A Cold Night in Erfurt

Soviet Shootdown of a USAF T-39


Wolfgang Preisler

Note: This true life account "A Cold Night in Erfurt" 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 account is an excerpt from the author's manuscript entitled "From Cold War to Drug War". This account is also a prelude to an earlier article written by Lt Col Ted Heine, USAF-Ret, entitled "A Ring is Found". Lt Col Heine has given permission to have his article "A Ring is Found" to be used as part of this account. Any discrepancies found in the two articles are unintentional and are the result of differing recollections related to the incident. 
It was one of those damp cold winter nights in January 1964, that Wolfgang received a call in Potsdam with the word to pack supplies for a two day trip and to be ready to head out within an hour. The urgency of the call that late in the evening, without any fore-warning to make hotel reservations in one of their usual overnight spots, immediately alerted him that something special had happened and this was not going to be a routine overnighter to scout out some airfield or to observe some type of maneuver. The appearance of Col. Schneider, the hotshot and by far the most initiative oriented of all the Mission's officers, was an additional indicator that something out of the ordinary had developed. Very rarely had Wolfgang participated in Army missions with an Army officer. Wolfgang, being Air Force, would generally go on Air Force forays. Each branch had developed their own area of expertise and the driving, as well as the identifying techniques, were entirely different. Wolfgang had never really perfected his skills in driving in tank tracks and through army maneuver areas. Nor was he familiar with identifying tank models and other army vehicles, equipment and insignias. Instead, Wolfgang had become an expert at driving forest trails, trails leading to edges of Soviet airfields, radar sites and missile sites. It was therefore a special challenge to be able to go out with an Army officer such as Col. Schneider.

Schneider's arrival at the mission house was announced with the squealing of tires around the circular driveway of the Potsdam Mission house. He dispensed with the usual pleasantries, refused the usual cup of coffee, merely tossed Wolfgang the car keys and announced "lets get on the road". Wolfgang reacted to the urgency and tossed the prepared lunches, thermoses of coffee and a few extra blankets into the trunk of the new fully equipped Ford sedan. Within minutes they squealed out of the driveway, past the startled VOPO appearing out of the guard shack, onto the main road. Even if the VOPOS had intended to tail them, they would not have had enough time to get their tail cars at the ready. Their only chance of tracking the vehicle was to alert the nearby towns to be on the lookout for the American vehicle which appeared to be on an ultra urgent mission.

It wasn't until Wolfgang was well out of the Potsdam city limits, taking the winding two lane highway in the direction of the Leipzig autobahn, that the Colonel informed Wolfgang about the fact that two hours earlier word had been received at the US Headquarters in Heidelberg, that a T-39 training plane, on a routine training flight, had apparently strayed out of the corridor and had been shot down by Russian interceptor planes somewhere in the vicinity of Erfurt, well inside East German and Russian territory. Armed with the approximate coordinates of the crash, the mission was to locate and determine the fate of the three pilots.

Whether it was the excitement of the news and the urgency to get to the crash site, or the thin layer of snow that was starting to accumulate on the practically deserted two lane curving and twisting road, all of a sudden Wolfgang felt that he was losing control, as the car started to go into a slow skid in a sharp curve of the tree lined road. Whether it was instinct, or by his now acquired expertise, but instead of hitting the brakes, Wolfgang spun the steering wheel away from the curve and gunned the engine. This instinctive maneuver probably saved them a trip to the hospital. The car, without leaving the center of the road, made two 360 degree turns and without coming to a complete stop continued on in the right direction. Both sighed a sound of relief, did not dwell any further on the incident, and instead concentrated on the business on hand. Whereas Wolfgang thanked his lucky stars for having gotten out of the close call, the Colonel appeared to be awed by his mastery of the vehicle. In retrospect, Wolfgang now was glad that he had spent hours on end in his spare time, when he was alone at the Mission house, spinning the car in circles on the sometimes icy or snow covered circular driveway, which had usually driven the VOPO guards crazy. The rest of the nearly two hour ride to the crash site area near Erfurt were at speeds of 100 miles an hour, on a practically deserted autobahn.

