IT’S TOO COMMON that we spend our whole lives in the company of our closest relatives and friends and still know little about their experiences. I knew my father had been drafted into the US Army on November 15, 1966 — he still remembers the date. I had heard a lot of stories about that time — mostly about the worry young men my father’s age felt about the prospect of being sent to fight in the jungles of Vietnam. Some drank poison to get sent home, others injured themselves so that they would no longer be fit for service. It was my father’s fortune that he was sent to what was then called West Germany: he had enrolled in radio operator school during training, and the previous class of operators had already been sent to Southeast Asia before him.
There was also a helpful hint supplied by a commanding officer while out drinking: If you cannot type more than 15 words per minute of Morse code, you will not be sent to Vietnam. I like to think that my father slyly evaded an almost certain death by slowing his performance, but according to the man himself, he actually couldn’t type that fast.
I knew a lot of stories about my father’s time in Germany that he shared over the years, but I didn’t know until just a few weeks ago that at 4 am on the morning of August 21, 1968, he and his fellow soldiers were awakened in the barracks and dispatched from their base to the Czech border. “We had had these kinds of drills before, but what surprised me was that even the commanding officers were caught off guard,” he told me recently. A full armored convoy moved through the Black Forest toward that invisible dotted-line that at the time separated the West from the East. “We were fully armed with tanks, mounted machine guns, ammunition,” he said.
The convoy disappeared into the forests along the border, until it had nearly lost its bearings. “I had no idea where we were,” he said. There they waited, in the dark woods, for orders to come.
On the other side of the border at that exact time was Arvi, like my father, also 20 years old. A young athlete from Viljandi, Estonia, who had been drafted into the Soviet Army on November 13, 1967 — he also remembers the exact date. “Of course, I remember it,” he told me on the night of August 21, just a few weeks ago, when I went to visit him. “That’s the date from which they calculated my monthly salary.” Arvi was sent to Kaliningrad for basic training. It was there that he, just like my father, enrolled in radio operator school to learn Morse code. The job came with perks — avoiding heavy labor, for instance, because radio operators were too valuable to risk injury.
From Kaliningrad, in 1968, as the crisis in the relationship between the Czechoslovakian government and its “brother nations” in the Warsaw Pact deepened, Arvi was sent to Poland for nearly a month, before they were dispatched to East Germany and then finally into Czechoslovakia. He rode in the same car as the commander, with two other radio operators. “That was one of the most depressing moments, when we crossed the Czech border,” he recalled. “Someone had painted a skull and crossbones on a boulder at the border in white paint, and underneath it, ‘USSR.’ The commander had traveled the whole time without a helmet. Then he turned and asked, ‘But where is my helmet?'”
They were sent to the border with West Germany where they were stationed guarding a Czechoslovak tank battalion. Each morning after he stood watch, from 6 am to 8 am, he would tune his high-powered radio to pick up the news from Estonia. “The Russians had incredibly strong radios,” he said. One morning he heard that someone had hoisted a satirical protest sign on a street in Tallinn that showed a Russian tank chasing a Czech JAWA motorcycle. And Arvi was there on the Czech side of the border that same morning that my father was in the woods on the German side. Waiting there for orders. Waiting. Then, later that morning, the order came to the American troops to stand down and return to base. The two men never saw combat, and both are today grandfathers to many grandchildren. They never had to fight each other in the woods.
Yet the memory of that time haunts them.
“It was horrible,” my father said. “Almost a hundred people were killed, many hundreds were injured. But as I found out later, President Johnson told the Russians they could do what they wanted with Czechoslovakia. He was more interested in negotiations on reducing nuclear arms.”
One thing that I really understood from talking to my father and Arvi about those events 50 years ago is how young they were. Both of them were 20 years old, both of them had been drafted into the army, both of them were at the will of commanding officers. In almost every conflict it is the young men, some of them still teenagers, who are awakened suddenly at 4 am, who wind up having to give their lives for the decisions of men many times older than them. Brezhnev and Johnson are long gone, but others have taken their places. As conflicts continue to rage, from the sands of Syria to the fields of Ukraine, it’s something I believe we must always keep in mind.