Don’t let the smile on his young face fool you. He is well aware of how close to the Communist border he is, a mere stone’s throw, and the potential danger involved in the work he is doing. A graduate of two Navy schools on collection of communication and electronic signals, he is a professional. The entire crew he worked with, of 17 sailors, were smart, young and probably also naïve.
They were all part of something new and exciting. The Navy security group in Bremerhaven Germany was opening a new intercept station in Todendorf. It would be the USNAVSECGRUDET Todendorf. (US Naval Security Group Detachment Todendorf) There would be a total of 17 Cryptographic Technicians specializing in the collection of Communist block military communications, which involved locating and identifying Russian defensive radars and cataloging their parameters and purpose.
Todendorf was selected as the new collection site for two reasons. There was a permanent existing US Army base there used for training the big artillery guns. They could fire out over the Baltic Sea as the base was on the coast directly overlooking the water. Putting 17 sailors in the middle of an Army base with 500 or so soldiers coming and going for training seemed like a genius place to hide us and hide our purpose and it worked!
I was 20 years old in the above photo. All 17 members of the team were the same age except for the officers and Chiefs, who were older. Ron Frieman, third from the right on the top row would be the first to die, but of course we didn’t know that then, when the photo was taken.
Sadly, now, I am the last surviving member.
There were more stationed in Todendorf than are in the photo above, and I will list their names as they were plank members too.
Myself and a friend whose name escapes me. The building in the photo is the barrack that we lived in. There is a camera around my neck.
James L Fisher, New Mexico — James from Tennessee (name not readable)
Nick Gunderol-Colorado — Ron Frieman-New York — Mickey J Jolly Texas
Bernard J Seavers Wisconsin — Jack Perkins Texas — Robert Peres Oregon
Joseph C Jernigan Florida-DON DUPAY Oregon — Ray De Shazer Montana
Skip Duguette Massachusetts — Frank Sebastian Pennsylvania
James Ercole Ohio — JE Mc Tigue — WF Brown Texas — ME Morris our Chief
(There were one or two names I can’t decipher and Robert Christie who arrived a month later)
When I arrived in Todendorf in April 1957, technicians were still installing the equipment we had been trained on. This was ground floor stuff and we were all excited to be part of it.
In short order we were manning the equipment and the watches were set up. We worked Eve, Day & Mid watches. Eve watch 1600 to 2400. Get some sleep to be back at 0800. Work until 1600, eat dinner at the mess hall or gedunk for burgers then grab some shut eye and back to work at 2400.
Work all night eating “midrats” which were midnight shift rations. This usually consisted of thick slices of bologna with mustard on white bread. Of course, we called the bologna “horse cock sandwiches,” for a laugh.
At 0700 Hillbilly Gasthaus would come on the AFN Armed Forces Network.) And as many of us were ‘shit kickers,’ which meant we were lovers of country and western music. We would listen quietly of course with two sets of headphones, one set on the receiver we were working on and the other set on AFN radio station.
At 0800 we were off shift. We usually grabbed a beer from the boiler room where we kept a case stashed and were soon off to bed for the day hoping to get to sleep, trying not to hear the normal sounds of the barracks during the day, which was the typical sweeping and vacuuming of the area and the guys talking about girls. When we awakened, we were off duty for the day and the next day as well, before starting the cycle again at 1600 for the eve shift.
As we all settled in, our work was divided into three positions intercepting Communist block military communications. The Comint, (communications intelligence section) were tasked with intercepting specific targets given to us by the NSA, National Security Agency in DC. If the number one target was not transmitting, target number two was searched and then number three and so on. Logs of these intercepts were sent to Bremerhaven in the weekly mail run. The radios used to receive the signals were called R-390’s.
The Elint section (electronic intelligence was tasked with intercepting and recording non communication signals i.e., radar and IFF (identification friend or foe). Two positions were manned 24 hours a day, one position looking for long range surveillance radars from the Communist Bloc Nations and the second position searching for hi-band radars, signals from ships radars, such as fire control radars when the guns were in use and height finding radars which were looking for range and height information from aircraft and other specialized radar transmitters.
Often the Army fire control radars used to direct the big cannons firing out over the Baltic overloaded our receivers and blanked us out. We couldn’t complain as we could not tell the Army what we were really doing. Our cover story had us working as weather people. Occasionally we were asked about the weather forecast, so we checked out the weather report on AFN and let people know.
Within a few months of intercepting Communist Bloc radars, we were able to build what the Navy called an Electronic Order of Battle, i.e., a map of radar locations and the purpose of their stationary radars. Our Comint Section was routinely adding to our intelligence of their military radio nets and identifying which station was net control. We were producing great intelligence and the NSA in DC was happy with our work.
Out the front gate and within walking distance was a Gasthaus operated by a middle-aged chubby Frau. Mooty as we called her soon took us sailors under her wing and she mothered us all. None of us was over 21 and all miles from home and we welcomed the attention. The Navy guys were permanent duty guys while the Army was constantly coming and going. They were transients to her. We had our own little section of the bar. We didn’t socialize or drink with the Army. They were too curious about our work, and we were told not to talk with them, so we didn’t. They thought we were a snooty group. But we had to be standoffish.