It was at the Erfurter Kreuz, where the two autobahns crossed, that they encountered the first police checkpoint. As Wolfgang slowed the car he looked at the Colonel for instructions. The Colonel merely nodded in a forward gesture. The decision having been made for him, Wolfgang slowed the car quickly down to 70 and with the VOPOS now in clear sight, waving their red flags, Wolfgang turned off the headlights and flipped off the tail light switch, pulled the stick shift down into third and stuck the gas peddle to the floor. The car lurched momentarily and within seconds regained its initial speed as it flew past the startled VOPOS. Although the tail lights were off, and their aim would have to have been extremely accurate, Wolfgang could not help but feel a very distinctive tingly feeling in the back of his spine, with the expectation that something would be piercing his back any second. Wolfgang could not help but think of the incident a couple years earlier, where in a very similar situation, a British mission car had attempted to run a VOPO roadblock and the VOPOs strafed the car as it went by. The British driver had survived but was pulled out of the car paralyzed with nine bullet holes in him.

As soon as they were out of range, the Colonel had his head in the map and started spewing out instructions. A few minutes later they were off the autobahn and on a narrow secondary road heading in the direction of the coordinates and the suspected crash site some thirty miles away.

It was nearly midnight and the secondary roads and village streets were all but deserted, except for an occasional straggler trying to make his way home on a bicycle or moped from a late hour meeting or an evening at a local gasthaus. They had now reduced their speed down to a crawl to avoid drawing any undue attention while steadily proceeding to the given coordinates.

Finally, they saw what they had been anticipating all along. A bustle of activity at the edge of the next village, with headlights pointing in various directions, a sure sign of a VOPO or Russian military roadblock. Wolfgang again turned off the headlights while slowing the car down to a crawl. The Colonel pulled out the special light sensitive binoculars and verified the activity at the edge of town as a VOPO roadblock. As if in anticipation, Wolfgang stopped the car, turning off the brake light and back-up light switches, before slowly backing the car down the isolated back road. They knew that it would be just a matter of seconds before the VOPOS would react to the no longer approaching vehicle whose lights had suddenly disappeared. They also knew that it was just a matter of time before VOPOS from the Erfurter Kreuz would be catching up with them from the rear. Their mission was to locate the crash site and the only objective was to press ahead.

The Colonel's military training in Russian military warfare, told him that the Russians would set up an outer and an inner security perimeter around the crash site. The roadblock was obviously part of the outer perimeter. Their only alternative was to circumvent the town and the other security checkpoints by taking to the fields. Wolfgang had been well trained for this type of maneuver and was looking forward to the cat and mouse game that lay ahead. The partially frozen fields proved to be a blessing. The frost prevented the vehicle from getting stuck in the ploughed furrows, but the roughness of the fields also assured them that they would not be followed and would be able to proceed steadily onward as long as they avoided the secondary roads and villages.

According to the Colonel's map and his given coordinates, they were getting within a ten mile radius of the crash site and were now slowly approaching the inner security perimeter which would surely be guarded by Russian troops instead of the East German police. As they continued to inch their way forward on the fields, they started to observe an increase of vehicle activity on the secondary roads. Most of the vehicles now consisted of Russian personnel carriers, jeeps and the usual 10 ton trucks loaded with additional troops under the canopy. Trying to avoid the added activity was becoming increasingly difficult. Finally, as they came over the next rise, they could see the smoldering ambers of the wreck on the side of a hill some two to three miles ahead. The lights and scurry of activity and the Colonel's coordinates left little doubt that they were very close, but still so far away.

What they saw through their binoculars some two miles away was merely a confirmation what their Headquarters in Heidelberg already knew. It was only now that their real mission was starting to begin, to accomplish what they had been sent out to do, to determine the fate of the American pilots.

