Vern Gibson and the other young soldiers were sweating and nervous as they approached Checkpoint Charlie.
If caught helping two East Berliners escape, the Americans knew they could become hostages.
And the teenagers they were trying to help could be imprisoned — or worse.
The teens were hidden in the trunk of the Americans’ car and the situation was intense.
It was the fall of 1964 and Gibson was in the U.S. Army, stationed in West Berlin. Gibson would serve three years in a divided nation, becoming part of history and a time known as the Cold War.
Decades later, the Fremont man has unforgettable memories:
A salute from President John F. Kennedy.
The dare to nab an East German flag.
And a time when Gibson thought World War III was going to erupt.
The Berlin Wall — dividing East and West Berlin — had gone up two years before Gibson went into the Army in 1963.
He was in Berlin when Kennedy made his famous “I am a Berliner” speech.
Gibson saw Kennedy in his limousine headed toward the wall. Running alongside the car, Gibson saw and saluted the president.
Kennedy saluted back.
Years later, Gibson learned National Geographic magazine published a photograph of him running alongside the limousine.
Thousands of people were in the area that day and Gibson only got within a block of where Kennedy gave the speech. Gibson didn’t get to witness the speech, but heard it via loudspeakers.
He remembers how much Germans loved the charismatic American president and his comforting speech.
“The people cheered and clapped and raved about it,” he said.
That November, Gibson and other servicemen were watching a war film in a movie theater at the army barracks when the lights went on and a staff sergeant walked slowly toward the stage.
“We were all booing because they shut the movie off,” Gibson remembered. “He stood up on the stage, tearfully announcing that the President had been assassinated. We were all in shock.”
The men immediately returned to their barracks, where a company commander held a prayer service.
“We were so shook up. We didn’t know whether there was going to be another war — or what,” Gibson said. “We were put on 30 days alert.”
An American, Lee Harvey Oswald, was charged with Kennedy’s murder and two days later was fatally shot by nightclub owner Jack Ruby.
After Kennedy’s death, West Berliners put candles in their windows.
“Every household had a candle,” Gibson said. “It was amazing.”
Gibson recalls the times that followed.
“As the days went on, we were all in combat uniforms — especially patrolling the (Berlin) wall, because we were not sure what the East Germans were going to do.”
Communist East German authorities had built the wall — a large concrete barrier with guard towers — after thousands of people from that area had fled to the democratic West.
There was a concrete block wall, concertina (large coils of barbed) wire and a 25-foot “no man’s land,” which was mined to keep people from jumping over the wall.
Gibson said the wall tore German families apart. One of his fellow American soldiers and best friend dated a woman born in East Berlin. She and her mother were on vacation when the wall went up and couldn’t return home. On Sundays, the young woman would go to Checkpoint Charlie — the crossing point between East and West Berlin — and wave at her dad who was still on the east side. They never were reunited.
Gibson served at McNair barracks, which had three battalions of infantry. Their responsibility was to patrol the wall and East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie. The men wore full uniforms and drove sedans in East Germany, because they couldn’t use gun Jeeps.
“We were not allowed to wave or talk to the East Germans, because we did not recognize them as a government,” he said.
In his three years in Berlin, Gibson knew of at least three East Germans who escaped and made it past the wall alive and four who were fatally shot. He witnessed one of the tragic situations while on patrol, but doesn’t talk about it.
Another time, Gibson and two other American soldiers were on patrol in a sedan in East Berlin on May Day, which served as a Communist holiday. It was early in the morning and hundreds of East German flags were flying.
Gibson’s fellow soldiers dared him to get one of those flags.
So he climbed a pole and got one.
“I still have it today. It’s probably the only one in Nebraska,” Gibson said of the gold, red and black flag which bears the hammer and sickle of the Communist party.
Gibson said he probably would have been shot if the East Germans had caught him.
One time, Gibson and other American soldiers were in a sedan in East Germany when they had a flat tire.
It was a hot, August day and they were in full dress uniforms, but the men weren’t allowed to leave the car. Using code, they radioed to their communications center.
But the code changed daily and the man on the other end wasn’t up to date with it.
“It took us about an hour to get through that we were really in trouble and we needed some help. We could have caused an incident,” Gibson said. “In the meantime, the East Germans put flood lights on our sedan to try to get us to come out of the car.”
A Russian officer then showed up. The Russians (the former Soviet Union) controlled East Germany and when the officer arrived he made the East Germans take down the light and leave.
Finally, a tow truck came and the tire was changed.
Looking back, Gibson said he and the other men could have been captured or shot.
The East Germans constantly tried to cause incidents.
One occurred while American generals were attending a football game at the large compound on a Sunday afternoon.
“The East Germans launched a mortar round that landed on the 50-yard line at the football stadium, just to let us know that they knew where we were,” Gibson said. “The generals were quite shook up.”
This mortar was a dead one, but the game was called off.
“We found out later that it was just harassment,” he said.
Gibson’s most memorable time involved helping those teens escape in the car trunk.
During numerous patrols to East Berlin, Gibson and three other soldiers befriended the young students and, one night, decided to help them.
“We opened the trunk and in they jumped; they were probably 18- or 19-year-olds,” he said. “As we approached Checkpoint Charlie to leave East Berlin and go into West Berlin, we were all sweating and nervous, but they (other soldiers) were not allowed to touch the car; they were just shining a flashlight in on us.”
After making it through the checkpoint, the Americans proceeded about three or four blocks, stopping to let out the teens on the west side of the wall.
The teens disappeared into the night.
“All they had was the clothes on their back, but we found out later they had friends who lived in the west and I’m sorry to say I lost track of them. Hopefully, they came to the United States and are living a great life,” he said.
Another situation didn’t turn out so well.
Gibson and other Americans were on patrol — this time in two gun Jeeps on the west side of the wall — when they came upon a very tense situation one Sunday morning.
One of the West German police officers had a dog that got spooked and ended up in the concertina wire. An East German soldier fatally shot the dog. The dead dog — a German shepherd — remained caught in the wire.
“I thought World War III was going to break out, because the West German officer completely lost it and was going to attack,” Gibson said. “We, through code, notified our headquarters of the incident and were told to stand by, lock and load.”
The Americans had been told to load the M60 machine gun on each Jeep and wait.
About 30 minutes later, an American and a German officer and police official showed up to take away the West German policeman, who wanted to get his dog and revenge.
More officers arrived and retrieved the dog.
Gibson, then from California, returned home on Christmas Eve in 1965. His enlistment was over in January 1966. He served in the reserves for six years.
He and other Americans later formed a group called The Berlin United States Military Veterans Association. It consists of approximately 740 veterans, who served in Berlin between World War II and when the wall came down in 1989.
Gibson is the president of the group, which had a reunion in Omaha in June. About 200 attended. The veterans go to Berlin every four years.
In August 2018, the group will return. Because all are seniors, they anticipate a crowd of about 300-400.
“Today if you go to Berlin, quite frankly, they don’t want to know there was ever a wall and there are two bricks going through the entire city, side by side on the ground, where the wall was,” Gibson said. “There is a makeshift Checkpoint Charlie post which has actors that take pictures with people.”
Gibson was surprised when the wall came down.
“I was amazed,” he said. “I didn’t think it would ever happen.”