LIFE ON THE “THE FRONTIER OF FREEDOM” THE FULDA GAP (1988-1990)Posted: December 1, 2013
by Circe Woessner
Bad Hersfeld is a beautiful town in Hessen and when we lived there in the late 1980s, it was mere kilometers from the East German border. McPheeters Kaserne was home to the 3rd Squadron of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, which was headquartered in Fulda. The Squadron consisted of HHC and HOW Battery, Killer Troop, I Troop, Mike Company and an assortment of support personnel. I’m not sure of numbers, but I can’t imagine that there were more than 1,000 Americans attached to McPheeters, including wives, children, teachers and other civilian workers.
Nick-named the “Outpost Farthest East in the Free World”, the 3/11th had a scrappy, hardcore reputation of working hard, playing hard, and living fast. They laughed when they explained that part of their job was to “live ten minutes” –just long enough to alarm the rest of the US Army that the Russians were coming through the Fulda Gap.
The Regiment’s official mission was two-fold: defend the Fulda Gap against a possible Warsaw Pact attack and to conduct day-to-day surveillance of 385 kilometers of the Iron Curtain dividing East and West Germany. The Regiment relieved the inactivated 14th Armored Cavalry Regiment and joined V Corps – “The Victory Corps.”
The Regimental mission in the General Defense Plan (GDP) was to strongly reinforce the United States Army Europe (USAEUR) as the covering force for V Corps. The importance of the Fulda Gap was that, to an enemy attacking from the East, it offered the shortest and most direct route across the middle of West Germany. A successful thrust through the Fulda Gap, aimed at seizing the Rhine River crossings at Mainz and Koblenz, would sever West German and NATO forces defending it.
To a young Cavalry wife, the mission of the Cav meant that she and her husband would spend up to 270 days apart as her husband rotated between border outposts, field exercises and joint training with the German military.
It was a lonely life, one that some wives decided they couldn’t handle, and packed up, taking their kids back to “the World”—sometimes forever. The divorce rate was sky high—as was drinking, fighting and domestic violence.
The wives, who stayed, found ways to adapt to the ebb and flow of troop rotation and to enjoy their tour of Germany.
It was hard to find work as an American Army wife in Bad Hersfeld. The post was too small to offer many employment opportunities and few Americans could work on the Economy. I substitute taught at the small DoD elementary school in the housing area and taught conversational English in the German Volkshoch Schule in Rothenburg and painted pictures. My best friend Laura babysat to make extra money.
Our husbands were expected to hang out at the Officer’s club when they were in Garrison and although some of the wives hung out, too, those of us with kids, rarely did.
When the guys were out, Laura and I would pack up our kids in our old Mercury Lynx and drive around the surrounding country. We had a map and we’d head out—exploring small villages, picnicking in parks and finding playgrounds for our four kids to try out. We rarely had money, so our excursions only cost us the gas—and we had Esso coupons to use.
Even now, I think fondly of those day trips into the unknown, my friend Laura willing to go along for the ride, and we never were worried we’d get lost, or break down or come to a bad end. After the border fell, we ventured even farther East—going into the former communist bloc, marveling at the differences a few kilometers made.
Some wives didn’t have the use of their family car, and if they lived on the Economy, they were stuck. One wife, I remember, was fairly much a prisoner—her husband kept her cut off from the post by simply taking the car and parking it on post when his group rotated out for border duty. We’d go visit her, smuggling in food and treats, but being careful that her husband didn’t find out.
The first year Bill was stationed in Bad Hersfeld, we lived in a small town a short ways away called Niederaula.
Bill was still in Ft. Sill when we found out we were being stationed in Bad Hersfeld, so I decided to move back in with my parents who lived in Heidelberg. I was going to find us a place, so we could settle in immediately.
I am not sure how I managed it—in hindsight, we were lucky. Before Bill ever arrived, I’d gone into the Bad Hersfeld housing office, found and rented a house, and had arranged for the delivery of our furniture. That should never have happened, but maybe it was because I spoke German, or maybe because we were such a small post, everything went without a hitch, and before Bill had even set foot in country, we had a house with a yearlong lease and a household goods delivery date.
My first inclination that this was not normally how things worked. I presented myself at the HHC (which was the unit on our orders) and announced that I was LT Woessner’s wife, and the guy behind the desk said, “Never heard of him, where’s he work?” I said, “here”, presenting our orders, and he called his Captain, who said, “I’ll be damned.” He then explained to me that just because someone has orders to a place, it didn’t mean that person would actually be stationed there. Things could change at any time, and I’d be stuck.
