US-USSR Changing of the Guard
The following incident happened while I was serving in the U.S. Army with the Berlin Brigade from 1976 through 1979. It was during the cold war with the Soviet Union in Berlin, a city divided by the great powers that won World War II.
According to the Potsdam Agreement in 1945, Berlin was divided into occupation zones, one each for the Russians, French, British, and the Americans. It was during this time the Americans carried out the only military ceremony with the Soviet Union. It took place in Spandau Prison in the British sector of the occupation.
The prince of Prussia built the structure in the 1840s to confine his political rivals and anyone else he deemed to be subversive. A hundred and thirty-five years later and it still looked like an old medieval castle that Hollywood would create for a horror movie. It was built with 5-foot-thick brick and mortar walls to stop cannonballs and a large wood and steel gate that lowered to seal the main entrance. The Gestapo took it over during World War II and used it to hold prisoners, conduct interrogations, and to perform executions.
When I was there, it was a dark, cold, and drafty place, befitting of its only prisoner, Rudolf Hess, Deputy Fuhrer to Adolph Hitler. He was sentenced to Spandau in 1947, and 40 years later at the age of 93, he would kill himself.
For sure the prison had a long and bloody past and God only knows what horrors were committed there. The British soldiers stationed nearby knew it to be haunted and avoided the place like the plague.
During my tenure, someone from my command headquarters decided to put together a unit of combat veterans to participate in a ceremony with the Russian honor guard. The idea was to show them up and let them see what experienced infantry soldiers looked like, as opposed to their more ceremonial approach.
Each of us was hand-picked and we practiced every single aspect of the ceremony over and over until we were all sleeping at attention. It paid off because when the day came we outshined the Russians. But as usual, there was a flip side: We had to remain and the Russians, who were as frightened of the bloody place as the rest of us, got to leave. Only Hess’s doctors remained. For three months, we lived in the compound and pulled prison guard over the old Nazi.
There were nine guard towers around the prison wall. We would enter the base of a tower through a locked door and climb a steep ladder-like staircase to a trapdoor under the floor of a guard stack. Once inside, we would close the small door and stand on it throughout our watch. All the towers were the same, that is, except for Tower 7.
Spandau Prison Guard Tower
That one was—special.
Whenever we had to pull guard in Tower 7, the others would ask the next morning if anything happened. I think everyone had experienced something strange there. Did it have anything to do with the French soldier that hung himself in it years earlier?
One day it was my time to pull a shift in the infamous tower. As usual, we were marched to each one where the sergeant of the guard dropped off a fresh soldier. When we got to Tower 7, which was located at the rear section of the prison, the sergeant of the guard unlocked the ground level door, I worked my way up the steep staircase, climbed into the guard shack, closed the trapdoor, and assumed my post as the door far below was once again locked.
I had been there just a short while when two strange things happened simultaneously. I heard the door at the base of the tower open, and at the same time I felt the temperature drop. The door opening at that moment was strange because it wasn’t the end of my shift and only the sergeant of the guard had the key.
Then I heard heavy, labored breathing as if someone were having trouble getting air. But it was the next sound that turned my blood cold.
Footsteps. On the stairs. Ascending toward me.
I called out, “Who goes there? Stop and identify yourself!" I had a full magazine of live ammunition and I thought about loading my weapon. But I stopped myself.
The footsteps grew nearer until they were just under the floor of the guard shack.
Then something pushed up against the trapdoor—and I was standing on it.
I could hear what sounded like someone mumbling something, all the while the trapdoor bumped up and down. It seemed to go on forever but in reality it was only a few minutes; I was so petrified and I—
It stopped and all was quiet.
The next day when the guys asked if anything had happened on my post in Tower 7, I just told them no.
Three months later, we were all glad to leave the unsettling place known as Spandau Prison. So many people had lost their lives there in such terrible ways. I was happy to be gone and I never looked back.
I guess the German people of Berlin felt the same way after Hess died in 1987. They demolished that brick and mortar house of horrors and by doing so freed, I hope, all those trapped and tormented souls.