Robert P. Olson Original Member of Detachment “A”
Written by: Bob Charest as told by Bob Olson
Robert P. Olson served in Detachment “A” Berlin from April 1958 to September 1959. Bob Olson is one of the “Original” members. This is a narrative and some of Bob’s recollections of his time serving in Detachment “A”.
After attending Brown for two years, Bob decided to join Special Forces. He spent a year and a half in basic and Special Forces training where he acquired a myriad of skills including demolitions and parachuting. From there he went to Bad Töltz Germany. Bob had spent approximately three days at Bad Töltz and was sent off to Berlin – to this day Bob says, “I don’t know why.”
Bob arrived at Detachment “A” (DET-A) in the spring of 1958. It was not DET-A then, it was The Security Platoon, DET-A became their name later that year.
Things were vastly different back then. Dwight D. Eisenhower was President, and Nikita S. Khrushchev was Premier of the Soviet Union. The Third World War and the threat of nuclear war was something everyone talked about and took very seriously.
School kids were trained to hide under their desks or “duck and cover“ which was a Federal Civil Defense Initiative instructing children how to react during a nuclear attack.
Berlin was broken into four quarters, the US, the French, the English and East Berlin. Khrushchev had announced that since the allies were way behind the Iron Curtain, that they should get out promptly or be thrown out.At that time, the odds were heavily stacked against the US. The US had about 30 tanks in Berlin and the Russians had about 3,000.
With Berlin city divided into four sections – American, British, French, and Soviet, the Brits had sent a Commando Unit, the French Foreign Legion Paratroopers and then there was the US equivalent – DETA comprised of approximately 53 or 54 Special Forces Green Berets. There were approximately four “A” teams (later two more teams were added). All were paratroopers. Each team was assigned to a sector. Bob was assigned to the French sector.
Detachment “A” was set up specifically to delay a Russian attack across Western Europe that may have sparked the Third World War.
The unit was established contrary to the Potsdam Agreement which divided Berlin after WWII as were the other units.
In the event of World War III, and with overwhelming numbers of Soviet forces expected to surge into Western Berlin, DET-A’s main mission was to conduct sabotage operations against strategic infrastructure such as railroad lines, and other vital targets, by blending into the city, creating havoc behind enemy lines, assisting and/or leading guerilla fighters behind enemy lines, and at all costs buy the allies as much time as possible to allow them to raise a counter-offensive.
For example, blowing up the railroad lines surrounding Berlin so the Russians would have difficulty moving troops and equipment toward Western Europe. Russian troops would have to be supplied through the rail network that ran through Berlin. DET-A would have to blow up that entire network and then run for a submarine that they were assured was waiting for them. The submarine was six to seven hundred miles away in the Baltic Sea. There were no formalized escape plans, you were basically on your own to make it to the pickup point.
There was little chance that anyone associated with DET-A would have survived such an attack, for most, it would become a ‘suicide mission’. The secondary mission was to train other troops, i.e., Brits etc. in Escape & Evade – if a war began. Its everyday mission included: training allied troops, reconnaissance, and where possible, driving the Russians to distraction.
The demographics of this group were unique. Of the fifty plus of DET-A probably half were foreign born. Many of them were recruited under the Lodge Act of 1950.
The group consisted of American WWII veterans who had had stormed Normandy Beaches and fought across Europe, many who fought in Korea, ex Nazi soldiers (who fought against them) ex-French Foreign Legion paratroopers who had survived Diene Bien Fieu by lying underwater in a swamp breathing through reeds, at least one Gypsy and at least one middle class kid from Westchester.
Until they were needed to activate and carry out their main mission, they trained and did other various activities. For example, they would build “topos” – Topographical maps – of these areas on ping pong tables and visit them occasionally. They would attend classes including German language, Morse Code, and demolitions.
Training was varied, everybody taught something. For Bob it was math – mathematical formulas to be applied to demolitions applications. Bob recalls SF history of which he remembers only that the concept for an SF team was born in the Balkans during WW2, when a guerilla leader named “King Kong” needed weapons, radios and people who could operate them, doctors to help with basic things (like birthing babies) and demolitionist or like Bob who in addition to teaching math taught about how to blow bridges although they wouldn’t let him try.
They jumped into Bad Tölz about every three months and spent anywhere from one to four weeks training.
Their winter exercise was rigorous and involved ‘extreme’ skiing in the Alps and other ongoing Special Forces-related training.
One problem in Berlin was that there was no way of knowing who anyone was. There was a bar called The Boyar thought to be Russian on the KuDamn, with fabulous vodka, Champaign, music and caviar. Bob remembers standing at the bar one night talking to an extremely well-dressed man who was obviously Russian (he may have swept out the embassy or been the head of the KGB, for all Bob knew). They drank a lot and swore brotherhood, forever. Then Bob pointed out that tomorrow we might be blowing each other’s heads off. He said,” yes, but that will be tomorrow – have another Vodka.”
