USMLM "Tour" vehicle 1960s Ford Fairlane

Deja Vu in Gardelegen

Soviet Shoot-down of a USAF RB-66
March 10, 1964


Wolfgang Preisler

Note: This true life account “Deja Vu in Gardelegen” is a sequel to “A Cold Night in Erfurt.”  This event happened on March 10, 1964, less then two months after the downing of the T-39 described in the aforementioned narrative. It describes just one of many every day situations that were encountered by the members of the United States, British, French and Russian Military Liaison Missions operating behind “enemy” lines during the Cold War from 1947 to 1990. This, as the previous account, is an excerpt from the author’s manuscript entitled “From Cold War to Drug War.” Any discrepancies that might be found with other documented accounts of this incident are unintentional and would only be as a result of differing recollections of the incident.
This time there was no squealing of tires as Major Bill Thompson pulled into the circular driveway of the Potsdam house. The urgency from the phone call an hour earlier was not noticeable until he entered the house and turned up the volume on the East German radio station which was blaring out its daily dose of military music. It was standard procedure to turn up the volume on the radio whenever sensitive matters were discussed inside the Potsdam house. Everyone went on the assumption that the place was bugged, even though no one could recall of a bug ever having been discovered. Major Thompson quickly  explained the purpose of the trip as he poured over a series of large scale maps to determine the exact destination.

His briefing sounded like deja vu. Another aircraft shot down. This time it was an RB-66, a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance plane, which had strayed into East Germany near Magdeburg and was suddenly lost from U.S. military radar, an ominous sign that the plane had gone down. Three crew members were aboard and might have been lucky enough to eject. As before, the mission was to verify the downing by locating the wreckage and determine the fate of the crew. The bad news was that the plane was downed in the middle of an area where the Russians were just holding their annual spring maneuvers, with the entire area declared off limits to the three military liaison missions.

Wolfgang was glad that Major Thompson had brought the Dodge Rambler instead of the Ford. The Rambler’s extra speed and higher wheel base would come in handy in getting to their destination. The VOPOS, who were on a heightened alert during these major military maneuvers, would be certain to track their movement for as long as possible. It was hard to believe that within a period of two months the Russians would shoot down the second U.S. aircraft. These serious incidents did not enhance any efforts at co-existence and only helped to fuel the fires of the Cold War.

As he packed the trunk and eased out of the driveway, Wolfgang tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. A wave and a friendly smile did not keep the VOPO guard from picking up the telephone, alerting his superiors of the American movement. The purpose of his job in the guard shack was not to protect the American mission house from outsiders - crime in East Germany was practically non-existent -  his job was strictly to monitor movement in and out of the house.

The guard had performed his job well. Several hundred yards up the dirt road,  two VOPO pursuit cars were strategically positioned to follow their movement going into the city of Potsdam or to the Autobahn that circled East and West Berlin and then branched off into different directions. Since the VOPOS invariably had units in and around Potsdam, who would automatically report the movement of any mission cars in the area, there was no urgency to lose the pursuit cars until they had reached the autobahn and made their direction known.

By this time both the BMW and Mercedes pursuit cars and their professional drivers were familiar faces. He had encountered and sparred with them on several occasions. But, this time there was a greater urgency and purpose in losing them and losing them quickly so they could get to their destination and on with their mission. Again time was of the essence.

Upon reaching the autobahn, Wolfgang headed the Rambler in the direction of Magdeburg and the East/West German border crossing at Helmstedt. In addition to the local East German and Russian military traffic, this stretch of the autobahn was also heavily traveled by West German civilian and allied military traffic heading to and from West Berlin. This made the 150 km stretch from West Berlin to the West German border one of the most heavily traveled roads in East Germany. Speed limits were extensively marked and strictly enforced and it was rare to see anyone exceeding the speed limit of 110 kph (68 mph). To make matters worse, it was rare to ever see any of the military traffic go faster than 50 mph. To get to the crash site some 80 miles away, they knew they would have to lose their tails quickly without tipping off their point of destination. Although, it was almost certain that the VOPOS had already suspected their  destination, it was still vital that their entrance into the security perimeter remain unknown for as long as possible if their mission was to have any success. Major Thompson simply hinted “let’s see if we can lose them as quickly as possible so we can be on our own”.

