Operation Long Thrust — Cold War troop surge behind the Iron Curtain
A sleeping giant rises
The summer of 1961 found the 1st Infantry Division settled into a comfortable recruit-training routine at Ft. Riley, KS. Having returned just six years earlier from its WWII deployment, the renowned Big Red One established a home at the old Cavalry post and reduced its units to professional cadres, tasked with turning civilians into soldiers. Cycle after cycle of young men, recruited and drafted, reported to Ft. Riley for basic combat training and advanced individual training. Following at least four months of arduous physical and mental preparation, most were assigned to combat units of the U.S. 7th Army, guarding Central Europe’s Iron Curtain, or the 8th Army, whose two combat-ready divisions guaranteed an uneasy truce along Korea’s infamous DMZ. A fortunate few received orders to U.S. Berlin Command, garrisoned 110 miles behind the Iron Curtain in communist East Germany. The Cold War was on everyone’s mind, as thousands of young men, sweating and swearing under a relentless Kansas sun, endured rigorous training to defend America.
The evening of 25 July 61, was memorable for B Battery, 2nd Howitzer Bn., 33rd Artillery. The long day had begun early on a rifle range preparing for the live-fire, night-combat course. Shortly after evening chow (delivered in mermite cans), trainees were ordered to sit in the Kansas dust and listen as loudspeakers broadcast President John F. Kennedy, live, describing America’s latest Cold War challenge. The President’s words were grim. Leaders of the Soviet Union once again demanded that Western Allies abandon Berlin. The disputed former Nazi capital was still under military occupation of France, the United Kingdom, United States, as well as the USSR. President Kennedy stated, firmly, that we would not withdraw, proclaiming West Berlin to be “…the great testing place of Western courage.” Discussing the Divided City’s defense, he remarked, “I hear it said that West Berlin is militarily untenable. And so was Bastogne. And so, in fact, was Stalingrad. Any dangerous spot is tenable if men – brave men – make it so.” As darkness fell on north-central Kansas, sobered trainees returned to their firing lanes. One was heard to ask, “Sergeant Baumann, is there going to be a war?”
“I’m afraid so, son,” the grizzled combat veteran solemnly replied.
For B Battery’s recruits, basic combat training was no longer a rite of passage; it had just become deadly serious.
Less than two weeks after Kennedy’s speech, communist forces sealed off Berlin’s Western sectors and began construction of the shameful Berlin Wall to keep East Germans from seeking refuge in the West. These actions dramatically influenced the 1st Inf. Div. and Ft. Riley. Leaves were canceled and thousands of enlistments extended. Ft. Riley filled up with citizen soldiers, as Reserve and National Guard units activated. Training was intensified; eight-week cycles were “compressed” into seven. Recruits from Ft. Ord, CA, and Ft. Jackson, SC, arrived to complete basic training at Ft. Riley. The Big Red One phased out its recruit training mission, preparing to become a TO&E (Table of Organization and Equipment), combat-deployable, Pentomic infantry division. Soldiers returning from overseas rushed to join 1st Inf. Div.; others, who had just completed recruit training, remained in Big Red One units rather than transferring elsewhere. The third Berlin crisis trans-formed Ft. Riley’s and the First Infantry Division’s mission from training recruits to combat readiness.
A mere 4,861 air miles away, West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt penned a letter to President Kennedy expressing his concerns, and West Berliners’ outrage, at the West’s lack of response to Communists’ border closings. That letter was the genesis of OPERATION LONG THRUST. In it, Brandt encouraged the Allies to initiate several dynamic responses, short of war, including: 1) immediate reinforcement of Berlin’s three Allied garrisons; 2) immediate movement of Allied troops along the autobahn between Berlin and West Germany, emphasizing a continued right of Allied access; 3) immediate arrival, in West Berlin of a prominent American personality, preferably a ranking government official, and, 4) appointment of General Lucius Clay as America’s Commandant in Berlin. General Clay had been in charge during the 1948-49 Blockade and was extremely popular among West Berliners. After consulting Cabinet and military officials, President Kennedy ordered Berlin’s U.S. garrison reinforced immediately.
From its kaserne in Mannheim, West Germany, 8th Inf. Div.’s 1st BG, 18th Inf. “Vanguards” convoyed to Checkpoint Alpha at Helmstedt on the East German border. The Task Force then advanced without incident on the autobahn 110 miles through hostile communist territory to Berlin. Greeting the American reinforcements there were Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and General Lucius Clay.
Clay had just been appointed President Kennedy’s personal representative in Berlin. Thousands of West Berliners turned out to cheer the “Vanguards” as they paraded through the city that day. Just two months later, a diplomatic matter caused U.S. and Soviet forces to engage in a fully armed, nearly catastrophic incident at Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse border crossing, Checkpoint Charlie. Some historians consider that “tank-to-tank standoff” more volatile than the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later. The 1/18th Inf. remained in Berlin until December when it was relieved, in place, by another unit from West Germany, the 1st BG, 19th Inf., the “Rock of Chickamauga,” an element of the 24th Inf. Div.