Another time Bob was having trouble sleeping on the train, so he stepped out to see the sun rise. There was a guard, he was probably in East German uniform, but Bob remembers him clearly as Russian some 60 years later. He took out a Camel and then in a rare moment of soldierly brotherhood said –“ Papirosa” he said, “maybe a Lucky Strike”. They had used up their mutual language capability, so they smoked in silence. Bob warns “If anyone ever offers you a Papirosa, don’t take it – international peace is not worth it”.
One image that brings back Berlin the most for Bob is the Tower and wire. Back then there was no wall, rather a maze of fences, barbed wire, and towers. Bob spent more nights than he wanted to sleeping under one of those towers – nobody got shot, at least not them.
Many of the women Bob knew or interacted with was in somebody’s pay, most were probably being paid by both sides. Bob noted the promise of sexual paradise with Black Headed Criss on a night she knew they were parachuting into the mountains.
A friend once showed Bob a menu from Christmas dinner for their barracks (which they shared with an administrative group) they ate there. It had the names of all the people who attended. Then, they attended but their names were not on the menu, apparently, they did not exist.
Bob recalls having Crepe Suzettes for breakfast and introduced a friend of his to snails; The best food in town was at the French Foreign Legion Officers Club. Someone asked Bob if he had ever jumped out of an airplane. He told them about 30 or 40 times – they were very impressed because they only counted combat jumps.
Some of Bob’s fellow team members were involved with a highly sensitive operation which involved ‘The Wolf’ the head of the East German Intelligence. Though it did not come to fruition, it was a very intense time and one example of the dangers of their mission, and what they were up against.
Bob recalls some of his Detachment “A” members that he served with in those early years. The dates in parenthesis represent the time served in DET-A.
Leonard R. “Pappy” Barnett – (1958-1960).”with an 8th grade education taught me everything worth knowing about life.”
Harry E. Brown (1956-1961) – Bob spoke with Harry many years later when he was a lawyer in California. ” A really good guy”. Bob recalls attending Harry’s Morse Code class during his time in DET-A which proved to be a challenge, and “Harry was insistent that I learn.” Harry was also a ski instructor, and combat helicopter pilot.
Kenney Crabtree (1958-1960). Ken left a little ahead of Bob to get a job on some railroad – Bob predicted he would last 3 months (he lasted 2). He was an E5 at the time, made Lieutenant Colonel and was killed on 15 April 1984 along with an American embassy official, by a terrorist bomb in Southwest Africa.
Dunlap, Henry – “Big Dunlap, who was I remember was formerly a Florida state policeman.”
Laurice Dunlap (1956-1960, 1962-1965) –“ Lil Dunlap, as opposed to big Dunlap, whom I last saw at the 1999 conference. I remember little Dan lab explaining to me that it is possible to sharpen a knife on a piece of cardboard.”
Gerhard E. Frick (1958-1960) – “Only outspoken Nazi among us”.
Roland Goodman (1958-1960) – It is believed he went on to the CIA.
Roland R. Graves (1958)
Michael E. Ladue – Served in Detachment “A” during the time of the Cold War. Later, Mike was deployed with Air America Airlines in Southeast Asia, the U.S. Department of State and the Central Intelligence Agency, all in this same area.
Maj Roman Piernick was their commander – (1958-1961). Bob only remembers that he announced in front of the German cooks that they would have new native clothes, and then raised hell when it was discovered that the Russians found out about it. “Enough said.” He also decided Bob was promising so he promoted him to Sergeant. Somone discovered that his MOS of 51613 meant that he had to be a Specialist, she he wore Sergeant stripes for a couple of months.
Max Randleman – Team Sergeant (1956-1959) – Bob states that “Max Randleman was probably the best soldier I ever met, and I had a lot to choose from. Kind, intelligent and brave. Max won the soldiers medal while we were in Berlin for pulling somebody out of a burning building. He was from WWII, a MSG and the leader of Team 1 – Bob having served on Team 4. Max was highly decorated and added the soldier’s medal to his collection while Bob was there. Mike Ladue just missed one.”
Thaddeus R. Pluta (1958-1960) – “On one jump Pigpen Pluto’s chute roman candled and Mike caught him – they talked briefly, Pigpen opened his reserve and Mike let him go, thereby missing a Soldiers Medal. Pigpen was our radio operator. Pigpen was undamaged.”
Daniel E. Sandy (1959) Team Sergeant.
Wilbur R. Stanbridge Team Leader (1958-1960) – “was our team leader he was a fine man.”
Robert R. Smith (1958-1960) “Railroad Smith”.
Johnnie L. Smith (1958-1960)
Donald E Thompson (1958-1960 ) “Lonesome Tom”.
“The men who served in Detachment “A” got no special recognition or compensation. Someone (who was a Classist said that we were the Spartans at the Bridge, all we could do was hold things up a little) but the Athenians stayed home with their wives.”
Bob and the other ‘Original’ members of Detachment “A” capture the very essence of the Special Forces legacy and character; those members who knew absolutely what could happen and served despite the most certain deadly consequences should they be activated.
Bob served as a ‘quiet professional’ and for over 60 years was unable to speak about his service in Detachment ‘A”. He is one of the ‘Originals’ and , one of the select few who served in this highly historical unit – Detachment “A”.