 Wolfgang accelerated the Rambler to 110 mph in an open stretch of the autobahn, with the pursuit BMW glued to his tail, before having to slow for civilian cars trying to pass a slow moving Russian convoy of supply trucks. The speed suddenly reduced to 60 was like a slow crawl before another opening allowed the Rambler to accelerate back to 110 rather quickly before reaching its maximum speed of 125 mph somewhat grudgingly. Because of the Rambler’s outstanding acceleration, they had gained considerable ground on the BMW and they  knew the Mercedes would not be far behind. The BMW with its greater speed would soon be back on their tail and nothing would have been gained. The autobahn exit  sign, to some nondescript location, closed in very quickly as Wolfgang made his decision to get off and did so at a speed that should have landed them upside down in a near by field. He  was lucky to have chosen one of those highly banked exits which Hitler’s engineers had built nearly thirty years earlier for whatever reason they might have had at the time.

The VOPOS had seen the Rambler take the exit and followed at a more cautious and prudent speed. Again they were able to put considerable distance between themselves and their pursuers as the Rambler accelerated to a dangerous speed down the two lane highway. Seeing a dirt road ahead, Wolfgang geared the car down before coming to a spinning halt. A quick turn and the  car was back on the highway and with full throttle back in the direction from which they had come. To gain additional time and space, he had briefly entertained the idea of putting the car into a power slide and reversing the car’s direction without coming to a stop. He had occasionally practiced this for exactly this type of situation. However, that type of spin did not always work and the apple trees on both sides of the road loomed too large to undertake such a risky maneuver at a time like this.

He was already well up to 90 mph as he passed the BMW and the Mercedes going in the opposite direction. The chase was over. There was no possibility now that they could catch up with them, even if they knew the direction they were taking. Back on the autobahn, heading in the direction of the East-West German border and  maintaining a high speed to keep the pursuit cars from catching back up to them, the oncoming darkness was now working in their favor.

The fog around Magdeburg, which seemed to permanently settle into the low lying area of the Elbe river, helped to further disguise their movements. They had dropped their speed below fifty and had to straddle the center line to stay on the road and to avoid hitting one of those endless columns of military trucks with their almost invisible tail lights. At the Magdeburg exit they headed north on a secondary road toward Gardelegen some 50 kilometers away. According to the major’s coordinates, which had been received in a cryptic message from Heidelberg, the plane had to have gone down somewhere between the towns of Gardelegen and Stendal. Wolfgang knew from his experience with the Erfurt crash two months earlier that from this point on his forward progress became a matter of hide and seek. The secret of this game was to proceed undetected for as long as possible.

According to the map, they had entered the maneuver area almost immediately after exiting the autobahn. These specially marked maps were routinely disseminated by the Russian command to the three military missions whenever a pre-arranged event such as this spring maneuver or other Warsaw Pact maneuvers would take place. Proceeding into areas marked off-limits had a number of severe consequences. If caught and detained, a severe warning would be directed by the Russians to the appropriate command with the possibility of loss of accreditation for the guilty parties involved. Or worse, troops, at their own discretion would sometimes fire on the intruders in these off-limit areas.

 Speed at this stage was no longer of major importance. Getting to the destination and obtaining the desired information was now paramount. Prudence over haste now prevailed. Their speed cut down to less than 30 mph and driving only with their parking lights to blend in with the poor lighting of the Soviet military vehicles, the Rambler slowly worked its way to Gardelegen among the ever increasing convoys of military hardware. It was only a matter of time now before they would be challenged.

Shortly before reaching the town of Gardelegen, the major directed Wolfgang onto a dirt road which circumvented the town and would get them back onto the road to Stendal. Both knew from experience that the East German VOPOS who were watching traffic coming in and out of Gardelegen were much more alert then the slower Russian soldiers. The likelihood of getting through Gardelegen, even as part of one of the Russian convoys, was very slim indeed.

With lights now totally extinguished, Wolfgang guided the Rambler along the country road along the outskirts of town. A continuous flow of military traffic appeared to be going through the town and down the road that they were now trying to reach. The long line of lights and the dull sound of diesel engines continued uninterrupted and added an eerie backdrop to their  mission.