Although the Navy’s plan for our escape should the Cold War suddenly become hot, and the Communist forces came rushing across the border, we all knew their plan was at best optimistic. We were instructed to destroy all our equipment and burn all the classified documents, then escape to Kiel, about fifty miles North in our van or the VW Bug that I had bought. That was the end of the escape plan. Where were we to gather? Who would rescue us? Wives and children were discouraged from coming to Todendorf as we were told, they would not be evacuated and would be left behind!
My young wife would not be coming, and we knew we would be separated for at least two years. We were never made aware of how the Army was to react if things got hot. Capturing an Army base would have been a plum for the Communists.
Our only tools of destruction were fire axes and a makeshift burn barrel kept out behind the barracks. Our defensive weapons were a handful of 1911 .45 pistols, (I kept mine close) and one .30 caliber Carbine. Essentially, we were defenseless. Our vehicles consisted of one 1955 Chevrolet Navy sedan, and one two-and-a-half-ton truck with our equipment shack and a generator bolted to the bed. The Chief and our officer in charge had the only private vehicles. (And I later bought my old VW Bug, for my own safety).
Practically speaking, we were 17 sailors who had no effective means of escape. We were mere twenty miles from Lubeck where the border passed through the country by road or if the Communists came by boat, all they had to do was park it on the beach and walk up to our back door.
Our base was a trap for us, and we all knew it.
And over time this constant fear of having your neck on the chopping block wore on us. The stress was always there in the back of our minds. I realized it was a big reason for our constant consumption of alcohol when we were off duty, that and being thousands of miles from home, away from our family and friends.
Once in a while going to Lubeck, (which was strictly forbidden) gave us a sense of giving the finger to the Commies. I only went with my Chief in his car a few times. His car was a 1955 Pontiac sedan which we parked on a side street out of sight of the guard shack. We didn’t want them to see an American car.
We found a bar only a city block from the border and we could get a window seat and watch the Green clad guards with their automatic weapons pacing back and forth guarding their little part of Communism. The Chief and I drank our beers, conversed quietly and when we were finished, left quietly, unnoticed. Going to Lubeck was foolish and against all our rules — but it provided some sense of control over our own lives. We could thumb our noses at the enemy and then go home and listen to his conversations. It was our way of saying “fuck you!” and feeling less afraid.
It was the rattling noise of the padlock on Ron Frieman’s locker which woke me. I was sleeping in, snug in the cubicle I shared with Ron, having supervised the four to midnight shift. By now I had been in Todendorf for a year and a half and had been promoted to E-5, so I was one of two supervisors over both the Comint and Elint sections. I thought it must be 10:am by now.
Ron must be late getting back from liberty in Kiel, I thought to myself. Opening my eyes, I saw the Chief and our Officer in charge trying to open Ron’s locker with a pair of bolt cutters. What were they doing, I wondered as I tried to wake up.
“I have a key to his locker,” I offered. They didn’t respond. “Where’s Ron? I asked, getting up on my elbow. They stopped fiddling with the lock and looked at me. Again, they didn’t answer, they just looked at me and then at each other saying nothing. Their silence felt heavy. “Where’s Ron?” I asked again, growing concerned.
Finally, our Officer in charge turned to me and quietly said: “Ron was killed last night in a car accident in Kiel with two of our other guys. They were drunk and drove through a railing and into the bay.” He paused before continuing. “They all drowned except for an Army guy they picked up along the way. He was the only one able to get out of the car as it went into the water.”
I got out of bed, stood up, standing in my underwear. I was in shock, partly because we had just lost three of our crew and also the realization that I was supposed to go to Kiel with them. There was only one other E-5 supervisor, and he wouldn’t trade shifts with me so I could go, and I’d had to work that night.
I couldn’t speak. Everyone in the barracks had been listening and they all knew by now. There was a pall in the nearly silent room, with only the faint sound of the breathing of those around me. Fritz, our German dayworker stood nearby leaning on his broom, frowning, his head down, lowering his eyes.
Ron, was dead? He had been like a brother to me from the first day of CT school at Imperial Beach California, then we shared more schooling in Washington DC. Until finally, we shipped out for Germany from Brooklyn on the USS General Walker, and then spent a year and a half in Todendorf, Germany, together.
He was gone? How could that even be real?
What would the Navy tell his mother in New York? What would they tell her? That he got drunk and drove through a guard rail and into Kiel Bay? What would they have told my wife and mother had I gone out with them?
I had been spared and strangely, I felt keenly guilty. Why me? Why was I spared? For what?
The Chief and the OIC slowly began removing things from Ron’s locker and inventorying them, his Navy clothes, his civvies, a few personal papers and letters from his mom and some photos he had kept carefully stored in a white envelope. The top shelf of his locker contained quick things to eat when he came back drunk, several cans of Vienna sausages, Pork & Beans, two cans of Chili and a package of stale popcorn. There was a bottle of Glenlivet Scotch and two cans of Ginger Ale Ron kept to mix with the Scotch.
