duty had moments of intense excitement, often centering on the souped-up cars and jeeps the liaison officers raced around East Germany. The first challenge of any tour was to lose the East German secret police–the Stasi–who tried to tail them. This frequently involved 90 m.p.h. chases and hairpin turns, sometimes at night without headlights or brake lights. Next came a test of four-wheel-drive endurance, as USMLM vehicles often drove down pockmarked forest trails and across fields. They carried 40-gallon gas tanks, heavy-duty shock absorbers, and food for several days. Front-mounted winch cables saved many officers from having to abandon vehicles stuck in slurping pools of mud.
The goal was to reach a location unobserved and study what was there, from airfield take-offs to the rotation speed of radars. Much could be learned in the unrestricted parts of East Germany; more could be learned elsewhere. “We did all kinds of things they didn’t permit,” says Lawrence Kelley, a retired Marine colonel. Soviet and East German soldiers were warned to be on the lookout for USMLM officers, who were required to wear distinctive patches on their sleeves and attach bright yellow license plates to their vehicles. They were often caught and detained, then questioned and released. Old hands called it getting “clobbered.” Nick was clobbered three times.
Snooping around Soviet military facilities was hardly risk-free–and getting clobbered sometimes meant getting off easy. About seven times a year, USMLM personnel were fired upon. Occasionally these were nothing more than warning shots, but at other times the bullets were meant to kill. According to one declassified source, gunfire hit USMLM vehicles no fewer than six times in the years before Nicholson’s death. In one close call in 1973, East German guards shot up a USMLM vehicle. A bullet pierced the driver’s door and passed through the tip of his boot without actually hitting his foot.
ACCIDENTALLY ON PURPOSE
Yet gunfire was not the biggest occupational hazard. Liaison officers were much more threatened by the enemy’s practice of ramming large military trucks into smaller USMLM vehicles. In 1979, a USMLM team was passing a radar outpost when an East German truck charged out of a barracks gate and slammed into their side. The USMLM vehicle skidded off the road and flipped over twice. The tour officer suffered serious injuries; the East Germans called the whole thing an accident, as they always did.
Many of the crashes were actually planned by the Stasi. On March 22, 1984, Philippe Mariotti, an officer with the French Military Liaison Mission, was driving through Helle-Lettin when an East German truck smashed into his vehicle and killed him. As German historian Matthias Heisig proves in a booklet soon to be published by the Allied Museum in Berlin, Mariotti’s death was a homicide. Heisig has located a Stasi document describing the operation, in which the vehicles of Allied missions “are to be hindered in their reconnaissance” and “are to be offensively disturbed.” Heavy military trucks were positioned around a set of barracks, Mariotti’s movements were carefully tracked, and then the deadly trap was sprung. The East Germans later claimed that Mariotti was drunk and demanded that France reimburse them for the damage their truck suffered in the lethal collision.
On March 24, 1985, almost exactly one year after Mariotti’s death, Arthur Nicholson left Potsdam with his driver, Army Staff Sergeant Jessie Schatz, on a bright Sunday morning. That afternoon, they followed a convoy of Soviet tanks returning from target practice. This was a typical USMLM activity: Nick was probably counting the tanks and studying their exteriors. He and Schatz were near Techentin, close to the site of the USMLM’s feat on New Year’s Eve. USMLM officers had been scouring that area because they wanted to check out some expected new Soviet tanks.
At some point, the two Americans broke away from the convoy and headed for a tank shed off the main road. They looked around for sentries and saw none. Then they approached to within 200 yards of the building. Nick left the vehicle and snapped a few photos. He got back in and Schatz drove to within ten yards of the shed. Nick got out again and moved toward a window. As was the standard practice, Schatz remained in the vehicle with its engine running. It was a few minutes before 4 o’clock.
As Nick was peering through the window, Schatz spotted a Soviet guard emerging from a wooded area nearby. This was Aleksandr Ryabtsev, a junior sergeant whose appearance meant it was time for the USMLM team to quit the scene. As Nick turned around to get back in the car, the young Soviet lifted his AK-47 and squeezed off a shot that narrowly missed hitting Schatz in the head. Nick was now sprinting toward him. Ryabtsev took aim and fired two more shots.
One of them hit. Nick crashed into the ground. Raising himself on an elbow, he shouted: “Jessie, I’ve been shot!” Then he collapsed. Schatz reached for his first-aid kit and flashed its red cross at Ryabtsev, but the sentry kept his gun trained on Schatz and refused to let him leave the vehicle. Nick lay on the ground bleeding, unattended. More than an hour passed before anyone so much as took his pulse. By then he didn’t have one. It is impossible to know whether Schatz might have saved him. Although Soviet medics insisted that Nick died instantly, American examiners later determined in an autopsy that he had lived at least for a few minutes after the bullet struck.
The Soviets refused to accept any blame. “All responsibility for this lies completely on the American side,” said Soviet general Mikhail Zaitsev on April 9. He added that Nick had been in an area off limits to the USMLM (not true) and was wearing camouflage (true, but irrelevant). Zaitsev even said that Schatz refused to leave his vehicle to help Nick–an outrageous claim.
The Soviets had trouble getting their story straight. By one account, Nick broke open a metal grate and took pictures inside the shed. Another said that he merely looked through an opening. More troubling, the Soviets also claimed that Ryabtsev could not determine Nick’s identity, despite the patch on his sleeve and the yellow plates on his vehicle. This was contradicted by yet another Soviet allegation: Ryabtsev was forced to shoot because USMLM officers liked using their vehicles as weapons–an ironic accusation coming from the killers of Mariotti. “We must conclude,” said U.S. Army General Glenn Otis in a tense meeting with Zaitsev, that Nick’s death “is officially condoned, if not directly ordered.”
Had such an incident occurred during the Berlin airlift or the Cuban missile crisis, it could have had much greater consequences. Yet the American response was subdued, in large part because Mikhail Gorbachev had assumed the Soviet leadership just two weeks earlier and strategists were still assessing him. There was a demand for an apology and compensation for Nick’s widow. A Soviet diplomat was ordered out of the U.S. and the Pentagon canceled some joint U.S.-Soviet plans to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II. When a reporter suggested to President Reagan that he had not expressed outrage over Nick’s death, Reagan said, “A lack of outrage? You can’t print what I’m thinking.” Still, many Cold Warriors considered the protests mild. “The Reagan administration’s response to this crime,” wrote George Will, “has been to treat it like a traffic accident covered by no-fault insurance.”
Indeed, the traffic accidents didn’t stop. A few months later, Col. Roland Lajoie suffered a fractured eye socket when a five-ton Soviet truck rammed his vehicle from behind. In 1987, Soviet soldiers fired on USMLM personnel taking pictures near an airfield; a bullet fragment hit an Air Force sergeant in the left arm. In 1988, owing to Gorbachev’s liberalization, the Soviets apologized for Nicholson’s killing. (They still refused to compensate his wife and daughter.) Five years ago, retired Army Col. Stuart A. Herrington claimed in a book that James W. Hall, a U.S. warrant officer in Berlin who was on East Germany’s payroll, confessed to giving his handlers information on the USMLM’s tank photography on New Year’s Eve–information that almost certainly would have made it back to Soviet guards in the form of harsh warnings that their sloppy security must improve.
This year, Nick’s former colleagues are meeting for the 19th time at his grave; others are gathering in Berlin for a special exhibit at the Allied Museum. Someone ought to start an Arthur D. Nicholson Society.