4

A US soldier present at Checkpoint Charlie in 1961 says he climbed into or at least onto an unmanned T-54 and looked inside the unmanned driver compartment to identify it if was a Soviet or East German tank:

I'm a 24 year old lieutenant and my orders are 'identify the tanks'. So we get in a US military sedan, drove through the baffles, went around back behind the tanks, and got out. There's nobody around, so I climbed up in the tank. And I dropped down into the driver's compartment, and there was Cyrillic script on the instrument panel, and the driver left a Red Army newspaper. So we went back, got in our vehicle, went back to Checkpoint Charlie, and I told the colonel they were Soviet tanks.

It seems somewhat implausible to me that the Soviet crews would have left a tank unmanned in that confrontational situation. This is one of the (alas not that many) photos from Oct 28. Clearly the T-54 tank crews were visible "unbuttoned", including the drivers in the first two tanks. The incident/claim is said to have happened on Oct 27 though. There's also a photo from the evening of the 27th, with commanders visible, but not drivers.

So, are there any corroborating accounts that a US soldier climbed onto an unmanned Soviet T-54 then, and looked inside?

Whether there was anyone inside would the most difficult bit to corroborate, I suppose, but perhaps the part where a US soldier climbed on a Soviet tank would have been easier for others to witness?

4
  • @njuffa: You're right, I read somewhere else, which is less than official: "In a curious if ultimately unsuccessful effort to preserve deniability, Khrushchev ordered that the Soviet tanks’ national markings be obscured and that their drivers wear unmarked black uniforms." Feb 13 at 5:52
  • The English Wikipedia page on the Berlin crisis of 1961 mentions the tank incident. It refers to pages 470-471 of the book Berlin 1961. The linked copy at the Internet Archive appears to only be available as a one hour loan. I haven't managed to "borrow" it to check the description and references. The Wikipedia page mentions Lieutenant Vern Pike and his driver Sam McCart.
    – JRE
    Feb 13 at 9:30
  • @JRE: that's Kempe's book discussed in the answer below. Feb 13 at 9:31
  • @Fizz: Right, but that answer doesn't actually tell you what Kempe's book says. It tries to use the book to argue that the incident was impossible when in fact Kempe's book is a source describing the incident.
    – JRE
    Feb 13 at 9:34

2 Answers 2

5

The German Wikipedia article on the standoff provides this article as its primary source. It is a newspaper article written in 2011, so unfortunately it doesn't provide sources itself but it seems well researched and this is a reputable newspaper. Anyway this article has a detailed chronology of the events.

It says:

  • The Russian T-54 tanks moved into position on October 26th around 6:00pm.
  • The Russian tanks retreated on October 27th around 11:00am.

The Wikipedia article also says that commanding officers in the tanks on both sides had orders to shoot if need be.

Put together this makes the claim of an unmanned or even unsupervised Russian tank highly implausible. The tanks stood there for only half a day and were ready for combat.

The English Wikipedia article cites the situations you describe and gives this book as a reference:

  • Kempe, Frederick (2011), Berlin 1961, Penguin Group (USA), ISBN 978-0-399-15729-5

It puts the location slightly else where, namely at the Brandenburg gate (about 2 or 3 km from Checkpoint Charlie), also directly on the inner Berlin wall. It still looks very off to me because at the time the Berlin wall was already up and Checkpoint Charlie was the only border crossing. At the Brandenburg gate there was just a continuous wall. So the Americans might be able to see the Russian tanks moving along but I don't see how they could have walked or driven over to one to climb into it. The Russian tanks were also described as on the move.

2
4

The Wikipedia page on the Berlin Crisis of 1961 mentions the incident where an American soldier climbed into a T54 to see if it were a Soviet tank. It references the book Berlin 1961 by Frederick Kempe from 2011.

I've gotten access to Berlin 1961 on the Internet Archive. I couldn't "borrow" the book to read, but it turns out that you can search the book for specific words or phrases and access the pages found on search. Searching for "Pike" pulled up pages 470-471 (as well as several other pages.)

Wikipedia references pages 470 to 471 in Berlin 1961 as the source for the story about an American soldier entering a Soviet T54.

Here are those two pages:

470

sat atop their tanks, smoking, chatting, and eating dinner from mess kits.

West Berliners, held back behind rope barriers, bought pretzel sticks from street vendors, and presented flowers to GIs. The Western scene was all lit by enormous floodlights beamed from the communist side—an effort to intimidate using superior wattage. On the Eastern side, the apparently Russian tanks sat in darkness with their black-uniformed crews. "What a picture for the history books!" Schorr exclaimed.

Clay required confirmation for his masters in Washington that they were Soviet. It was not an academic point: for the U.S., the danger of a confrontation with Soviet tanks was that it could turn into a general war. East German tanks posed another sort of difficulty, because their deployment was prohibited in East Berlin under the four-power agreements.

Under orders to ascertain the tanks' origin, Pike and his driver Sam McCart climbed into an Army sedan and weaved through the barricades and down a side street well past the tanks, where they parked and then walked back. It was part of the surreal nature of the showdown that both sides continued to respect military freedom of movement at the border, so Pike could drive through without impediment.