Before proceeding further, not knowing if they would in fact reach the actual crash site, they opted to first take whatever photographic intelligence they could get, which would be better than possibly having nothing at all in the end. They had learned through experience that the photo interpreters could do wonders with very basic raw information. The full moon would assist with whatever light there was from the glow of the wreckage and the appropriate time exposure would do the rest. They decided that it would take at least one to two hours before the moon would be high enough to light up the side of the hill which was angling away from the rising moon. They also decided that the wait might be well worth their while to obtain their possible evidence which they had set out to collect. While waiting for the moon to rise they inched their way forward for another half a mile to within a mile to a mile and a half of the crash site. The 1000 mm lens would take care of the rest.

For the next hour they intermittently peered through their binoculars at the crash site with a constant eye behind and to the sides of them, in order not to be surprised by a roving patrol. Their vehicle was fully exposed in the middle of the field, but the wide openness also provided them with the security of knowing when someone was approaching. The wait seemed like an eternity, it seemed the moon would never rise high enough to light up the crash site. Although it was already nearing 2:00 am, neither one was tired, nor did they dare close their eyes and let down their guard. While Wolfgang was fiddling with the camera and the huge lens trying to figure out his time exposures, the Colonel was busy scouring the country side and studying the map with his penlight.

Finally the moon had found its desired position, shedding its full glow over the lightly snow dusted hillside. Within minutes Wolfgang had taken an entire roll of thirty-six exposures at various speeds and various "f" stops to assure that at least some of the exposures would be perfect. By this time he was experienced and proficient enough to know that he had gotten some super shots of the wreckage and he let the Colonel know that short of getting right up to the wreckage for close up pictures of nuts and bolts, there was nothing else to be accomplished here.

During the wait the Colonel had sufficient time to plan his next move and it was immediately obvious that he had done exactly that. Without hesitation he said "0.K. let's go for it. Let's bluff our way in by going straight for the jugular and lets pretend it's our own back yard. Lets head back to the main road and drive straight to the crash site." Wolfgang did as instructed and admired the Colonel for his display of bravado. As soon as they got to the main road, Wolfgang turned on his headlights and proceeded directly for the village where he knew the Russian roadblock was awaiting them. As they approached the roadblock, Wolfgang did as instructed and turned on his high beams and slowed the car to five miles per hour. Without coming to a stop, the Colonel leaned across Wolfgang and shouted something at the Russian soldiers through the open window. The Russians merely saluted and waived them through. The only word that Wolfgang had understood was "Yakubovski." General I. I. Yakubovski was the Russian commander-in-chief, Group of Soviet Forces in East Germany. It was quite obvious that the Colonel had been successful in conveying to the troops manning the roadblock that the fancy sedan was transporting their supreme commander to the crash site and not one of them had dared to challenge their boss.

As they drove on, they now became part of the Russian military traffic that was bustling around the bottom of the hill of the crash site. Russian soldiers stopped to salute the approaching vehicle. Although they might have been suspicious of the unusual intruder, no one dared to challenge them. All their actions were carried out with a matter of fact decisiveness, which gave the impression they had the right to be there and were in fact the most important visitors at the site.

Without hesitation they proceeded as far as the car would take them before proceeding on foot up the side of the hill, some two hundred yards below the still glowing wreckage. While trying to maintain their footing on the frozen ground, in the midst of the Russian soldiers who were coming and going up and down the hill, they heard the clear distinctive order "Stoi!" It was a Russian major who had been alert and gutsy enough to challenge the intruders. His command was decisive and left little doubt that he was in command and would not be fooled nor intimidated by the unwelcome intruders. The Colonel pretended not to hear the command and continued to climb straight ahead. Wolfgang, beginning to feel very uncomfortable had no other choice but to follow.

It appeared like a good old fashioned American football tackle, whether intended as such or not, which brought the Colonel and the Russian Major sliding down the slick hill in a full embrace. A little scuffle at the bottom immediately came to an abrupt halt when a number of weapons were pointed at the over zealous Colonel. Wolfgang on the other hand did not have to be told twice. He raised his hands over his head and slid down the hill where the rifle toting soldiers were waiting.