Defense officials expressed concern over reinforcing Berlin with 7th Army troops, arguing that it weakened NATO’s West German positions while offering little in Berlin’s defense. It was decided to augment West Berlin with CONUS (Continental United States)-based forces — OPERATION LONG THRUST was born. Ironically, the first such mission was officially dubbed, “OPERATION LONG THRUST II.” It originated as a 4th Inf. “Ivy” Div. deployment test. In 1961 the 4th, at Ft. Lewis, Washington, was the Army’s only CONUS-based TO&E Infantry Div. Along with 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, it made up America’s quick-reaction force known as STRAC (Strategic Army Corps). Under the “Pentomic” concept, Infantry and Airborne divisions were organized around five battle groups, each with the lineage of a historic regiment. Beginning in January 1962, OPERATION LONG THRUST II flew three 4th Inf. Div. battle groups from Ft. Lewis to West Germany where they obtained pre-positioned heavy equipment and engaged in “war games.” Troops arrived to find Central Europe an armed camp. Expecting a Warsaw Pact invasion at any time, serious war preparations were underway. Military convoys of four NATO armies choked West German autobahns. Armored vehicles, some with white stars, others displaying black crosses, rumbled along secondary roads. Combat units engaged in endless tactical exercises while maintaining “alert” status.
After maneuvers in Germany, 4th Division’s 1st BG, 22nd Inf. flew back to Ft. Lewis. The 2nd BG, 39th Inf. remained in West Germany to temporarily reinforce 7th Army. The 2nd BG, 47th Inf. advanced to West Berlin where it replaced 1/19th as Berlin Brigade’s reinforcement. 2/47th Infantry’s movement to Berlin transformed LONG THRUST from a deployment test into a real world, Cold War operation, augmenting the U.S.-Berlin garrison from CONUS. The unit arrived in Berlin under-strength. A deuce-and-a-half full of “Blue Spaders” from 8th Division’s 1st BG, 26th Inf. stepped up to serve with 2/47th in Berlin, returning to their own unit in West Germany when 4th Div. troops redeployed to Ft. Lewis. Subsequent LONG THRUST operations demonstrated improved planning as CONUS-based battle groups fleshed out thin ranks by accepting permanent transfers of soldiers completing duty tours in USAREUR (United States Army in Europe). In June 1962 another 4th Inf. Div. unit, the 1st BG, 8th Inf., relieved 2/47th in Berlin. The 4th Division’s LONG THRUST role ended when 1/8th Inf. withdrew to Ft. Lewis that autumn. For the next year, reinforcement of the U.S.-Berlin garrison was a responsibility of the 1st Inf. Div..
Big Red One returns to Berlin
Back at Ft. Riley, after a busy year training and equipping, the 1st Inf. Div. was declared combat-deployable. Troops received the latest gear and would soon have new M-14 rifles and M-60 light machine guns. For months they’d conducted field training at Ft. Riley, and as far away as California and Virginia. All Big Red One Infantry tested in Colorado the previous autumn. Guided by its motto, “No Mission Too Difficult – No Sacrifice Too Great – Duty First,” 1st Inf. Div. accepted its LONG THRUST challenge with dispatch and military efficiency. Beginning September 1962, the Big Red One conducted quarterly rotations of four battle group task forces into Berlin. Air Force Military Air Transport Service (MATS), flew each task force, non-stop, from Forbes Air Force Base, near Topeka, to Rhine-Main AFB in West Germany. Units trained three months at Wildflecken, reinforcing 7th Army before advancing to Berlin. Major elements involved were, in turn, the 2nd BG, 12th Inf. “Warriors;” the 1st BG, 13th Inf. “Vicksburgers;” the 1st BG, 28th Inf. “Lions of Cantigny,” and the 2nd BG, 26th Inf. “Blue Spaders.” Each 1,500-man battle group was commanded by a colonel and reinforced with a light (105mm) towed howitzer battery, a light (2½ ton) truck company, and lesser support elements. Ammunition and supplies for initial combat engagement were maintained with each unit. Troops of 2nd BG, 12th Inf. were the first to display Big Red One insignia in Berlin since 1950, when 3rd Bn., 16th Inf. rejoined the division in West Germany, following a four-year tour as the only U.S. combat infantry behind the Iron Curtain during the first Berlin crisis, the 1948-49 Blockade and subsequent Air Lift. (A second Berlin crisis, “The Khrushchev Ultimatum” of 1958, was rejected by Western Powers following negotiations in Vienna.)
