Return to Gmeund - The Story of the Cold War

This is what the men in Schwabisch Gmuend knew in 1963: there were more than 80 Russian, East German and Czech divisions on the other side of the border and we had five American divisions, lots of planes, units from France, Germany and England and thousands of nuclear weapons. If the “balloon went up” (a Soviet bloc invasion),  we would rush toward the East German and Czech borders, stall the invaders and die. There was a good chance we would die on the circumference of our own nuclear blasts.

This is what the women knew: as soon as the “balloon went up” they had to get the children into the cars, line up in convoy and make a run for Switzerland. That’s why they kept two, filled, five-gallon cans of gas in the trunk of each car. There were also boxes of C-rations, water and blankets. The car trunks were inspected every Saturday morning. No one seemed to worry that with gas in the trunk and manic German drivers on the autobahn, the car was a rolling firebomb.

This is what the women did not know: they would never make it. Classified intelligence estimates indicated that if the hostile fire did not kill them, refugees fleeing the combat would.

This is what everyone knew: no matter how bad things could get, we would always help one another without hesitation.

So those of us in the armed forces in Europe in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s made the best of the situation. We drank warm, German beer, linked arms and sang about the Hofbrauhaus in Munich, traveled, had more children and grew closer to one another without talking about the terrible secrets of our lives.  It seemed everything was classified and no one “had a need to know.” 

People who had never met before became closer than blood relatives in a short period of time because of the circumstances. Husbands and fathers were away on maneuvers for weeks at a time several times a year and the wives and mothers melded into an expanded family, caring deeply for one another.  They shared meals, clothing, baby sitters, Sears catalogs, cars, clotheslines and homesickness. The men outwardly acted as if all of the weapons were conventional. talked always of accomplishing the mission and always wondered who would fire the first nuclear weapon since Nagasaki. The women worried about having enough baby food for the run to Switzerland.

And we hugged one another when someone’s tour of duty ended, usually after three years, promising to stay in touch. One family or a bachelor left and another took its place. The expanded family expanded.

And we all made it home safely because the Russians didn’t come. 

My wife Jan and I lived in Schwabisch Gmuend, Germany, a lovely Hansel-and-Gretal town, 30 miles east of Stuttgart, from 1963 until 1966. All of the roofs are covered with red tiles, there isn’t a straight street anywhere and no church is worth its divine mission if it isn’t at least 800-years-old. The towers, which linked the old, walled city, still stand.  Like many of my fellow artillery officers, when we left Gmuend, Jan and our children returned to the United States and I headed for Vietnam.  The men lost touch but the women did not. They kept families loosely linked through Christmas cards and a rare visit.

Despite the threats of Europe during the Cold War, we have always considered Gmuend our second home and dreamed of returning. And always we warned ourselves of the cliché about not being able to go back.

When we did go back, we learned as much about the cliché as we did about the cold war and ourselves.

Our trip this summer really started 10 years ago. Three couples who had lived in Schwabisch Gmuend during the early ‘60s and who had stayed in close touch   with one another began searching for old friends and comrades-in-arms for a reunion. That occurred at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, in the summer of 1990, and for three days we talked endlessly about our lives during and since Gmuend. Unanimously, people said they felt as if the conversations were continuations of conversations started the previous day, not 30 years earlier. The bonds of friendship cold-forged in the cold war had strengthened, not weakened, during the intervening years.

We agreed to get together every two years somewhere in the United States. Reunions drew from 40 to nearly 80 persons and we built vacations schedules around them. In Colorado in 1996 we decided to return to Gmuend in 2000. Some members of the reunion group had visited there in the ‘80s and early ‘90s and were discouraged about the changes they found. One of the Kasernes where the military units were headquartered had become a refugee center. In 1992 the U.S. pulled its last troops from Gmuend and some said they felt the absence of the military estranged them from the city. We were strongly warned that we could not return and feel again about Gmuend as we had when we lived there. The magic had vanished.

But 39 of us decided to try. We spent a week in June reveling in the beauty of the city and the joy of being there with those who shared the warm beer and cold nights of our early lives. After the first week, all of us were convinced that the cliché had been disproved despite changes to the town.

The Kaserne where most of our group soldiered is now the European campus of the University of Maryland. The buildings we occupied are now classrooms and dormitories and the huge, graveled rectangle where we parked our 22 cannons and hundred trucks is now a green park with paved bike paths for children. 

Then we hugged one another again and scattered across Europe to lengthen our vacations. Two weeks after the reunion closed, Jan and I returned to Gmuend for a final week of sightseeing in southern Germany. Immediately, we sensed a great hollowness. The 1000-year-old town was the same. The food was as delicious as it was fattening. The people were reserved but courteous andhelpful. But there was a great desolation. This was what the others had warned about in Colorado.

The charm of Schwabisch Gmuend was fickle.

 Another couple from the reunion group also intended to spend a fewmore days in Gmuend to wind up their trip and we planned to rendezvous for dinner. As soon as we got back together the warmth and allure of Gmuend was back. The other couple confessed that they had experienced the same sense of desolation when they had returned and were in Gmuend without the group.

The lesson was so simple. We could never return to Gmuend and relive some of the great days of our lives and of the twentieth century unless the people who had lived them with us were there also.  It was the unique sharing of our lives in the uncertain days of the cold war that made Gmuend so special. 

There probably won’t be another reunion in Gmuend for us so we won’t be going back again.

J. Dennis Doherty

To read about Dick Kneen, a soldier who served during the Cold War, CLICK HERE.