Cold Warrior recalls two worlds
By MICHAEL C. LEWIS / Journal Staff Writer
MARTINSBURG — It was the middle of the Cold War, in 1979, when a young Army soldier stationed in post-World War II Germany saw a country divided between East and West, veiled behind an Iron Curtain.
Assigned to G2 Division Intelligence, ex-Army specialist Michael Vaccaro guarded against enemy attacks by tracking Soviet troops entrenched along the East German border, a place where he said anything could happen at any time.
“Every mission we went on, we were made aware that a battle could happen tonight. We were trained to retaliate at anytime. You had to be alert and gung-ho,” Vaccaro said.
Vaccaro served as squad leader for three ground surveillance radar teams while attached to the 7th Cavalry from February 1979 to April 1981.
Germany was caught between two worlds, with the Soviet forces controlling one part of the country and British, French, and American forces defending the other part. The East German government decided to stop its citizens from fleeing to the West by building a concrete wall in Berlin and then laying hundreds of miles of mine fields and barbed-wire fencing between the two countries.
If a Soviet invasion were to occur, Vaccaro said, the prediction was troops would come through the Fulda Gap in the Alps, a few miles from a base called Weilfleken, where he was stationed in the heart of Germany.
“We were expendable. We were an acceptable loss,” he said. “That’s a tough pill to swallow.”
Several hundred meters away, armed soldiers positioned in gun towers dotted the horizon. For the communists living on the other side, it was “pure hell,” said Vaccaro, who often heard stories of concentration camps where people were “re-educated.”
“For those who tried to escape communism, they died for it,” he said.
A few East Germans managed to escape. Between 1961 and 1989 at least 80 people died trying to cross the border; they were either shot by border guards or killed in the minefields.
Vaccaro remembered two attempted defections happened while he was patroling the border.
“They got blown away before they hit the minefields. They thought once they got through the fence, they were free,” he said. They weren’t; they had another 100 meters and a minefield to cross.
“The East German soldiers usually picked them off,” Vaccaro said.
Officers gave strict orders not to return fire, he said. “A bullet could hit 3 feet to the right or 3 feet to the left, but we couldn’t shoot back. It kept us on our toes.”
Vaccaro, who grew up in Prince Georges County, Md., near Washington, D.C., was awarded the Army Accommodation medal for his service. “I served with a lot of smart, good guys. They made me successful,” he said.
Following his tour of duty in Europe, Vaccaro was honorably discharged in 1981. In 1990, the Berlin Wall crumbled with the collapse of communism, reuniting East Germany with West Germany and ending the threat of a Soviet attack.
“I cried tears of joy and happiness for all the years the East Germans were oppressed,” Vaccaro said. “When the wall came down, it felt like what I was doing in Germany was worthwhile. It gave me a sense of pride and accomplishment.”
To this day, Vaccaro wishes he had stayed longer in the Army.
“The best thing I ever did was serve my country. I did well. I’m proud of my duty,” he said.
Now, Vaccaro spends some of his time helping others as a member of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic-based community organization designed to raise money for children and families in need.
“I enjoy the satisfaction of doing good and helping others,” he said. “I’m blessed because I’m alive. I’ve had a good life.”
— Staff writer Michael C. Lewis can be reached at (304) 263-8931, ext. 127, or at firstname.lastname@example.org