Friendly Wednesday: Berlin: Wonderful Tunnel!

Today's Friendly Wednesday Post comes from author T.H.E. Hill, author of Voices Under Berlin and gives us a peek into the history of the cold war and the lengths that the US went to to get information about Russians in East Germany.  Stop by tomorrow for my review of the book after reading this wonderful background!

During the night of 21-22 April 1956—fifty-four year ago—the Russians discovered the CIA spy tunnel in Berlin that serves as the historical background for my novel Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary. This engineering marvel extended 1476 feet through sandy, watery ground to reach three cables only 27 inches beneath the surface of the earth, on the shoulder of the Schoenefelder Chaussee, a major highway. One of the most difficult engineering problems that the builders had had to overcome was to dig up to the cable from the main tunnel shaft without dropping some truck passing over the highway above into the tunnel. The total cost of the tunnel project was over six and a half million 1950s dollars, which in 2009 dollars would be almost $53 million.

When the tunnel was discovered by the Soviets, the Time Magazine article (7 May 1956) about its discovery was entitled "BERLIN: Wonderful Tunnel." In the article a German journalist described the tunnel as "the best publicity the U.S. has had in Berlin for a long time." It was indeed a big deal back then. One of the Amazon reviews for Voices Under Berlin says that the novel is "relevant for today." I think that is an accurate assessment.

• You can learn more about the Berlin Spy Tunnel at the on-line Cold War Museum.

From the perspective of history, this is but one of the early minor skirmishes from the known history of the Secret Cold War, which is in reality only the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot more things that went on in the Secret Cold War than are known to the public. To paraphrase Mark Twain, "In the real world, the right thing never happens in the right place and the right time. It is the job of historical novelists to make it appear that it has." That is what I've done with Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary.

The official history of the tunnel describes its discovery like this:

"At approximately 00:50 hours on 22 April, 40 or 50 men were seen on the east side of the Schoenefelder Allee, deployed along the entire area observable from our installation, digging at three to five foot intervals over the location of the cable, and incidentally, the tap chamber. At approximately 02:00 hours the top of the tap chamber was discovered, and at 02:10 Russian speech was heard from the microphone in the tap chamber. The first fragments of speech indicated that the discovery of the tap chamber aroused no suspicion among those present. . . . Shortly afterward the microphone went dead and, after 11 months and 11 days, the operational phase of PBJOINTLY was completed."

In Voices Under Berlin, the description is a bit less formal, and it gives you a feeling for what might have really been going on at the tunnel site on that April night when the Russian discovered it. That is the big difference between history and fiction. The historian tries to be objective, suppressing any discussion of the feelings of those involved, which, by definition, are purely subjective. The novelist, on the other hand, is looking for exactly the kind of thing that historians spurn. Ignoring the factual chaff of the memoirist, whose task is more descriptive than analytical, the novelist likes to search for sweeping truths of global breadth that reflect the processes that take place in people's minds. The pseudo-reality of fiction seeks to subsume the individual factual realities of the many. Voices Under Berlin, therefore, is ostensibly, but not entirely 1950s Berlin. To steal a line from Walter Cronkite, "Today is Saturday, the twenty-first of April 1956. All things are as they were then, except… You Are There."

The Voices Fall Silent

It was raining the Saturday night that they shut the Shoss down. Detroit was in the Crow's Nest, but even he could not miss the fact that the blurred streaks of light that normally floated about four feet above the Shoss on dark, rainy nights like this one had disappeared. It was normal for it to slow down to one or two trucks a minute with the occasional car thrown in for variety, but for it to go totally dark—except for the compound-perimeter lights and the spotlights on the Vopo tower—was unheard of, until at least 23:00 Local. It was only 20:00 Local and there should have been plenty of life left in the light show yet.

Detroit knew what time it was because he had AFN on and the unmistakably American voice of the announcer had just said: "It's eight o'clock in Central Europe. Do you know where your children are?" Detroit did not have any children, but he knew where he was, and he would have rather been out in the rain, looking for the children he did not have than sitting in the Crow's Nest watching trucks and cars that were not there.

