Photo courtesy of Ron Goode
Military escort of Deputy Chief at Checkpoint Charlie, October 22, 1961
Completing both Army Infantry and Airborne training as a newly commissioned officer in the U.S. Army after graduating from Tennessee Tech, Claude L. Stults Jr., was assigned to overseas duty as a 1st Lieutenant in an infantry regiment, and stationed in Germany.
In the sixteen years since the close of World War II, the divided city of Berlin, Germany would become the point of emigration for those who wished to flee Soviet rule and Communism.
Massive emigration westward, especially among professionals: engineers, technicians, physicians, teachers, lawyers, and skilled workers, had affected the East German economy; at least, this was so expressed by the East German communist party leader Walter Ulbricht. The so-called brain drain of professionals had become so damaging to the political credibility and economic viability of East Germany that Ulbricht believed the re-securing of the German communist frontier was imperative.
On August 13, 1961, the border with West Berlin was closed. East German troops and workers had begun to tear up streets running alongside the border to make them impassable by most vehicles and to install barbed-wire entanglements and fences along the 97 miles around the three western sectors, and the 27 miles that divided West and East Berlin.
By October of 1961, only one location restricted to Allied personnel and foreigners, was open for crossing between the divided cities; a vehicle and pedestrian checkpoint at the corner of Friedrichstrasse and Zimmerstasse, known as Checkpoint Charlie.
The border crossing into East Germany was regulated and controlled by the “Vopo’s”, the local name given to the East German people’s police. The Western Allies did not recognize the government of the German Democratic Republic, for whom the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs accorded administrative authority. Walter Ulbricht, the communist party leader, wanted full autonomy and to be recognized by the Western Allied nations. Behind the scenes, however, it was the Soviets very much in control of the Republic in administrative, military, and secret police structures.
The United States, however, had no intentions to forego their rights to cross at will between the divided Berlin sectors; a right paid for in Allied blood in the fight for Germany during World War II. American personnel and official licensed vehicles continued to cross the border at Checkpoint Charlie. U.S. citizens were under orders not to show identification papers to the guards but to ask for a Soviet officer, and usually the East German police would go along with the Americans’ refusal to show them identification.
It was during the months of August through October, as the actual wall began to be built, when tensions along the border climbed to a new level. Those who wished to flee from East Berlin by breeching the newly erected barriers were being shot by the East German border guards now ordered to strictly control the crossing, including the request for papers and identification of everyone coming from the West.
Lt. Claude L. Stults Jr. found himself on the evening of Sunday, October 22, 1961 on a temporary duty assignment at Checkpoint Charlie as the officer of the guard.
At 7:15 p.m. that Sunday evening, Allan Lightner, Deputy Chief of the U.S. Mission, and his wife Dorothy, attempted to enter East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie, to attend a performance at the Stadts Opera. The Lighters’ were in formal dress, and he was driving his own personal vehicle, a black VW, clearly licensed with an American license plate.
They had often attended art and cultural events on the East Berlin side. That evening they were stopped by the “Vopo’s”, who demanded to see some form of identification. Lightner, the top-ranking state department official in Berlin, holding the rank of a minister, refused them, and demanded to speak with a Soviet officer, which was whom the Allied nations recognized as the only officials with administrative authority there.
Lt. Stults watching the delay at the crossing walked across to talk with Lightner, who advised Lt. Stults of the situation, and said he was waiting to talk with a Soviet officer he had requested. Lt. Stults, returned to his post, and continued to monitor the situation, but called his Colonel to advise him.