I was pouring diesel fuel on myself. I splashed it on my hair and face from a plastic canteen and felt it trickle down my neck and shoulders, while I clamped my eyes and mouth shut and breathed out through my nose. The liquid, hot and oily on this warm August night, soaked every pore.
It covered my head and neck and most of my shoulders, and crept down into the top of my T-shirt. I placed the exhausted canteen on the ground and wiped my eyes and mouth with a GI-issue towel. I could see and breathe again, but the part sweet, part acrid reek assaulted me. The oiled, putrid top of my body made me feel like a slug partway submerged in a rot-filled marsh.
I had three more canteens to cover the rest of my uniform and another gallon back in the Opel if I needed.
I set to work on my tunic, sleeves, and hands, going through another canteen-and-a-half of the combustible liquid. I turned my mind, though, to the steps in front of me—the tasks I needed to accomplish during these dark hours before dawn.
To the mission I’d set out for myself.
It was a straightforward operation: half-a-mile north through the forest; 2,000 feet southwest—more forest; a short recon; take some pictures; and return along the same route. Yeah, straightforward, but I’d need to keep an eye out for tripwires and various other crocodile pits; I wasn’t interested in denial of risk at the moment.
My chain of command would probably court-martial me if they knew what I was about to do. “Why do you need the duty vehicle tonight, Sergeant Daniels?” my officer-in-charge had asked.
“I got some intel from the Bavarian Border Police… they’re expecting a border crosser tonight.”
“Okay, but call me if anything out of the ordinary happens.”
“Yessir.” Out of the ordinary? You could call it that…
Unsanctioned operation? Hell, rogue operative!
I finished the last of the fuel on my trousers and boots. The fresh, evaporating diesel stung my nose and eyes for a few minutes until the breeze up here—west to east—did its job, drying the fuel to a coat of sticky slime. Hopefully, I would dry fully within the next few minutes. I looked to the east at the tower 1,500 feet away, a medium-gray silhouette under the dim cold bulb of a waning crescent moon.
Just enough light to make things out; why I’d planned my foray for tonight.
We occasionally got illegal border crossers fleeing through the Iron Curtain from Czechoslovakia into the Federal Republic—an extremely dangerous thing to attempt—but they never regretted it. Those who got out alive, that is. The consistent trick to spoof the guard dogs involved soaking yourself in diesel fuel. Then you only had to deal with the inner fence, security towers with searchlights, and guards with automatic weapons.
One could escape with a well-planned trip, usually under the black of a new moon and through a softer, less patrolled zone. Even if canines prowled, the diesel would cover the human meat smell. Cheap and easy.
I wasn’t escaping from Czechoslovakia. I was going to infiltrate it. Between the guards with deadly force authorization and the canines with unrelenting teeth, they’d keep me occupied. Typically Shepherds or Dobermans, and anywhere from two to four. And always tethered on a leash except when the guards loosed them to catch something moving in the night, something—anything—out of place. Thus the diesel.
Not only my chain of command, I thought, what about Diane? She’d draw and quarter me, sentence me to permanent silent treatment, and make me sleep with the cat for a year.
“Hey hon, I’ve gotta go out, but don’t know when I’ll be able to make it back,” I began.
“What’s up, Ben?” only slightly concerned; she knew of my duties and this wasn’t the first time.
“I got news from the BBP they’re expecting a border crosser tonight. They want me to debrief him.” A mite easier than telling her I was off to penetrate the Iron Curtain…
I just couldn’t help myself, though. Across the way, the observation tower of the Havran Signals Intelligence—SIGINT—site stood proud, a lone outpost 250 yards behind the Iron Curtain. During daylight hours, its many antennas, gyrating radars, and other SIGINT devices poked the sky, enemy voyeurs spying hundreds of kilometers into the window of NATO’s border and tracking our military aircraft.
And when the Soviets weren’t there, their Czech proxies—puppets—shared all the intel with them.
Now, at night, the quiet, dark site had its peeping toms retracted and asleep. I observed the tower from my hidden nook atop a rocky tor on the German side of the Bohemian Forest through ten-power binoculars. It loomed silent and dark. An occasional guard on its top balcony paced with a cigarette. Miles and miles of trees surrounded me, managed forest with narrow dirt logging trails in a vast network all the way up to the border. Beyond that, a chaos of vegetation dominated the land, untended and left to blow over and decay, a jumble of interlocking trunks and brambles. The Czech border guards must prefer it that way, a natural barrier to keep their citizens inside: a forested Berlin Wall.
