In March of ’85 I had a chance to go hang out in Copenhagen for a week with some friends. Buffoonery was the only thing on the agenda and my travel partner and I were masters of it.
It had been months since either of us had been able to relax so this was a well-deserved and much needed break. A good time was had by all and reluctantly, we made the 10-hr train ride home. We rolled up to the Bahnhof in Frankfurt hung-over, unshaven and unbathed.
Two of our group, were waiting for us at the Bahnhof. Heiney greeted me with words I hoped to never hear “jemand ist aus dem Nest gefallen” – “Someone fell out of the nest.” My butt puckered and things got serious all of a sudden. It meant we were getting reports of someone down in the East. Just saying those words in German still makes my palms sweat.
“WHO? WHERE?” Was my first response – He said no one knew; it was all unconfirmed but it was DDR (Communist East Germany) and no one had heard from a two man team who were making a double transit through DDR to get some pictures of what we thought was a vaguely disguised Forward Area Aviation Refueling Point.
The guys would have been on their way transit DDR when the incident took place. I asked if they had missed a check-in and was told, NO. They made their last scheduled contact and shouldn’t make contact again till they got to the West.
“Are we sure it was Jürgen and the Turk… DO WE KNOW ANYTHING?” Heiney told me that I knew exactly as much as he did. The report filtered out that morning via another NATO intelligence group.
Information trickled down to us over the next 24 hours but the reports were beginning to make less sense with every new revelation. The initial report said two operators we caught and fired on, with one of them being killed.
Shortly thereafter we heard it was uniformed Soviet sentries who actually fired on someone in American uniforms. American Uniforms? – That just made no sense at all.
My boss looked at me like I was supposed to know something – “Are the Amis saying anything about you guys being at war?” Only a few months had passed since Reagan’s “We begin bombing in five minutes” speech. It shook our allies pretty hard. I could see how the Boss could be a little edgy, but I didn’t have a clue; so I told him so. “How would I know? I work for you”
“American uniforms?” That couldn’t be right; the only uniformed personnel we had in DDR were unarmed USMLM inspectors and embassy guards. No one in their right mind would fire on them. I was beginning to have some hope that the reports were wrong but they kept coming in every few hours as the information was disseminated.
We had been home for almost 36 hours. Finally Commo called saying that Jürgen had reported in via phone relay and they were on the way… 5 hours max.
I can remember feeling guilty for thinking – “At least it wasn’t one of mine.”
The afternoon of March 27th, 1985 we received an official communiqué from Bonn informing us that an American officer had been killed near the Soviet tank barn at Ludwigslust.
Normally they would never fire on a uniformed USMLM inspector but apparently Major Nicholson uncovered something that the Russians couldn’t allow to be compromised.
The Soviets claimed they fired warning shots – I don’t believe them.
A few days later I figured out that I knew Major Nicholson… well to say I “knew him” is a stretch, but I did meet him a handful of times, always in Berlin; usually at a café out by Wansee or at the Gedankmal Kirche. Meetings never lasted longer than about 10 mins, just a cup of coffee and the exchange.
I knew him as Nick. I’m not even sure he knew I was American; my English had an odd accent at the time. No one ever pegged me as an Ami; they usually guessed Czech or Romanian. I won a lot of bar bets with people trying to guess my nationality.
Nick had a driver who fooled me though – his German was perfect to the point I was sure he was German; then someone told me different. He would have heard my accent in German, so he probably knew I was American. He also warned me to not engage the Major in Racket ball – he was looking for new meat and had just offered me a game if I was up for it.
These guys were part of a U.S. Army Unit that served as the “U.S. Military Liaison Mission” – USMLM. They were assigned to roam the enemy’s back yard and do things that tended to really piss off the Soviets.
They would take pictures of secret locations, Soviet military facilities and maneuvers. They were part of a series of treaties and agreements made post WW2 that allowed each of the four WW2 victors to keep tabs on the others. The idea was that each side could, via observation, confirm that the other side was keeping true to arms control and other agreements.
I have no issue with sneaking around the enemy’s back yard, and stealing his stuff… but these guys did it – figuratively speaking – with a strobe light on their heads, wearing dayglow pink BDUs with an Emergency Locator Transmitter squealing their location to the bad guys in real time.
They were expected to do good HUMINT while basically flying an “I’M A SPY” flag for all to see – Somehow they pulled it off.
All military liaison mission vehicles bore a distinctive license plate and the men inside were required to be in uniform. They were monitored, harassed, sometimes threatened, limited to travel in certain areas and occasionally threatened with being shot.
Still the men in the field used pure brain power to figure out how to get around Soviet security and do the job they were sent to do. By my time they drove hot SUVs and would find their way to good observation points gather intel, take photos and get out of Dodge before the bad guys showed up.
USMLM inspectors were , for lack of a better term –Legal Spies. They were the heart of verification during Détente and one of our best tools to keep the Soviets honest.
The Communists had SMLM (Soviet Military Liaison Mission) teams in West Germany doing the same thing, just at much less risk and with much more freedom.
Every incoming American Soldier to Europe was briefed on what to do if they saw a Soviet vehicle but they were easiest to find in downtown Frankfurt. SMLM duty was a reward given to good little communists, they had enough clandestine agents in the west that they didn’t need to work real hard.
USMLM duty, on the other hand, was pretty much limited to the crème of the crop. It took more than just testicular mass to do the job they were asked to do.
Armed with only a camera and some field glasses, Major Nicholson and SSgt. Shatz went into the mouth of the Soviet beast to get a look at what they might have stashed at the tank barn near Ludwigslust.
After shadowing a column of Soviet tanks the pair moved directly to one of the tank barns in the area and Maj. Nicholson proceeded to get some pictures.
A Soviet sentry appeared and fired several rounds at the two Uniformed Americans.
Nick was wounded and although SSgt. Shatz tried to administer medical aid… the sentry held him in the vehicle for more than an hour.
Maj. Arthur D. Nicholson bled to death in an East German forest on March 24th 1985.
He was the last official casualty of the Cold War.
Many went before him including a French Military Liaison Mission officer who was run down by Soviet Soldiers and killed while observing maneuvers. We kept taking “unofficial” casualties for 2½ more years, right up until the wall came down.
The Cold War was never cold and men like Nick Nicholson and the other USMLM teams are a big part of the reason we survived that dark era – Not just as a nation but as a planet.
Please join me on Thursday March 24th and tip one in honor of the USMLM teams and Ltc. Arthur D. (NICK) Nicholson – the last Cold War Casualty, it will be the 31st anniversary of his sacrifice for this Republic – Nick was just shy of his 38th birthday when he fell.
Fratribus Sine Pari.