Western military convoys enroute to Berlin, from West Germany, were subject to Soviet inspection. Inside the East German border, at Marienborn, U.S. troops dismounted their vehicles to be counted by Russian officers. Soviet tanks and other implements of war gathered along the autobahn, clear evidence to each American soldier that he and his unit were outnumbered and might be annihilated at any time.
Augmenting troops in West Berlin were quartered at historic barracks, sharing unique duties with Berlin Brigade’s permanent 2nd and 3rd BGs, 6th Inf. “Gators.” They patrolled sector and zone boundaries separating free and communist territory. In conjunction with British and French Allies, numerous “show the flag” parades were held in the face of potential adversaries. Early morning alerts were common as troops in full combat gear rushed to establish defensive positions at critical Allied facilities in a massive city surrounded and outgunned by strong Soviet and East German mechanized forces. Consistent with its occupation mission, Berlin Brigade spent hours practicing riot control. Combat in cities and weapons training were conducted at several West Berlin ranges; sometimes under close observation by communist border guards. In the presence of international press, America’s Berlin troops displayed superior military bearing and appearance even while engaged in tactical maneuvers in the Grunewald, West Berlin’s city forest. Personnel serving honorably in West Berlin from 14 August 1961 to 1 June 1963 were awarded U.S. Armed Forces Expeditionary Medals along with World War II Army of Occupa-tion Medals.
When nuclear war seemed imminent during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, 1st Division’s 2/12th Inf., attached to Berlin Brigade, manned positions encircled by formidable communist forces. 1st BG, 13th Inf. was in West Germany reinforcing 7th Army, and preparing to advance into Berlin. Eight months later, 1st BG, 28th Inf. was in the Divided City during President Kennedy’s historic “Ich bin ein Berliner” visit. The last Big Red One unit serving in Berlin was 2nd BG, 26th Inf., which withdrew in October 1963. By that time the Army was reorganizing from Pentomic (five battle group) to ROAD (three brigade, Reorganization Objective Army Divisions). A fifth 1st Division task force, primarily, troops of 2nd BG, 8th Inf., flew to West Germany to reorganize as 1st and 2nd Battalions, 16th Inf. before returning directly to Ft. Riley.
Considering West Berlin’s exposed position, it was fortuitous that OPERATION LONG THRUST concluded without combat engagement. Nonetheless, the LONG THRUST operations were the 1st Infantry Division’s most significant Cold War deployments until 1965, when the entire division moved to Republic of Viet Nam. With the third Berlin crisis concluded, in 1963 Berlin Brigade reorganized, acquiring its own self-propelled howitzer battery (C, 94th Field Artillery). The Brigade’s Company F, 40th Armor traded M-48s for new M-60 main battle tanks. Until 1966, when Berlin Brigade augmentation ended, the 24th Inf. Div. rotated unreinforced ROAD Infantry battalions from West Germany to Berlin.
Historians remember Cold War Berlin as “flashpoint of the world;” the only spot on Earth where armed forces of conflicting superpowers were locked in bitter confrontation for nearly a half century. OPERATION LONG THRUST was a profoundly successful component of America’s Cold War strategy. Its primary mission, the reinforcement of Berlin’s U.S. garrison pursuant to President Kennedy’s August 1961 directive, was carried out by disciplined, highly trained, well equipped, CONUS-based ground forces. LONG THRUST demonstrated, to friend and foe alike, America’s determination to defend Western interests and the free people of West Berlin. This series of real world, Cold War missions answered planners’ questions about the Army’s ability to quickly deploy significant combat elements from North America to Europe. In that sense, LONG THRUST was a precur-sor to much larger REFORGER (Return Forces to Germany) training exercises of following decades. With support from USAREUR and 7th Army, OPERATION LONG THRUST rehabilitated thousands of derelict vehicles and crew-served weapons stockpiled in West Germany to be employed in the event of a Soviet Bloc invasion. For decades, the Berlin Wall stood as a grotesque monument to state-collectivism’s failure. In 1989 it crumbled, followed two years later by the mighty Soviet empire — a resounding Free World triumph. Cold War victory was made possible, in large part, by the United States military’s resolve, dedication and courage in the face of hostile forces, as exemplified by OPERATION LONG THRUST.
Editor’s note: Portions of this article are from John Parmenter’s recollections and numerous conversations and correspondence with Berlin citizens and U.S. veterans of Berlin military service; especially Dr. Stephen L. Bowman, COL, USA, Infantry (Ret), a historian and scholar. John Parmenter, himself, is a three-year 1st Inf. Div. veteran who took basic combat training with 2nd Bn., 33rd Artillery and served in OPERATION LONG THRUST VI, Jan.-July ’63, as an enlisted soldier of 1st BG, 28th Inf.