As Boone County Marshal Mike Franks went about his duties at the courthouse this week, his thoughts were on another security role that played an important part in his life, a task assigned to him 30 years ago and half a world away.
Franks, in his younger days, was a member of the famous Berlin Brigade, and was stationed in West Berlin as the infamous wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989.
At the age of 26, he served as a sergeant in the 287th Military Police Company, a unit dedicated shortly after World War II to provide support and security in the country and later at checkpoints Bravo and Charlie along the Berlin Wall.
“Each time I look back, I realize we were, we are, a part of history,” Franks said. “During that time, I had the honor and the privilege of serving alongside some of the finest soldiers I've ever known. We are all still a family. No matter how long between visits we always pick right up where we left off.”
In August 1961, East Germany sealed the border, creating the democratic bubble of West Berlin a stone’s throw from the Communist-controlled area of the city. Over the years that followed, countless East Berliners sought an escape to the freedoms of the west looming large on their doorsteps, eventually causing the erection of the concrete and barbed wire barriers.
Years later and spurred by the thaw of the Cold War, the Revolutions of 1989 saw a wave of opposition to Soviet domination of Central and Eastern Europe. During the summer of that year, regimes fell in Poland and Hungary, leading to an exodus of East Germans and further destabilization of Communist control.
“The feeling in the air in the days leading up to the fall was electric,” Franks said. “I did not know what was going to happen, but it was obvious something was. A lot of us thought the Russians were going to do something to stop the unrest. I remember one of the German police officers telling me the wall was going to fall and that he could return to his childhood home on the outskirts of East Berlin.
“Something big was on the wind. Like Bob Dylan said, ‘The times, they are a changin.'”
Others who served with Franks also shared their stories with the Tribune this week via email. Matt Garrison, who was an assistant operations sergeant at a combined German and American law enforcement station, wrote about an event he was once sworn to secrecy over, which occurred just prior to reunification.
In a very remote section of West Berlin, a contractor used heavy equipment to locate cracks in the wall in an effort to tear it down in sections, and actually lifted and set aside one of the concrete segments, Garrison wrote. The event put him eye-to-eye with a Russian officer, a scene that could have made for an international catastrophe.
“We stood there in awe watching as it slowly separated and lifted off the foundation,” Garrison wrote. “Then shock and confusion and some actual fear crept in as we saw the boots of a Russian officer underneath that section. I was reaching down to pick up a larger piece of the wall with graffiti all over it as I saw the Russian officer collecting a pristine white piece from the other side. As the wall lifted, we watched each other and could tell we were both assessing the situation.”
The tension was thick, as both he and the officer mulled drawing sidearms. Instead, they both calmed down and reached out with the pieces of the wall they had collected, making an exchange of concrete and friendship.
“We then exchanged belt buckles and hat brass and his driver ran back to his staff car and brought out a bottle of Vodka and several shot glasses,” Garrison wrote. “We toasted the end of an era and the operator lowered the wall back into place.”
On Nov. 9, 1989, Günter Schabowski, First Secretary of the East Berlin Communist Party, announced at a press conference that there would be open emigration between East and West Berlin. German media announced that evening the borders would be open and citizens began arriving at checkpoints demanding to be allowed through the gates.
Mike Ellis, who also served with Franks, wrote that he was working as a desk clerk at that time at the MP station with Sgt. Smiley Baldwin, who would later become an iconic club bouncer in the city following reunification. When the announcement was made, at first, it seemed business as usual.
“I remember looking at him and asking what should we do and he laughed and said, ‘I guess we should call some people,’” Ellis wrote. “We sent a unit out to Charlie, but it was the middle of the night and nothing much was happening. A captain came into the station, but nothing really happened that night other than everyone scrambling around. I went to the barracks and went to sleep.”
“The next night I worked Checkpoint Charlie and it was a madhouse.”
Franks, on the evening of Nov. 9, had just completed his shift and headed home for the evening when he heard on CNN the wall had fallen, much to his disbelief.
“Surely we would have found out before the stateside media did,” he says, but continues that minutes later his phone rang.
“Initially, we were all told to report to the company area, where an MP would be assigned to each open section of the wall in order to count how many were coming in,” Franks said. “My squad was sent back home, since we were the day shift and would be relieving night shift in a little over six hours. On the way home, I found a section of the wall and saw hundreds of West Berliners climbing atop, creating a party-like atmosphere.”
The next morning, Franks was assigned to transport another MP to Checkpoint Charlie to relieve one working the night shift. He says it normally took about 40 minutes to make the drive from the station to the checkpoint, but all along the route, the city was in gridlock. Thousands celebrating the opening poured into the checkpoints overnight and others were demolishing the long-standing symbol of Communist rule themselves.
“There was a yellow haze in the air and it smelled like a lawnmower engine had been started just outside my window. It took almost an hour to make it to Checkpoint Charlie and another two hours to get back to the MP station,” Franks said. “Everywhere one looked, there were openings in the wall with East Berliners pouring through.”
However, while the crowds were massive and the scene was chaotic, Franks says it was a magical time and there was no unruly behavior.
“There were large groups on top of the wall, and while some used hammers and chisels on the wall — at one point some of us used a sledgehammer on the wall — it was a festive time,” Franks said. “Families and loved ones, separated since 1961, were reunited. It was a truly magical time. It was history in the making.”