They were led to the back end of a canopied truck and were invited to sit down in front of a warm pot bellied wooden stove. The hot black tea and the chunks of dark bread with a hearty bowl of borscht made them feel more like welcomed guests than the unwelcome intruders that they were. It appeared that the Russian troops were sympathizing with them for not having been allowed to complete their mission. It seemed like the Russians were trying to tell them that they were better off not having seen what they had been trying to reach on top of the hill. Their warmth and hospitality seemed somewhat overwhelming, even though none of the soldiers were prepared to answer any of the Colonel's questions which he was posing in his near flawless Russian.

It wasn't until some two hours later that the Russian Major who appeared to be in charge, told the Colonel that they were free to leave. The Colonel politely thanked the Russian for the outstanding hospitality, but indicated he had no intention of leaving until he knew the fate of the three American pilots. With a deep tired sigh, the Major stated that the three pilots had been burned beyond recognition in the fiery crash. That if the Colonel promised not to create any further problems, arrangements would be made through the Russian command and the American Headquarters to pick up the remains within the next three days.

The Russian Major told them what they had begun to suspect all along. Unless the pilots had the chance to parachute, the possibility of surviving the fiery crash was very unlikely. There was nothing to be gained by making any further stand on the issue. Wolfgang and the Colonel got into their car and slowly made their way home as the first rays of the sun appeared across the horizon. They had been successful in verifying the actual crash of the T-39 and they had their photos, which, within the next twelve to twenty four hours would be analyzed and viewed by the top brass at the Pentagon and would in most likelihood be laid on the desk of the new President Johnson, who would invariably utter the most unkind remarks about those damn Russians who were sinking us deeper and deeper into the cold war.

Having seen real faces behind the mythical bad Russians gave Wolfgang a new perspective toward the so called enemy. There were policies, ideologies, and then there were the people. Setting aside their feelings on the issues that they did not create, they cared or were as sympathetic to the so called enemy as they would have been toward one of their own.

The Russian Major had been good to his word, three days later Wolfgang returned to the same icy hill side. This time he was accompanied by a team of pathologists who had the unpleasant task of identifying the charred remains of the three American pilots and to cart the remains back to Berlin. Another crew driving a flatbed truck hauled back the remaining pieces of the T-39 trainer.

It was a couple of months later during one of their routine overnight stays in Erfurt, that Wolfgang, his Air Force Chief, Colonel Swenson, and a newly assigned officer, Captain Heine, were approached by a middle aged non-descript man. The man appeared to be quite frightened addressing the three uniformed Americans in the dimly lit street just around the corner of their hotel, the Erfurterhof. He asked in broken and halted English if they would be kind enough to take back something to the widow of one of the pilots who had recently been killed in the plane crash. Somewhat startled and overly cautious, expecting some type of setup by an overzealous East German secret service agent, the Colonel reluctantly nodded and asked "what is it". The man reached into his pocket and with trembling hands produced a gold wedding band out of a neatly folded handkerchief. The man simply stated, "I found this in the rubble of the crash site and thought the widow of the pilot would appreciate having this returned to her. The name is inside the ring. I'm sorry this had to happen." Without waiting for a response, the man pressed the ring into the Colonel's hand and hurriedly walked away. The man's departure had been so sudden that their thanks and words of appreciation were only empty words in the wind.

Copyright © Wolfgang Preisler 2001. All rights reserved.

In Memoriam

A memorial was erected in Vogelsberg (formerly in East Germany) to the three pilots who died in the T-39 crash. The granite stone at the memorial says:

In Memory.  On January 28, 1964, 3 US-Air Force pilots met their deaths being shot down by Russian fighter pilots
  Col Hannaford
  Capt Lorraine
  Capt Millard
  The people in the village of Vogelsberg were not allowed to talk about this
  incident when East Germany was under communist control.
  But, they never forgot this incident and erected this monument to the memory
  of the pilots.

                          M. Haedt
                          A fellow USAF aviator

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