Fifty years ago today, a siren woke Bob Derby, an 18-year-old Army private, and his comrades around 5:30 a.m. He had been stationed in Berlin for nine months and was used to drills.
“We thought it was just another training exercise,” Derby said. “We went downstairs and they were throwing bandoliers of live ammunition together.”
Overnight, the East Berlin army, with the support of the Soviet Union, had ordered East Berlin closed. Its soldiers had begun destroying the streets and piling asphalt along the border.
It was the beginning of the building of the Berlin Wall.
For Derby and the other GIs, the wait to see if the president would order them into action was tense. But the order for action did not come, and the wall continued to grow.
“We didn’t do anything about it but watch it happen. Little by little the wall went up, for miles and miles,” Derby said.
Today, Derby is retired and splits his time between Lawrence and his boyhood state of Connecticut. He married a Kansas University graduate after serving in Berlin and worked at the Kansas Union at Kansas University from 1986 to 1996.
Derby deployed just before Christmas 1960, and would spend three years in Berlin. He said the West Berliners were happy to have U.S. troops stationed there, and families invited them into their homes for Christmas dinner.
“West Berlin was like any other big city in the United States,” Derby said. “It looked a lot like Park Avenue in New York City.”
When he arrived in Berlin, the Army sent him and the other fresh soldiers on a bus tour of both sides of the city. That is when he got his first and only look at East Berlin.
While West Berlin was bustling, full of Christmas lights and people shopping, East Berlin had none of that.
“It was dark and dreary and desolate. There were no Christmas trees and no lights,” Derby said.
When the Berlin Wall went up, it became a symbol of the Cold War, but for the GIs it was a fact of life. There was work to do, and they went about doing it. Derby worked as a cryptographer, creating bulletins and taking classified messages to the Army’s Berlin headquarters.
“It was just like a regular 8-to-5 job,” he said.
But no matter how accustomed to the wall the GIs became, there were constant reminders of what it was doing to the city.
“It was a lot more painful for the Berliners, especially people who had family separated by the wall,” Derby said.
He recalled a spot he and his army buddies frequented near the wall. It was a popular place for escape attempts, with people leaping from a tall, eastern building over the wall to the West. Some who jumped didn’t survive.
“There were many crosses on the sidewalk below, marking where people had jumped to their deaths, trying to get to West Germany,” Derby said.
When the wall finally came down in 1989, Derby said it was a wonderful thing to see.
“I wish it had happened sooner,” he said. “I wish it had never gone up in the first place.”