I checked my watch; the luminescent dial read 0120 hours. Another ten minutes to observe before my planned jump-off. I sat here four kilometers east of Flossenbürg in Bavaria, over 170 miles from my headquarters in Stuttgart—VII Corps—but not far from my local base. I was assigned to Border Resident Office Weiden, a house in the suburbs seven miles to the west, along with five other soldiers and a warrant officer.
Ten minutes to observe, but my thoughts wandered.
The Czech military had deployed a new SIGINT system on the border last year. It functioned like a radar but didn’t emit radio waves. It didn’t emit anything at all. It detected in passive mode and was capable of locating all our military aircraft—to within a couple meters—without our knowing. Our extensively trained fighter pilots in $40 million jets had no indication it tracked them. They were vulnerable as if under the beam of an invisible spotlight. Not good news, and I’d been chasing these things up and down a 120 km sector of the Iron Curtain ever since they’d appeared.
The Czechs called it the TAMARA system; NATO named it TRASH DRUM—and it looked like one, except ten feet tall and four feet in diameter, and mounted on an 8 X 8 tactical truck with a hydraulic mast which raised it over eighty feet in the air. Highly mobile and highly capable.
Yet what had we done about it? Taken pictures from a quarter-mile away, sometimes out of a helicopter, hanging out the open door at 10,000 feet for a better angle on the system’s deployment. I excelled at it, and sure, enjoyed it. But it never amounted to anything. And the TAMARA had been here over a year monitoring our movements. I don’t know; I just felt I needed to do something myself. We needed more intel and I was getting impatient.
I was a moth staring at the flame. Except it was more than that: now in 1987, the Cold War appeared cool to outsiders. But that’s only what the public saw, what they were led to believe.
Sometimes things got hot—the flame flared.
Barely three months ago, in the northernmost region of our sector, a UH-60 Blackhawk flying the border wasn’t aware TAMARA was tracking it and had been surprised. A Russian MI-24 Hind attack helicopter snuck up and riddled it with 25mm automatic cannon fire. We lost twelve souls that day.
Something needed to be done. And fortunately, here down south, the border was softer and security more lax. I wouldn’t have been going in otherwise.
I checked my watch again—0130 hours. Time to move out. Stay on schedule, Ben.
I took several calming breaths and steeled myself. Was I really going to do this? In for a penny, in for a pound. Okay, but my nerves were firing like a chainsaw and I had a bunch of adrenaline going. I could really use a cigarette about now. Not a good idea in this uniform.
A quick last scan of the tower across the tops of the trees—their leaves shifted in the breeze under the crescent moon, a swaying gray treescape of bubbling and swirling terrain stretching in front of me. If only it were solid enough to walk on.
Ignore. Enough distraction, Ben.
I moved off due north, parallel to the border. I planned to approach the SIGINT site from the northwest, then cut west so as to never be upwind, reeking of diesel. It might spoof the dogs, but could wake up others, turn on the searchlights.
I headed down the slope and through the trees, for the time being under the protection of their boughs. I had half-a-mile to go, to a landmark where an east-west logging trail intersected the gravel road paralleling the border, a couple hundred feet in.
The floor of the woods was bare of the branches and rotting trunks you’d normally find in a mature forest; the German forest managers kept their tracts that clean. I took sightings with the compass every two minutes on my zigzag path around the trees and through the dim moonlight dappling the forest floor. Over the pervasive diesel odor, it smelled of green sap and earth here.
I crossed the first logging trail with the environment quiet and still, then stopped to look and listen. Only the breeze in the trees, setting them asway with a constant undulating swishing, a distant waterfall in the air. The background noise comforted; it would help mask the sound of my own movement. Which might have meant I was safe, still inside Germany, but my fear only grew.
After a few more minutes I came to the second east-west trail—my first waypoint—and turned right along it until the T-intersection. I’d taken twenty minutes to go the half-mile and had another two hundred feet, due east, to the line of border stones and poles, the actual frontier.
I could only conduct this op on my own—solo—because it was illegal as hell and I couldn’t put anyone else at risk. Or even ask anyone in case they reported my intention. All of a sudden I envisioned what it would have been like with a co-conspirator, and it scared me shitless. I could control my own actions but adding a second body would have been a wild card; no one had studied the Havran site as much as I had, wasn’t invested with the same level of expertise or obsession. Or insanity.
I crouched on my haunches and checked all around for a minute. Still no movement and no sounds within the breeze. The peaceful, tranquil, forest enveloped. Even the birds, squirrels, and bugs slept—not even the company of a cloud or two. I was the last person on earth.
The sound of my pulse in my ears eclipsed the swishing of the trees.
I crept to the border in a crouch, through a lone copse of evergreens with a soft pine needle carpet to glide over. There they stood, the red-tipped white poles which marked the Czech side. Well, black above dark gray right now, but I knew their colors in the light of day. I stopped at one and waited. Seven minutes until 0200 hours, my next jump-off.
I was inside Czechoslovakia, being right next to one of their own marker poles. An illegal border crosser myself and freshly-minted international criminal. Was it a misdemeanor or felony? Nevermind. Observe. Observe and listen.
I was still on schedule. Yeah, but on schedule for what? I pushed away my imagination regarding fate, karma, destiny, what have you. I didn’t need to do this. Hell, I could steal one of these border poles as a trophy and declare victory. I could be home in bed with Diane in just over an hour.
No! I’d been chasing TAMARA for too long and we’d done too little and it was too much of a threat. I needed to make a difference. Either a medal or a court-martial.
I steeled myself again. Took several deep breaths and tried to calm myself. Kept looking through the trees and kept looking at my watch. I’d get as near to the flame as possible without scorching the wings. Besides, I could call it quits at any moment and leave.
I shot an azimuth of 130 degrees and started breathing tidally, through my mouth. I aimed for the north corner of the barbed wire fence around the installation: a 300 by 100-foot rectangle oriented northwest to southeast. This SIGINT site was unique, packed into a small clearing of the forest within a few hundred yards of the NATO border and with no guard camps or outposts nearby. Almost an invitation, it seemed.
Of course, random vehicular patrols made checks, but the trail leading to the site came from the southeast, whereas I’d approach from the opposite end masked by the tower and vehicles deployed at the site. I’d see headlights and hear an engine long before anything became a threat.
Still, there’d be little out here moving tonight that didn’t threaten my health.
I stepped into the jetsam of chaotic undergrowth on the Czech side—Ranger-walking—feeling my way forward with my toes, step by step. I had 2,000 feet to traverse, up the gradual forested slope. I made myself as small and compact as possible, stepping through the night, over rotting tree trunks and around wild brambles. I was a shadow blending from tree to tree.
And stopped every two minutes to observe, listen, and reshoot my bearing. The hundred-foot tower dominated the area as a prominent landmark but I wouldn’t see it until I got close; the canopy of trees blocked most of the sky.
The mottled dappling of cold lunar light shifted and swirled under the swaying boughs. I shifted and swirled along with it, a sliver of shadow. I wore a Czech Special Forces camouflage uniform, with its pattern of greens, yellows, and blacks designed to hide in deciduous growth. One almost disappeared wearing it under direct sunlight; in the dim gloom, I moved like a wraith, invisible.
After twenty minutes of awkward Ranger-walking, I expected to see the rising hulk of the tower or hear sounds of human activity. Nothing. My pulse pounded over the serene breeze.
By my pace count, I estimated I’d gone 1,500 feet. Another 500, plus or minus. I was getting close. The surrounding trees closed in. Shit! A wave of fear struck and I shrank into a low crouch, blending with a large oak trunk. What the fuck was I doing? Had I lost my mind? I needed to calm down and get the hell out of here!
Breathe, Ben, breathe.
The light patterns under the dancing trees kept shifting and I tried to focus, but they made it difficult. I’d come through limbo into a new world in which the three dimensions constantly swirled. I clenched my eyes shut trying to clear the dizzying images.
Everything remained quiet and peaceful, though. They must have, what? A squad of specialists for the TAMARA system and a squad of guards, two awake at any time. And the kennels. I knew they were there from photographing them on one of my helo passes in an OH-58 Kiowa. Six pens total. No doubt, the canines slept at night. I’d seen no roving guard patrols; just one man pacing on the tower’s balcony. Pacing and smoking.
Okay, get it under control, Ben.
Five hundred feet to go, azimuth of 130 degrees. Ranger-walk. Small and compact. Eyes and ears open. Breathe.
The camouflage had one disadvantage. The uniform bore heavy on me, designed for cold-weather work. My body heat got trapped inside and I sweated freely. I felt like I was on jungle patrol in Central America, not walking through a mild, breezy night in Central Europe.
I saw the tower now, a massive black hulk, still at my two o’clock—less than a hundred feet away. I’d kept to the correct direction.
