‘Almost started World War 3’ US veteran recalls gripping tale of crossing enemy lines

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After the Potsdam conference, Berlin was divided into four occupied zones, but less than two decades later, during the Berlin Crisis, the USSR launched an ultimatum demanding the withdrawal of all armed forces, including those in West Berlin. The spat culminated in the city’s de facto partition with the East German erection of the Berlin Wall and the barrier included guard towers accompanied by a wide area, later known as the “death strip,” that contained anti-vehicle trenches, beds of nails, and other defences. The Eastern Bloc portrayed the wall as protecting its population from fascist elements conspiring to prevent the “will of the people” from building a socialist state in East Germany and were ordered to shoot anyone trying to cross.

Mark Valley was serving in the US Army as a combat engineer in West Germany in the late Eighties and he revealed during a podcast how he almost made a huge mistake.

Speaking on the Cold War Conversations podcast, he remarked: “While I was in Berlin I almost started World War 3,” jokingly adding: “It was the time I attacked East Germany all by myself.”

Mr Valley continued: “We had to train in Helmstedt in West Germany and when I got to Berlin my unit was just taking off to train.

“So I had to stay in Berlin and do the mandatory processing, then I had a few days in the city on my own where I just wandered around.

“Then I had to get on the duty train to go and meet my unit and do what engineers do.”

Mr Valley detailed how he accidentally got off the train too early.

He added: “So I had my rucksack, my helmet and a weapon too and I’m on the train asleep in the cabin and the transportation guy came and knocked on my door.

“But I was really tired and groggy, and he said ‘next stop we’re here,’ but I must have only heard ‘we’re here’.

“So I walked down the aisle, put my helmet on and grabbed my pack, and just jumped off the train.

“I’m looking down the platform and I can’t see anything so I head behind the building, and I start thinking they look a bit rough.

“I was walking past one [building] and kind of snooping around looking for a truck, but I get this sick feeling in my stomach that it was not where I was supposed to be.”

Realising he was behind enemy lines, Mr Valley knew he had to move quickly to avoid being stranded.

He continued: “It just didn’t look like West Germany and I looked further down the platform and there’s a guy in a long brown coat and a brown wooden staff and fuzzy hat walking towards me.

“I just turned around and walked as quickly as I could back to the train thinking ‘don’t get shot, don’t get shot, please’.

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“I got to the train as it was starting to go and the Russian guard walked up to me and told me to get back on now.

“It’s a good job I didn’t make a fuss though because the wall ended up coming down soon after.”

The consequences of Mr Valley being caught and deemed as a spy working across the border could have been deadly, especially during a time where the Soviet Union and the US were working to bring peace following a change of mindset under Mikhail Gorbachev.

In 1989, a series of revolutions in nearby Eastern Bloc countries – Poland and Hungary in particular – caused a chain reaction in East Germany that ultimately resulted in the demise of the wall.

After several weeks of civil unrest, the East German government announced on November 9, 1989, that all citizens could visit West Germany and West Berlin.

Crowds of East Germans crossed and climbed onto the wall, joined by West Germans on the other side in a celebratory atmosphere.

The Communist Party of the Soviet Union itself lost control soon after and was banned following an abortive coup attempt in August 1991.

This led to the formal dissolution of the USSR in December 1991 and the collapse of communist regimes in other countries.

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