Weinberger on Nicholson's slaying

'We are convinced the shooting of the major in East Germany was a totally unjustified act'

The USAREUR Honor Guard transfers Nicholson's remains to Rhein-Main AB
The Stars & Stripes
March 27, 1985

LUXEMBOURG (UPI) -- Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger Tuesday condemned the killing of a U.S. officer by a Soviet guard in East Germany Sunday as "totally unjustified" and "very reprehensible."

Weinberger briefed ministers attending a meeting of NATO's Nuclear Planning Group on the circumstances surrounding the shooting death of Army Maj. Arthur D. Nicholson.

"We are convinced the shooting of the major in East Germany was a totally unjustified act," Weinberger told reporters.

"He was entirely in a place where it was agreed observers can go," he said.

Weinberger alleged that Nicholson was shot without warning, then allowed to lie wounded for a considerable time without medical treatment while his driver was forced to remain in his car.

"The Soviet attitude in this case was very reprehensible," he said.

A spokesman for Weinberger said that the secretary told other ministers the shooting reflected "the KAL mentality . . . shoot first, and investigate later," referencing to the downing of a Korean Airlines plane over Soviet territory in September 1983.

The spokesman, Michael Burch, said the shooting was in strong contrast with the treatment of Soviet officials caught off-limits recently in West Germany.

Burch said there was an incident near Hof, in Bavaria, on March 20 in which three members of a Soviet observation group were arrested by men of the U.S. 1st Armd Div. [sic]  The Soviets were turned over to German authorities who escorted them, without the use of force, to their base at Frankfurt, Burch said.

On Jan. 25, Soviet officers were detained after they were found taking pictures during NATO's Reforger 85 exercise.  They also were returned peacefully to their unit in Frankfurt, Burch added.

"Our view is that you take their camera away, and you send them home," Burch said.  "You don't shoot unarmed soldiers."

The Soviets said that Nicholson was shot while he was taking photographs of military equipment.

Nicholson, on what U.S. officials described as a legitimate reconnaissance mission in East Germany, had been observing Soviet tank sheds, the Associated Press reported U.S. sources as saying Tuesday.

The 37-year-old officer from Connecticut was standing outside a Soviet military installation looking at the tank sheds when he was shot and killed, an American diplomatic source said.

"He was near, but not on, restricted ground," said the source, who spoke on condition that he not be identified.  He could not say exactly how close Nicholson had been to the installation.

The Soviets accused Nicholson of taking pictures in a restricted area.  They said that their guard fired when Nicholson tried to flee and that other soldiers captured his driver, Sgt. Jessie G. Schatz, who was at the American's vehicle nearby.  The State Department called the shooting murder.

Spokesmen at the U.S. diplomatic mission in West Berlin refused to confirm that Nicholson, who was assigned to the U.S. Military Liaison Mission in Potsdam, East Germany, had been looking at or taking pictures of Soviet military equipment.  However, a spokesman for the U.S. Information Service in Berlin told The Stars & Stripes he did not know the whereabouts of the camera and film Nicholson had used.  He did say the car had been returned to the military mission.  "I've never heard of any equipment being confiscated (from a mission)," he said.

Sources at the mission said that taking photographs would not have violated U.S.-Soviet agreements governing their military missions in NATO-allied West Germany and communist East Germany.

"I don't know whether he took pictures, but that's part of what they (officers appointed to military missions) do.  That's part of what the Soviets do when they go out on their field trips (in West Germany)," said a source at the West Berlin mission.

"They routinely take pictures of our things, and we routinely take pictures of their things," the official said.  Only in designated restricted areas is picture-taking not allowed, he said.

Allied and Soviet missions periodically exchange maps showing permanent and temporary restricted areas, according to a British mission spokesman.  Copies of the maps are issued to personnel assigned to the military missions, he said.

Nicholson's death occurred near the East German town of Ludwigslust, about 100 miles northwest of Berlin and about 30 miles from the West German border.

The Soviet news agency Tass said the American, whom it identified only as A. Nicholson, was found taking photographs through the window of an unidentified storage facility at a closed Soviet military installation near Ludwigslust.  According to United Press International, the Tass release said Nicholson was discovered breaking into the installation.

A Soviet sentry who found Nicholson demanded in Russian and in German that he stop, Tass claimed.

"When the intruder, not yet identified as an American soldier, did not stop and tried to escape, the sentry fired a warning shot in the air," the Tass story said.

"Because, after that, the intruder did not stop, the sentry was compelled to use his weapon.  The violator was killed by gunfire," Tass said in the report translated by the Associated Press.

The Tass report said the Soviet soldier who shot Nicholson acted properly because Nicholson failed to obey his warnings, including a warning shot.

Tass said the Soviet sentry acted "in strict compliance with military regulations."

"The sentry had to use his weapons," the UPI said Tass reported.  "He fired and killed the intruder."

Tass also said in its report that, in August 1982 near Potsdam, American soldiers conducting "military reconnaissance" deliberately ran down and seriously injured a Soviet officer.

In Washington, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Burt said Nicholson was 300 to 500 yards away from any restricted area and was unarmed.  He also said Nicholson was shot without warning.

The Soviet Embassy in Washington asserted that Nicholson and Schatz were in a restricted zone and entered it "despite the presence of clearly visible warning signs in Russian and German."

The Army said Nicholson spoke fluent Russian.

Each government protested to the other.

Nicholson's body underwent an autopsy in Frankfurt on Tuesday after being flown from Tempelhof Central Airport in Berlin to Rhein-Main AB, Germany, late Monday night, Army spokesmen in Heidelberg said.

They said they did not know when the body would be returned to the United States.

The U.S. Information Service spokesman had no biographical information on Schatz.  He said Schatz was either in West Berlin or Potsdam.  No interviews with Schatz will be permitted, he said, and there are "no plans to make his debriefing public."

[President] Reagan telephoned Nicholson's wife, Karyn, [sic] at Tempelhof Monday night to offer his condolences, according to Ed Harper, a spokesman at the U.S. mission in West Berlin.

He said Mrs. Nicholson was expected to return to the United States with her daughter Friday.

When asked how such incidents could be avoided in the future, Weinberger said, "I do not know how repetitions can be avoided if people are being shot without warning in areas where they are allowed to be."

Diplomats believe the shooting will have little effect on arms negotiations.  They said that previous superpower arms negotiations always proceeded regardless of major incidents.

Past talks went ahead, they recalled, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the shooting down of the South Korean airliner.

Meanwhile, Burch provided a list of what he called the most serious incidents involving the use of force by Soviet soldiers against U.S. Army officers in East Germany.

  • Jan 30, 1980:  A U.S. vehicle was rammed by a Soviet vehicle, causing an American officer to suffer broken ribs.
  • Oct 10, 1980:  A U.S. vehicle was stopped by the Soviets and the occupants pulled out and beaten.
  • May 19, 1982:  A U.S. vehicle was stopped, the occupants pulled out and beaten and had their hands tied.
  • Feb. 28, 1983:  Six "aimed" shots from Soviet soldiers were fired at a U.S. vehicle.  There were no injuries.
  • March 23, 1983:  A U.S. vehicle was rammed by a Soviet truck.
  • March 28, 1983:  Warning shots were fired by a Soviet officer at an American military contingent.
In each of these cases, for which Burch said he could provide no further details, the Americans were not in restricted zones of East Germany, he said.

Burch said the U.S. government had officially protested each of these prior incidents.

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Thanks to B. Knight for this article.

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