Straight toward the flame. I stopped and hunkered down again. Listen. Look. Feel! The trees’ swishing and a faint random creaking came from ahead, slightly off to the right. If I angled several degrees to the left, I should meet up with the north corner of the fencing.
Something like a squirrel darted through the undergrowth off to my right. A scamper and quiet crashing.
Then faded. I was jumping at shadows, literally. My nerves burned and the blood pounded in my ears. How much more of this could I take? I crept forward, invisible to the world and as loud as a wary snake, but getting closer only made it worse. I almost Ranger-walked right into the barbed wire, straight on, but caught myself at the last instant. The thin wires were invisible in the shifting gloom.
Sank to my haunches again. Watched. Listened. Waited. I couldn’t believe I’d come this far—so close.
Checked my watch. 0235 hours. Close to schedule, a little late.
The installation slept as if dead. I tried to spy the guard up high on the tower walkway but no joy, a poor angle or he’d gone inside. Or had come down here to patrol the fence perimeter. My imagination loves to do this sort of thing. Keep your eyes open, Ben.
The forest growth extended inside the fencing, devouring it over the years, and the border guards didn’t bother to clear it. It resulted in, fortuitously, close-in concealment for yours truly; I didn’t feel stark naked. I slithered twenty feet to the left and reached the north corner. Rusty barbed wire was attached to a rust-crusted iron post, over twelve feet high. It was standard fare: the kind for cows or goats, a low-density lattice with vertical and horizontal strands spaced every ten inches.
A soft bang! resounded, off to the right and up high. I assumed it was the door to the tower walkway, but another shadow to jump at. My nerves were overcharged; I’d never felt so much adrenaline and continuing forward clawed at my confidence. I crouched. Still. Nothing but more faint creaking, a vehicle rocking on its suspension.
Despite the nerves, a twinge of fun played in my mind… like flashlight tag growing up.
C’mon, Ben, stay focused.
Time to conduct a recon—0245 hours; I was running a little behind schedule now. I moved off along the east fence, scanning inside the perimeter. I couldn’t walk along its length because of the overgrown shrubs and brambles. They made me work for it: burrow through the snarl of undergrowth, almost like tunneling in through barbed wire itself; reach the fence; observe into the open area; then retreat back out through the tangle of branches and thorns. Quietly, torturously slow, I started collecting scratches on my hands and face.
The inner area of the installation occupied an expansive open space. Gravel lay everywhere except around the tower and to its south, where concrete pads provided support for the TAMARA deployment. Several large trucks hunkered under the dim moon, their dark military green appearing black in the night.
I progressed 150 feet along the fence until I crouched directly across from the trucks of the deployment. There it sat, the latest electronic technology, fifty feet in front of me, on the other side of rusty barbed wire. The TAMARA truck was situated on the left, a command & control truck on the right, and a generator truck between them. I wanted to get inside the command vehicle.
I looked for the kennels. A row of low pens stood off south by the entrance, 200 feet away. I didn’t see any dogs. The binoculars didn’t help, just made the view blacker. I assumed dogs slept within. It would be nice, however, to know how many. At least they’d remain upwind.
I’d need to maintain absolute silence. I took in the heartless, eerie stillness of the area, the tower like a mausoleum in the cold weak light, flanked by the huge black hearses of the trucks.
I don’t know why I think such happy thoughts all the time.
My mind had conjured up a notional technique for cutting through the taut, brittle barbed wire without making noise. Unfortunately, I hadn’t tested my theoretical method before my patience ran out and I decided to do this thing tonight.
Okay, so add impulsiveness to impatience.
But looking into the site and sensing the lax security, its sleepy state, a small bit of confidence awoke in me. If I kept quiet enough and was careful enough I could do this. In and out, less than fifteen minutes.
I examined the barbed strands with their rust scale, counted how many I’d need to cut to afford entry—seven—and got out my wire cutters and GI-issue towel. One last quick rest. Relax, look around, get loose. Listen. I was actually going to do it!
After a minute the impatience returned—0323 hours—and I set to work, mostly by feel. I thought if I leaned against a vertical strand, pushed it toward the post, and covered the end of the snippers with a wadded towel… the horizontal section wouldn’t be too taut so as to go sproing! and the towel would muffle the snip of the thick wire.
I donned my mechanic’s gloves and tested the technique. Gradually at first, a section at waist height, slow. Squeeze and release, squeeze and release. I repeated it with patience, with enough care that it might actually work.