Pike was surprised at the tanks' illogical two-three-two formation, which made it impossible for the rear tanks to fire upon the enemy. Beyond that, they also were making themselves easy targets. Pike walked up to the rear tank and saw nothing to help his investigation: "no Russians, no East Germans, no one." So he climbed onto the tank and down into the driver's compartment. There he confirmed it was Soviet by the Cyrillic script on the controls and the Red Army newspaper by the brake handle, which Pike could identify, given his smattering of Russian. "Hey, McCart, look at this," he said as he climbed out of the tank and showed him the newspaper that he had taken as evidence.

The tanks' crews, about fifty men in all, were sitting on the ground a short distance away, apparently getting briefed on their mission. Pike walked up close enough to hear they were speaking Russian. When one of the Soviet officers spotted him, Pike turned to McCart and said, "Let's get the hell out of here."


471

After driving back, they reported to Colonel Sabolyk, who was Pike's superior, that the tanks were Soviet. When Pike explained how he had found out and showed the newspaper, Sabolyk said in shock, "You did what?"

The disbelieving colonel put Pike on the phone to the emergency operations center, which connected him with Kennedy's special representative so he could hear for himself. "Whose tanks are they?" Clay asked.

"They are Soviet, sir," Pike said.

"How do you know?"

When Pike told him, Clay was silent on the other end of the line. Pike felt as though he could hear him thinking, "Oh, God, a lieutenant has started World War Three."

Pike had dared to undertake the mission partly because he felt young and invulnerable, but also because by then American soldiers thought little of Soviet discipline, morale, or military capability. Though GIs knew they were outnumbered, they also felt superior. When driving into West Berlin on the Helmstedt Autobahn from West Germany, Pike had seen Russian grunts hawking their belt buckles, caps, and even Soviet medals as souvenirs in exchange for Playboy magazines, chewing gum, ink pens, or especially cigarettes.

At less generous moments, GIs would flick burning cigarettes to the ground just to watch the Russians scramble to recover them for a few drags. Pike recalled later that their gear was of poor quality, their boots flimsy, their field jackets old; they looked to Pike like hand-me-downs from previous conscripts. He told friends that "their body odor would chase a buzzard off a shit wagon."

Pike had little more regard for their tanks, which maneuvered badly. The drivers were often from Asian minorities, Pike had noticed, because he reckoned they were the only ones able to fit into compartments that had been built too small. He and his men chuckled when the first tanks had rolled up that day and officers standing on the road struggled to position them using exaggerated hand movements and semaphores, apparently to overcome language and handling difficulties.

But nothing was very funny about Pike's realization that the Soviet…


Summary: US Army lieutentant Vern Pike crossed into the Soviet sector with his driver Sam McCart then proceeded to ascertain whether the tanks were Soviet tanks or East Germany tanks. The crews of the tanks were called away to a briefing, leaving the tanks unmanned. Pike entered one of the unmanned tanks and found (and took with him) a copy of a Red Army newspaper (in Russian.) The controls in the tank were marked in Cyrillic script as is used in Russian.

The book agrees with what was said in the video. The difficulty is that the passage in the book quotes an interview with Vern Pike by Frederick Kempe while the video is (apparently, I can't view the video here in Germany) of an interview with Vern Pike. Both sources are the same. All that tells you is that Vern Pike was consistent in his description of the events.


The book describes the entire evening of the incident. It started at just after 16:45. A group of American tanks had been present and left at 16:45. Shortly afterwards, a group of Soviet tanks became visible to Lieutenant Pike from the corner of Friedrichstrasse and Zimmerstrasse. He was sent to call back the American tanks. While he was gone, the Soviet tanks moved to a vacant lot on Unter den Linden (street) - that's several blocks north of Checkpoint Charlie. At 18:00, the Soviet tanks returned to Checkpoint Charlie and the faceoff began. It was sometime after 18:00 that Lieutenant Pike entered the Soviet tank.

11
  • Confirms is a bit strong. It's Pike who's interviewed in the video. The book appears to be a "bestseller", but it's not an academic history book with citations to documents etc. from what I can see from the pages you've reproduced. So, it's not clear if the story in Kempe's book is based on Pike's account or something else/independent. Kempe is also the only source I found writing elsewhere (he wrote a lot of articles about this) that the Soviet tanks were lacking insignia and so had to identified to make sure they're not East German. Feb 14 at 13:19
  • 1
    Yeah, "confirms" was the wrong word. I've changed it to "agrees with." One can't confirm the other since the video and the book both come from the same source.
    – JRE
    Feb 14 at 13:23
  • Anyhow, the book does add a detail not said in the video, namely that the Soviet crews are said to have all been gathered up for some briefing at that very moment. Feb 14 at 13:39
  • OTOH one can see from a CIA photo from that evening (alas exact time is not on it) that there were a lot of people, including civilians around. Feb 14 at 13:40
  • 1
    That "briefing" is the only thing that made it possible for Pike to enter the tank. I checked a biography of General Clay, but it didn't mention how he came to be sure that the tanks were Soviert units.
    – JRE
    Feb 14 at 13:42

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .