Checkpoint becomes page in history
BERLIN — Checkpoint Charlie was a product of the Cold War politics that putt a wall around West Berlin and dropped an iron curtain on Central Europe. That curtain now is in tatters, the wall is crumbling and Checkpoint Charlie is headed for a place in history.
For 29 years, Checkpoint Charlie symbolized the Allies' determination to stand fast in Berlin. The 50-foot-long building hauled away on a truck Friday is the final incarnation of the most famous military police duty station in the world
Checkpoint Charlie was created Aug. 23, 1961, 10 days after construction of the Berlin Wall started. All foreigners were required to enter East Berlin only at Friedrichstrasse or through the Friedrichstrasse subway station. Gradually, more than 80 street crossings were reduced to seven.
To keep track of Americans venturing into the Soviet sector of the city, American military policemen set up a processing center in a trailer parked in the middle of Friedrichstrasse where it crossed Zimmerstrasse. Zimmerstrasse ceased to exist when the Berlin Wall was built down its center.
The American MPs were joined at the checkpoint in 1962 by their British and French counterparts.
There was no man called Charlie. The checkpoint was named sequentially after Checkpoint Alpha at Helmstedt, on the East German-West German border, and Checkpoint Bravo, at the Berlin end of the autobahn corridor across East Germany.
For a while, the MPs worked out of nearby offices and a wooden guard shack, not much bigger than a phone booth, in the middle of the street. Eventually, a temporary building was erected on a traffic island in the middle of Friedrichstrasse, a few feet from the sector border. That structure was replaced in 1971. Finally in 1986, the last building, which resembled a drive-through bank, was installed.
Over the last 29 years, Checkpoint Charlie has been the scene of tense confrontations, tragedy, demonstrations and celebrations.
In October 1961, the world watched while the United States challenged an East German decree that only Americans in military uniforms would be allowed to enter East Berlin without showing identification. The existing policy provided that all members of the four powers, civilian and military, be allowed free travel through all four sectors of the city.
The Vopos, the East German border guards, refused to allow E. Allan Lightner Jr., the assistant chief of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Berlin, to drive with his wife into East Berlin using only U.S. forces license plates as identification. Lightner, a civilian, eventually drove through with an escort of armed American soldiers backed up by tanks and more troops in armored personnel carriers waiting at the checkpoint.
This game of nerves was repeated several times over the next few days, culminating in a 16-hour standoff as 10 Soviet and 10 American tanks along with infantrymen faced off near the checkpoint.
The Soviets blinked first and backed off.
Over the years, many dramas were played out at or near Checkpoint Charlie. Not all had happy endings.
One escape attempt near Checkpoint Charlie in the early days of the wall illustrated the cruel mentality behind the concrete divider. The Vopos shot 18-yearold Peter Fechter as he tried to scale the barrier on Aug. 17, 1962. He fell to the ground on the east side and slowly bled to death before his body was removed.
Other attempts came to quite different conclusions.
In 1964, in separate incidents, an East German border guard and a customs officer nonchalantly walked up to Checkpoint Charlie and freedom. A year later, a young East German used a sightseeing bus as a shield. When the barrier was raised for the bus, he walked alongside the vehicle.
In 1965, two East Germans cruised past border guards without arousing any suspicion. It's no wonder. They were wearing U.S. Army uniforms. Their vehicle also carried stolen U.S. Army automobile license plates. Allied soldiers in uniform were not inspected or processed by the East Germans.
Sometimes, American soldiers witnessed the race to freedom. In 1969, '32 USAREUR soldiers were on an orientation tour near Checkpoint Charlie when shots rang out. They saw a man running frantically. He made it without a scratch.
Since the Berlin Wall was opened on Nov. 9, 1989, the checkpoint has been the scene of tearful reunions of families long separated. Travel restrictions have been eased to the point of mere formalities on both sides.
The East Germans vow a city reunion will follow the currency union in July. Identity checks will become a thing of the past. The wall will be only a memory and all former street crossings will reopen. Checkpoint Charlie, from this point on, is history.
(Contributing to this report: staff writer Randy Pruitt in Darmstadt, West Germany.)