The Chief offered these things to me, as he knew Ron and I were close. He also ignored the fact that we weren’t supposed to have booze in the barracks, as he silently handed me the Glenlivet.
I put the items in my locker and laid back down on my bunk, fighting the tears that were forming in my eyes. I tried contemplating what had happened and what could have happened to me. I had been spared death, but my friend hadn’t. It made no sense to me.
Ron was the first of us to die, not dodging Communists with a gun in his hand but dying stupidly, foolishly and so unnecessarily. Nothing would be the same now, and in a few days’ replacement CTs would be sent to Todendorf. It would be as if the three men, boys really, had never even existed.
Alcohol had been the enemy and it had killed my brother, my best friend.
Because it was too dangerous for dependents to come to Todendorf, my wife and I agreed remaining celibate for two years would be impossible. We were pragmatic. We knew how young we both were and it would not have been fair.
Besides the Chief and our OIC, I was the only other married man in our group. There were no prostitutes in Todendorf or Lujenburg, which was the closest village to the base. The young women in the area were farm girls or worked in the Gasthaus’s serving beer, or they worked in a nearby factory sewing burlap bags. The only prostitutes worked in Bremerhaven and Kiel.
I bought an old VW for $500.00 for two reasons. Number one, so I would have a way to escape the Communists if we ever got into serious trouble, and the other reason was so I could motor around the area, sightsee and not die of boredom.
I often drove to Lujenburg, a quintessential medieval German village from the 9th century with cobblestone streets and old-world charm. Lujenburg had escaped damage during the WW2, and was a pleasant return to old Germany with all the charm of an old fashioned village.
I often drank at the Metropol, a Gasthaus I was comfortable with and that is where I met Margrit. She had brown shoulder length hair, a pretty face and a bright smile. Like many of the local girls she wore no makeup as items like lipstick and perfume were too expensive for them to purchase. Margrit made only a few Marks a day sewing burlap feed bags in a factory, and barely survived.
On my days off I would spend as much time as possible with Margrit. Eventually, with money from my pay, I would buy her perfume and lipstick I could buy at the PX. She liked TABU perfume the best and bright red lipstick. We became friends at first and gradually we became lovers. Margrit rented a small room on the second floor of an old house owned by a woman named Frau Spritz. To get to her room we had to climb a set of stairs up from the back yard where Frau Spritz kept a goat. The goat was chained up and had a pen at night and Frau Spritz sold the milk she received.
Sneaking in at night could be a tricky business, and it was like anything you might have seen in a film. Two lovers, sneaking up the back stairs so they could make love, silently on a single bed in a tiny room.
The time I spent with Margrit was time I looked forward to. We walked hand in hand around the village stopping at the bakery for a loaf of swartzbrod then to the butcher shop for sliced ham and sausages. If the weather was nice, we would drive to a small lake not far from the Army base and picnic on the beach. In retrospect spending time with Margrit kept me from drinking with the guys. When we were together, alcohol didn’t seem necessary. Most of us 17 sailors had regular girlfriends we had developed over time and only a few went to Kiel to hang out with the legal prostitutes, who were clean and received regular medical care and blood tests.
When I first arrived in Todendorf, with the two plus years of work ahead of me and being so young, it seemed like I was stuck there for a lifetime. In retrospect the time went by all too quickly.
During my last month there I put up a short timer’s calendar on the inside of my locker door. and marked off the days remaining. I was eager to get back to America and start my life over again, with my wife. I was already missing Margrit and my emotions were a mess. Would my wife still be my wife when I got home? Could we start over? Could I forget about Margrit? Would Margrit be okay? Would she find someone to look after her?
Right around this time, I was offered a job with the CIA as a civilian doing similar work in Cypress. But I would have had to agree to leave Todendorf and go immediately to Cypress without any time off to see my wife. This fact added more things to think about and my head was swirling with thoughts and confusions. If I’d only been given some time to decompress, see my wife, and figure out what to do, I might have made a different decision.
On my last day I was debriefed, I ate a hot lunch in the mess hall in Bremerhaven then caught a ride on the Navy shuttle to the pier where another MSTS transport ship was waiting. With my seabag over my shoulder, I climbed up the gangplank, saluted the OD and went aboard. I found my way below decks and found the berthing area when I picked a rack and tossed my seabag up. I had decided against the CIA job and In a few days, I would be in Brooklyn awaiting discharge and a return to civilian life and my wife. I was both terrified and thrilled at what was ahead of me.
I didn’t know it then, but many decades later, I would be the last remaining survivor of the US NAVSECGRU SET of Todendorf, Germany. They have all died, all my other friends and brothers. I’m the only one left, now in 2022, at age 86, and there are times when I feel that strange and lingering guilt. Why me? Why did I survive and why am I still here?