Check Point Charlie                     Tom Heffernan and                Bill VanHorn

I arranged for a remarkably inexpensive military charter flight from New York City to Frankfort, Germany. During our leave time, I flew to New York. I understand that Bill hitch-hiked across the country to New York. We then flew to Germany, and made many life-long memories.


Soon after we got to Germany, we stopped at a local Hofstra House for a snack and a drink. I ordered a beer, and got a big stein full of wonderful German beer for 70 cents. Bill ordered a coke, and got one of those mini bottles—for about a buck and a half.  Bill said that was one of the most important lessons he learned his entire first year at the Academy.


We hitchhiked wearing our uniforms, and had little trouble getting rides.  When we got to the Swiss border, the Swiss guard told us we couldn’t wear our uniforms into Switzerland.  Something about being a neutral country. So we removed our epaulets from our shoulders, took off our name tags, and took off our hats. We were then wearing our civilian clothes—identical dark blue pants, light blue shirts, blue belts with a shiny silver bucket, and black leather shoes. 


After touring Switzerland, we went to return to Germany. Turns out that Germany, Austria, and Switzerland all share a border at a common point. We left the border post in Switzerland, and walked to the Austrian border by mistake. When we finally realized our mistake, we turned around, and went to the German border post. The German border police had seen us go to Austria, turn back, and now we were trying to get into Germany. We looked mighty suspicious. 


We were finally allowed back into Germany, and hitch-hiked toward Munchen (Munich).  We visited the site where the Olympics would be held in 1972. This is where the Israeli athletes were massacred during those Olympics. For most people today, this is older history. But we were there before it happened. We’ve been around a long time.


We worked our way back, hitchhiking, toward Frankfurt. A convertible, two-seat Porsche stopped. We were first excited about getting a ride in that hot car, but soon realized that there were two people in the two-seat car, which would not leave much room for two hitch-hikers.  We’re not called America’s best and smartest for ‘nothin. The driver and passenger were both wearing helmets. This was getting more and more strange. Then they turned on their flashing lights.  This was a cop car! The German police made sure we were OK, then zoomed away. 


At Frankfurt, we caught the military train to Berlin. Berlin was in the middle of Communist East Germany. You may remember the story of the Berlin Airlift, and how the new U.S. Air Force saved the day back then. After a long train ride, we arrived in Berlin. Just as Germany had a free sector (West Germany) and a communist sector (East Germany), so Berlin has a free sector (West Berlin) and a communist sector (East Berlin). Getting between the parts of Berlin was difficult—there was this wall in the city. Recall Ronald Reagan’s words, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” The Berlin Wall was actually much more than just a wall.  There was a cleared area, then steel beams in concrete, then the wall, topped with razor wire.  There were guard towers along the wall, with East German soldiers with machine guns and orders to shoot anyone trying to get through the wall. There were certain checkpoints were people could pass from one sector to the other. We made our way to the most famous of those checkpoints—Check Point Charlie. 


While back at the Academy, I had made calls and written letters, and had received written permission for Bill and I to go into the communist sector of Berlin.  We didn’t realize until later what an amazing deal that was. (I now believe that being a cadet at the Air Force Academy helped me get that permission.) Some “Westerners” got permission to travel into the Communist sector, but that was in a bus on a guided tour, with only one brief stop to visit some war memorial. Bill and I were able to show our documentation and IDs, and to walk through Check Point Charlie and into East Berlin. We were in our Class A uniforms, as we were required to be.  We walked through Check Point Charlie, watched as we were being photographed by a communist soldier (wonder if our pictures are still in some German archives), and walked past the Berlin Wall into communist Germany.


We had no restrictions on where we could go into the city. The difference between the two parts of Berlin was stark. West Berlin was a thoroughly modern city. East Berlin had several new and modern buildings, but most of it was very run down. Incredibly, there was still visible damage to some of the older buildings from World War II. We went to eat at a restaurant, and met a class of high school students from Poland. When they saw the U.S. on our uniforms, they thought we were from the U.S.S.R. Speaking German, and trying to speak to the Polish kids, they finally understood. “Ah, U.S.A., nein U.S.S.R.” They were truly amazed to see their first Americans.


Bill tells me that one of his favorite purchases in East Berlin were post-cards, saying (in German), “One of our heroes protecting us”, and showing a pilot climbing into a MIG.  Bill said he mailed all of his postcards to his fellow classmates. If any of you saved a particular postcard from a classmate in the summer of 1971, you would have a piece of history. 



Bill Van Horn

9491 South Johnson Court 

Littleton, CO 80127


303-948-8435   work

303-596-3615   cell


USAFA Class of '74 - published a book of our experiences for our 40th reunion!



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