FORT EUSTIS — The end of World War II brought about the defeat of Germany and its partition into zones of occupation. Berlin was also divided and geographically located over 100 miles inside the Soviet zone in the eastern half of Germany. The Western powers maintained three air routes, one highway and one rail line to West Berlin starting in December 1945 through December 1990.
It was on that rail line that Williamsburg resident and retired U.S. Army Colonel Ted Cimral staffed as a Train Commander. He recently shared some of his poignant experiences while serving in this capacity as part of the greater U.S. Army Berlin to a blended audience in person and in a socially distant manner via Facebook livestream at the U.S. Army Transportation Museum aboard Fort Eustis.
Cimral, a native of Southern California, started his presentation off to a gathering of some 40 in-person attendees with “I’m going to tell you about the train that went through Helmstedt [Germany]. A total of 8 trains that ran 7 days a week.”
Cimral, at the time was a newly minted Second Lieutenant, and his tour as a Train Commander started in February 1965 and concluded in 1967. At the time, the Cold War was in swing and, as some audience members noted, was just starting to become warm.
In March 1965, the U.S. buildup of troops in Vietnam started to ramp up. Those stateside enjoyed billboard top hits such as You’ve lost that Lovin Feelin by The Righteous Brothers (later popularized by the jukebox scene in Top Gun) and Papa’s Got a Brand-New Bag by James Brown. Those serving in Germany at the time, Cimral among them, maintained that vital transportation route replete with its set of formalities.
He noted that rail cars carried both civilians and military passengers, with the latter requiring Flag Orders to be aboard. Think of them as PCS orders, replete with signatures and typed on official letterhead that gave you access to the military train car. The train took its passengers “110 miles behind the iron curtain,” as Cimral noted. He noted how strict military orders prevented passengers from taking photos, opening windows, and required the doors to the train cars to be secured by a small contingent of Military Police soldiers.
Amid his presentation, he noted some curious incidents that seemingly showed a lighter side of the Russian soldiers who would surround the train at military checkpoints.
“I remember the Russian Officer who invited us to have a cigarette,” he started, as he walked and held up a pack of cigarettes.
“We have any smokers in the room? You can have this pack if you can smoke it. I don’t think the Russians ever grew tobacco, they had something else in there” he jokingly recalled as he grimaced while looking at the pack of Apollo Soyuz brand cigarettes. He noted that the company was a joint American venture and was manufactured by Phillip Morris in Moscow. Nobody took him up on the offer, and it was later revealed that smoking them was a ticket to having one’s lungs and throat dried out rather harshly.
He noted a very memorable experience as a new Second Lieutenant assigned to be a Train Commander.
“I think my most memorable was the very first time. I flew into Berlin on a 4-engine prop plane in February 1965. I was escorted to the Frankfurt Rail Station and put aboard a duty train. They took me off the train that night to meet my first Russian. I was a brand-new Second Lieutenant; I didn’t know shit from Hanoi. And he shook my hand.”
Towards the end of the presentation, Cimral held up a gray cold weather cap, complete with ear flaps and a Russian sickle emblem. Like many soldiers who visit places far from home, he recounted how Soldiers liked to trade for mementos. This particular hat, according to him, cost him a zippo lighter and a Playboy magazine; the latter being higher in bartering value at the time.
Lastly, he noted that the museum has, in their collection a Berlin passenger rail car. Many in the audience casually walked outside to see it after the presentation.
Museum Director, Alisha Hamel noted some additional insights to the rail car, “We had a contractor come out and give us a bid on the full restoration. It’s going to be worked on in October and hopefully it will be done by Christmas so it will be a nice Christmas present. A restored Berlin rail car that actually went to East Germany from West Germany.”
Its difficult to think that Germany was once divided, and that passenger rail service, albeit under military guard was one of the vital links that kept the country connected amid the Cold War. Those present at during this Brown Bag Brief took away a casual oral history and some historical insights from the Williamsburg resident who served as a Train Commander that took its passengers and cargo “110 miles behind the Iron Curtain.”
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