On 50th anniversary, Marine Corps veteran remembers Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia
By KIP HILL | The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash. | Published: August 20, 2018
SPOKANE, Wash. (Tribune News Service) — David A. Smith was finishing up a night watch at the U.S. consulate in Munich as dawn broke on an August day in 1968, when the red phone rang.
Smith, a 23-year-old Marine Corps guard who had been scheduled to ship out of Europe three months earlier, picked up. He knew the call wasn’t coming from a German resident curious about American involvement in Vietnam. That would have been on the white phone. And it wasn’t his superiors at an apartment the guard shared up the street because it wasn’t the black phone.
The voice on the other end belonged to a man Smith knew to be an American spy. In an interview from his home in Post Falls last week, Smith still would only refer to the man as “Dick.”
“I need to inform you that Russia just invaded Czechoslovakia,” Smith recalled the voice saying at the other end of the line, 50 years after the call.
The events that followed marked an end to what had been, for Smith, a sweet gig.
The Iowa native had risen quickly through the ranks and landed a job that allowed him to jetset Europe and sip cocktails with Lyndon Johnson’s daughter. On the previous night, Aug. 20, though, Russian tanks arrived to crush a budding experiment in socialist democracy known as “the Prague Spring.”
To that point in his military career in Germany, Smith had been responsible for ensuring the security of American intelligence at the consulate. Munich was about 30 miles from the Czech border, Smith said, but his focus was on his duties inside the building on Koeniginstrasse (Queen Street), just northeast of the historic city’s downtown.
“I did my job,” Smith said. “If I went in to somebody’s office after we closed the consulate, we did a shakedown. We’d go through wastebaskets and filing cabinets. If I found a security violation, I wrote it up.”
That included envelopes labeled “top secret” or “confidential.” Smith said his job was to protect American lives, property and intelligence. Even if that meant ignoring self-preservation.
One night, Smith said, he was posted at the nearby offices of the Voice of America, a radio station that broadcast U.S. news to the surrounding area. Workers were digging what would eventually become Munich’s subway tunnel system ahead of the 1972 Olympic games.
Smith watched as workers raced from the tunnel beneath his feet. A local official approached him and told him he had to leave. Workers had unearthed a 500-pound bomb that was dropped in World War II, but hadn’t exploded.
Smith stayed put.
“I picked up the phone and called the gunny (gunnery sergeant, in charge of the staff),” he said. “I said, gunny, there’s somebody telling me I got to leave the building. He said, ‘Sgt. Smith, you don’t have to leave the building.’ I stayed there and watched them dig it out.”
On that August morning in 1968, a different problem presented itself.
Smith said he didn’t know it at the time, but the Soviets had been in talks with the Czechs with concerns about the democratic reforms ushered in by the country’s president, Alexander Dubcek. Censorship of the press had been lifted, and the country had been split into two republics, loosening the central authority of the Soviet-backed government.
Dissatisfied with those talks, the Soviets and three other Warsaw Pact countries — Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary — sent more than a quarter-million troops into Czechoslovakia the evening of Aug. 20. They seized Dubcek and other government leaders and took them to Moscow for interrogation, an invasion that was blasted across the front pages of The Spokesman-Review for a week, even at the height of the Vietnam War.
“Russ troops move into Czechoslovakia,” the bold headline read across the top of the paper that morning in Spokane. “Move is climax to Reds’ crises.”
After notifying the appropriate officials of the news from the American spy, Smith went back to his duties. As the sun continued to rise, there was a buzz at the back door of the consulate. Smith answered, a .38-caliber Smith and Wesson — his only weapon — on the side of his hip.
At the back door was a man, holding what Smith remembered to be a terrier. The man spoke a language Smith didn’t understand, but Smith welcomed him in and sat the man down. They communicated in drawn pictures, and Smith realized he was speaking to someone who had walked across the Czechoslovakian border the night before.
“I put him in this closet, this little closet where we used to change our uniforms, with this dog,” Smith said.
After several hours and no one showing up, the man looked hungry. Smith took him to the cafeteria and fed him and the dog, while he waited for a German interpreter to arrive and question the man. During this conversation, the man pulled his pants up to show the young Marine the back of his legs.
“He had scars on them. I thought, why is he showing me this?” Smith said. “He seemed kind of angry about it.”
Smith later learned those scars were from gunshots. The man had been demonstrating against the Soviets and they had fired into a crowd, taking the man’s legs out from under him.
During an interview with the interpreter, it emerged that the man had been told to flee Czechoslovakia the night before by his family, though he hadn’t known why. He learned that morning that his country had been invaded. Smith remembered tears streaming down the man’s face.
He would not be the last to leave. The invasion sparked mass emigration from Czechoslovakia, with an estimated 70,000 citizens fleeing immediately after the Soviet tanks rolled in. During the initial invasion, 137 civilians were killed. But Dubcek later urged citizens not to fight back, leading to displays of unarmed protest that included painting swastikas on Soviet tanks, as seen in a front page photo in The Spokesman-Review a few days later.
Smith gave the man money for a cab to a refugee community in the town. The man didn’t trust the Germans, Smith said, because of memories of occupation during World War II.
The young Marine never saw the man again. Two weeks later, he was back in the United States, studying for a degree in social work at the University of Iowa.
Smith, who moved to Post Falls about four years ago following retirement, said his thoughts always return to that Munich office around this time of year. This year, the memories will be especially vivid, with the 50th anniversary of the invasion and news swirling about Russian involvement in the United States’ own elections.
“Every August, I think of that night. I like history so much,” Smith said. “What we’re going through today, politically. I look for Russia to do something terrible.”
“I don’t blame the Russian people,” he added. “I think it’s the leaders, like in any country.”
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