Without warning and totally unexpected a Russian soldier appeared on the roadway some fifty or hundred feet ahead waving a flashlight with the motion to stop. With headlights and taillights totally extinguished, the Russian soldier who had obviously been tasked with guarding the country road, had no way of knowing the identity of the intruder. Since there was nothing to be gained by stopping, Wolfgang was not surprised when the major said “keep on going”. The guard was now some thirty feet ahead of the oncoming vehicle and planted directly in the middle of the road with a flashlight waving at a frantic pace. His eyes had become attuned to the darkness and he most certainly was able to detect the outline of the oncoming vehicle. Only when Wolfgang turned on his headlights and momentarily illuminated the country side did the guard jump aside and out of the way of the slow moving Rambler. During the few seconds of illumination from the taillights, Wolfgang saw enough in the rear view mirror to make a cold shiver go down his spine. The guard without hesitation had whipped his rifle to his shoulder and took aim at the vehicle. In unison, with his warning to the major to duck, both crouched as far down into their seats as they could get and waited, as if for an eternity, for something to happen while having that slight tingly sensation down his back,  a feeling he knew so well from a time before. He thought he had heard a couple of pops, but it was probably or maybe  only some loose gravel hitting the underside of the car as it was accelerating to get away from the real or imagined danger.

As quickly as he had tried to accelerate he now tried to get the car slowed down for fear of veering off into the fields.  Before braking, Wolfgang had turned off his brake light switch to avoid giving the guard another possible target. His decision to apply his brakes was a wise one and was not a second too early. As it was he had to swerve sharply to avoid hitting the back end of a T-55 Russian tank which was bringing up the rear of a column of a dozen other tanks in front  of him. The tank column was parked in the middle of the dirt road, with numerous Russian soldiers standing alongside their tanks. This now explained the lone guard on a “deserted” dirt road.

 While Wolfgang maneuvered his way through the field, Major Thompson threw out a series of salutes as they slowly inched their way past the column of tanks. Some Russians saluted in return and did not get otherwise aroused by their presence. The boxy looking Rambler was somewhat similar in appearance to the large Russian Zim or even the smaller Chaika which were driven only by the highest Russian military generals and ranking dignitaries and appeared to be sufficient of a disguise to keep anyone in the column from challenging them.

Having broken through their outer security perimeter, they were now in the midst of the main  maneuver area and would be safer from detection until daylight at which time their car if seen by any of the troops would immediately be recognized as the foreign intruder that they were. . At this point they no longer had to concern themselves with the more efficient and aggressive VOPOS who no longer maintained a military security role in the maneuver area. They still had nearly six hours of darkness and were probably less than 15 miles from the crash site. But, they knew that the most difficult part still lay ahead.

While Wolfgang inched his way along a series of dirt roads, forest trails and an occasional field circumventing one convoy after another, the Major had his penlight glued to his large scale map plotting their progress toward the given coordinates of the crash site.

Whether it was the partial moonlight or the first glimpse of dawn, Wolfgang noticed some strange sparkles coming off the branches of the overhanging trees. Initially he was concerned that the strain on his eyes and the onset of weariness after more than eight hours on road  was making him hallucinate. This had never happened before and he kept rubbing his eyes to alleviate the strain. He finally told the major, he’d have to stop and stretch for a few minutes. It wasn’t until he got out of the car and looked up at the trees that he felt relieved as to the question of his sanity. Hanging off  the trees were thousands of little strands of tinsel, making the trees appear  as if someone had decorated them for Christmas. Upon closer examination of the small aluminum strips it dawned on him what they were all about. The RB-66 had attempted to jam the Russian or East German radar just prior to being shot down. Wolfgang had remembered reading or hearing about planes dropping tinsel during World War II to confuse enemy radar. It was somewhat unbelievable that with all the advanced technology of the 60s that this simplified technique was still being used.

There was little doubt as to what it was, where it had come from and its actual intended purpose. This bit of hard evidence would also make it very difficult to refute that the plane had been on  anything but a spy mission. This information would of course never be made public. Our version had undoubtedly already been prepared. “U.S. military aircraft mistakenly veers off course and is shot down by Russian and East German aggressors.”

 According to the major’s calculation of the coordinates and the tell tale signs hanging off the trees they were now in the immediate crash site area. The forest in which they found themselves  could work for or against them. It could provide them with the cover they were looking for, but could also make them run smack dab into the Russian guards they were trying to avoid. With their heads hanging out the window and moving at a snail’s pace,  they were now searching for any sign that would tell them they had reached their destination. They didn’t really know what they would find or what exactly they would do once they reached their objective. Their mission was to determine the fate of the crew, establish their condition and whereabouts,  and their instincts would take over from there. The information they gathered could later be used for the negotiations of the release of the downed pilots.