Luckily, everything turned out all right, and we moved into our house on Heckstuck Strasse in Neideraula. Our car hadn’t arrived yet, so I was dependent on our hastily appointed sponsor, LT Dewey, who was nice, but very busy, and not interested in carting a wife and kid around any more than he could help it.
Our place in Niederaula was partially furnished with heavy antique furniture and 50’s style wallpaper. It was two stories and had a huge cavernous dark basement with a walkout door, pantries and an ancient oil furnace, which rumbled and leapt into flame.
The first week in the house, Erik and I slept in the living room, because I was too afraid to go up to the second floor. The house creaked and groaned and the furnace clattered alarmingly. Over time, I got used to the old house noises.
Life in Niederaula was slow-paced and nice. I’d walk down to the Bakerei to get fresh hot brotchen in the morning; I’d stop by the Metzgerie to get cold cuts and schnitzels.
A local hunter sold me freshly killed rabbit and venison and the neighbors kept me supplied with vegetables from their garden. Erik went to German kindergarten and I hung out with the neighbors.
The second year there, I felt like I was missing out on the military life, and we decided to pack up and move onto post. I was pregnant with our second child, and it made sense.
Our landlady asked if we wanted to take all the antiques, and we bought the whole lot for about $150.00.
Stairwell living on post plummeted me into the realities of close-knit living. We had a bottom floor apartment and all of us living in the stairwell knew what we were doing at all times.
Laura, who was to become my best friend, lived in the “maid’s quarters” in the attic of our building. Her apartment had slanted ceilings and ran long-ways.
Our apartment complex was just a few buildings up from the Max Nix store, a video rental place, with a whorehouse above it. One day I was startled as a strange man let himself into my apartment. He looked confused and embarrassed, and I quickly directed him to the brothel.
I soon got involved with the officer’s wives groups and we did all the usual “officer’s wives things”, like work in the thrift shop, plan fundraisings, baby showers, and our own amusements. One night, we had our own version of a “Dining In”. Unlike the dining ins of our husbands, we started right off out of control. The theme was “Dress Tacky” and we did. We followed all the protocol of the guy’s dining ins, but we did it with a twist.
It was great fun, but the hangovers lasted for days, so we didn’t do another the rest of the time I was there.
One day, I managed to convince the Commander’s wife to go tour the border—outside of our normal “Family Day” trip up to the OPs. She got some SGT—not sure if he was military police or what. I think we drove in a jeep.
We drove all over the place and took tons of photos, and had a wonderful time. We posed for pictures right along the electrified fence and next to the warning signs. It was a great day.
When I got home, Bill asked what I’d been doing all day, and when I told him, he was less than pleased. As I was getting a lecture, the phone rang and it was the Commander’s Wife. She asked me if I remembered what we’d been doing that day, and puzzled, I said yes. She told me that we had NOT been anywhere and had NOT seen anything, right? I was confused and said but we did go to –“No we didn’t, do you understand?” I hung up, confused, as Bill nodded sagely.
Half way through the Troop’s OP rotation, the families were invited to come out to the Outposts—All of us wives, schlepping kids and care packages, and mail, would pile onto an Army bus and we’d drive out to see our husbands out at either OP Romeo or OP India.
One trip, the young PFC driving the bus, missed the turn off and we found ourselves heading into East German territory. The poor kid was freaking out, but because there was no place to turn around, he had to keep going east. It was very tense. We didn’t know if we were going to be arrested, or shot, or worse. I said, surely they don’t want an international incident, do they? We will just explain what happened.
We came up to some East German guards who looked astonished to see us, and the poor PFC knew that we were all going to die.
I was the only one on the bus who spoke German, and so I explained the situation. After a few moments of whispered debate, the guards flagged us to make a U-turn and we headed back towards the west. We were very happy to see our husbands that day!
We were there when the boarder opened and Germany was reunited. It was a wonderful time in history.
That year, I taught East German and Eastern Europeans conversational English at the Volkshochschule and got to show them that Americans were not the enemy they’d been brought up to believe we were.
Now almost 25 years later, I look back at the years in Bad Hersfeld as some of the happiest in my career as Army wife.
We are the Blackhorse Troopers, the finest in the land;
We fight for right and use our might, to free our fellow man,
Our girls wear yellow ribbons, as pretty as can be;
They’re Troopers too and loyal through, we’re in the Cavalry.
So gather round ye troopers, a story we must tell;
About the Blackhorse Regiment, its servitude in hell.
We’ve fought for freedom bravely, with honor and acclaim,
We are the Eleventh Cavalry and Blackhorse is our name.
Allons! Allons! The Pride of the Cavalry
The Best damn Regiment that you will ever see.