The crash had occurred nearly twelve hours earlier and if the crew had survived it was highly unlikely that they would still be in the immediate area. Chances were they had already been picked up and carted off to a nearby Russian military base or hospital or they were hiding somewhere in the forest nearby. In either case the crash site still had to remain their primary objective to obtain the needed information.

The dim glow of  bonfires and smoldering wreckage seemed to blend in with the glow of the early morning dawn. Even if they were mistaken by the reddish light, there was no mistaking the smell of smoke. The combination of the eerie morning light reflecting off the tinsel hanging from the trees made them feel like Alice in Wonderland. Their path was being illuminated in full splendor directly to the sight of the wreck.

The stern Russian command of “Stoi” brought them from their imagined wonderland back to the world of reality. They suddenly found themselves surrounded by six Russian guards with weapons at their ready.

The idea of making a run for it never crossed their mind. This is what they had come for and had actually expected. They knew it was highly unlikely that they would just be able to drive up to the wreckage and look around for survivors without being detected. Actually, they had already accomplished part of their mission. The pieces of smoldering wreckage strewn about with their distinctive American markings left little doubt that these were the remains of the downed RB-66.

Having confirmed the crash, they now needed to determine the fate of the three crew members. Were they dead? Were they captured? Or, were they still on the run and hiding out some place? In the event of the latter, it now became their responsibility to locate them and take them to safety. Their mission was still far from over.

The major immediately switched into his broken Russian and demanded to know the fate and the whereabouts of the American crewmen. The Russian soldiers seemed to be amused at the major’s poor timing. They knew they were in charge and did not show the slightest hint of complying with the major’s demands. Instead they took the initiative and ordered Wolfgang and the major out of their car. The major immediately refused, advising them that the confines of their vehicle was the equivalent to American territory and therefore provided its occupants with diplomatic immunity.

 While the Russians pondered this bit of  information,  the major went back on the offensive and asked to speak to the senior officer of their unit. Following a lengthy wait, a Russian major finally appeared who respectfully asked both Americans to step out of the car. Again the major refused and provided his reasons for refusal. This time the Russian responded by barking out some short and precise order to his troops. Within moments a tracked personnel carrier backed itself against the front of the Rambler while another one sandwiched the Rambler in from the rear. The Russian provided them with the option of either being towed away from the scene or to follow peacefully between the two personnel carriers.

For lack of any other choice, they followed the Russians out of the woods directly to the Russian caserne in Gardelegen. During previous detentions they were usually escorted into the caserne, this time they were instructed to park their car on a public road just outside of the Russian compound in front of curious onlookers. While Wolfgang remained in the car, the major was invited into the Kommandatura to get his official scolding and lecture from the Russian commander-in-charge for having entered into a restricted area and having violated all the rules and conventions of the Potsdam Agreement.

Wolfgang had never been privy to one of the scolding sessions. His job was to protect that little part of the United States that his car symbolized. He did his best to appear nonchalant  and even kidded around with two kids on their way to school. Their interest had been aroused by the appearance of the unusual car and Wolfgang’s uniform which did not look like the Russian and East German uniforms they were used to seeing. The fact that he addressed them in German prompted them to come closer and shyly ask “sind Sie Freunde von den anderen Amerikaner?” Wolfgang was a little puzzled by their question and asked “welche anderen Amerikaner?” The smallest of the two responded “ die im Krankenhaus”. “ My mother said three Americans were brought to the hospital in the middle of the night.” Woher weiss Deine Mutter das?” Wolfgang asked. “She is a nurse and helped to bandage them up. She said their plane crashed not far from here.”   Wolfgang was dumbfounded by this startling bit of news. This is what he and the major had come here to determine and it was too good to be true to get the most important intelligence of their mission from a little boy. It was this bit of information that the Russians would want to keep the Americans from knowing for as long as possible for their own strategic purpose. This was part of the Cold War game that was being played by both sides. Trying to keep the other side off balance and to keep each other guessing.

Wolfgang had to find out more while he had the chance. “What hospital does your mother work in? Did she say how badly injured they were?” he asked. The boy answered with full youthful innocence that one had been injured pretty badly but the other two only had bruises and scratches. They were at his mother’s hospital in Gardelegen but had already been moved someplace else. “Wir müssen in die Schule - Auf Wiedersehen!” and off they were before he could get any more information from them.

It was nearly two hours later when the major reappeared from inside the Russian caserne, escorted by two youthful guards. Not looking in the least bit happy, the major said “We’re free to go. Let’s get out of here. We’ve wasted the entire night and half the morning and still don’t know anything. The Russians refused to say anything about the crew.” Wolfgang could hardly contain himself. “You won’t believe this, but I think I have what we were looking for.” Wolfgang went on to tell him about his encounter and conversation with the school boys. “There’s no way they could have fabricated that story.” The major agreed and smiled for the first time.  “Let’s get back home, there’s nothing left for us to do. Before we get to the checkpoint in Berlin, let’s stop someplace in the woods and try to plug up that bullet hole in the back. It’ll avoid another detention and a lot of unnecessary questions.” Wolfgang had forgotten all about that and shuddered at the thought of having been shot at.

Two hours later they crossed the Glienecke Bridge check-point between Potsdam and West Berlin. The Russian guard shook his head at the sight of the muddy car. It was caked on especially thick just above the rear bumper. A careful look at their documents, a smart salute and a friendly “dosvidaniya” and they were on their way to the other side of the bridge where the West German police guards automatically opened the ‘Schlagbaum’. The car with its olive green paint, splattered with mud, was a familiar sight to them. No other traffic ever came across that bridge and only occasionally did the bridge serve as a strategic central location for an East-West spy exchange. The last one had occurred in February two years earlier when the Soviet spy Col. Rudolf Abel was exchanged for U-2 pilot Gary Powers. A few curious onlookers waved as they passed through.

Within half an hour they had sped past the Wannsee, up and past the Teufelsberg, the huge hill consisting of war rubble, up Potsdammer Strasse, through Zehlendorf, past the Berlin Brigade and finally into their secluded haven in Dahlem. Within minutes Major Thompson had arranged to have his message cabled to Headquarters in Heidelberg. This message would provide the substance  that the U.S. Headquarters was waiting for and would provide the added ammunition needed for the message that had been sent the evening before by Gen. Paul L. Freeman Jr. USAREUR commander in chief, to Gen. I.I.Yakubovski, commander-in-chief, Group of Soviet Forces Germany. The message read:

 “At approximately 2:01 pm local time on 10 March, an American RB66 unarmed military reconnaissance aircraft departed Toul-Rosieres France, on a local training mission with three crewmen aboard, Captain D.I. Holland, Captain M.J. Kessler, and First Lieutenant H.W. Welch.

“Flight of the plane was monitored by U.S. radar, and it was observed that the plane crossed inadvertently into East Germany at 2:45 p.m. efforts were immediately made to inform the crew of its error and to guide the plane back across the demarcation line. Instructions to the plane to return back were apparently not received due to communications failure. Radar track showed that two interceptor planes pursued the plane which subsequently crashed in the vicinity of Gardelegen.

“My government has already been in touch with a representative of the Soviet government in Washington and has urgently requested that the Soviet government instruct its authorities in East Germany to afford their full cooperation in enabling the USMLM to effect the return of the crew and the wreckage of the plane. As you no doubt are aware, the U.S. Military Liaison Mission to your headquarters has been in touch with the Soviet External Relations Branch (SERB) on the matter and has sent three search parties to the area where the plane is reported to have crashed. I am awaiting full information from the liaison mission at the present.

 “In view of the seriousness of this incident and the representations made by my government in Washington, I assume that you are initiating an immediate investigation. I would ask that you see to it that the three members of the crew are returned as soon as possible to American authorities. If one or more of them injured and not able to travel, I should expect to be informed so that arrangements can be made for representatives of the U.S. Military Liaison Mission to visit and assist them.”

It was nearly a week later when the Russians finally agreed to release the three pilots to the USMLM  personnel,  who transported them via car and ambulance from Magdeburg  through the East - West German check-point at Helmstedt to Hannover, West Germany.  From there they were brought to the safety of the American Military Hospital in Wiesbaden.

ADDENDUM: Later in 1965 Capt. Ted Heine and two other USMLM personnel were dining at the Magdeburg Interhotel, when a Soviet major approached and asked if he might ask a question. He was a medical officer who had treated the three downed U.S. airmen and wanted to know of their welfare. Capt. Heine assured him they were healthy.  Whereupon, the Russian major asked Capt. Heine to please send his best wishes to the three, which he did.

Copyright @Wolfgang Preisler 2002. All rights reserved.

Send comments to the author, Wolfgang Preisler, or the webmaster by writing to