There was not anybody to talk to in the Crow's Nest, and nothing to do except watch the Vopos watch you, and stare out into the dark, looking for some threat to the tunnel, whatever that might be. It was terribly boring and everybody pulling duty in the Crow's Nest dreamed of seeing the mythical floozies in the Vopo tower that Kevin had always talked about, or at least finding a threat to the tunnel, so that they would have something to do.

Detroit had the same dream as everybody else, but there he was with an indication of a threat to the tunnel that he did not recognize, so he just kept watching the darkened Shoss do nothing, and did not tell anybody.

At 20:37 Local a single Russian jeep came out of the darkness, moving at a walking pace. It was preceded by a uniformed Russian on foot, holding a long, thin stick that he swept slowly back and forth across the shoulder of the road in front of him as he plodded along in the pouring rain about ten feet ahead of the jeep. He was walking the cable track. Even Detroit could see that. Detroit picked up the binoculars and studied the walking Russian. He looked even more disgustingly bored than Detroit was, which was a major achievement in and of itself, but the Russian did have the advantage of being sopping wet. If Detroit had been sopping wet too, he would have, without a doubt, looked more disgustingly bored than the Russian, but he was dry and sitting down to boot.

The Russian held up his hand and stopped. He didn't want the jeep to run over him and had to let them know he was going to stand still. He was right over the tap chamber. He waved his wand back and forth. He motioned to the jeep to cut the motor so he could hear better. That action also explained why the Russians had shut down traffic on the Shoss. The cable track walker would not have heard anything as quiet as a gas leak with all those noisy trucks zipping by him every ten seconds. The drenched Russian turned around, walked back to the jeep, and climbed in. It wasn't heated, but at least it got him out of the rain and the wind. Six minutes later, the jeep was joined by a Russian two-and-a-half-ton truck.

An officer got out of the jeep, and went back to talk with the sergeant in the truck who was in charge of the digging detail. After a short conference, the sergeant got his crew out of the back of the truck and showed them where to start digging: right in front of the truck. The truck's headlights lit up the work site for them.

The officer went back to the jeep and got inside. The jeep did a three-point turn so that its lights were pointing at the truck. The extra light made it easier for the shovellers to see what they were doing.

This was something Detroit could understand. All the hours of seemingly wasted vigilance expended on manning the Crow's Nest had just paid off. The Russians were digging right over the tap chamber.

Detroit picked up the handset of the field telephone and spun the crank. A bored voice at the other end said "You rang?" in imitation of Master-Sergeant Laufflaecker's now famous greeting to the Crow's Nest. It was Corporal Neumann. "The Russians have stopped all the traffic on the Shoss, and they're getting ready to dig right over the tap chamber." Detroit's call to Corporal Neumann produced a flurry of activity. The Chief of Base started his counter-surveillance run to the Site. Fast Eddie wrote an imminent threat to the Site report and ran it down to the comm center. Sergeant Laufflaecker climbed up to the Crow's Nest, not so much to keep Detroit from getting lonely, as to confirm his observations. No actions as dire as those prescribed by the SOP for an event such as this could be taken on the basis of uncorroborated reporting.

"That doesn't look good," said Sergeant Laufflaecker, corroborating Detroit's analysis of the situation. As if to corroborate his corroboration, one of the Russian diggers put his foot on his shovel to push it another six inches deeper into the ground, and fell 13 feet to the bottom of the tap chamber instead.

Sergeant Laufflaecker instantly recognized the significance of the digger's disappearance, grabbed the field phone and aggressively turned the crank that rang the bell at the distant end.

"Yes," said Corporal Neumann, who recognized the sound of disaster striking that was implied by the way the bell of the field phone was ringing.

"Intruder alert!" intoned Sergeant Laufflaecker. "Evacuate the tunnel, and cut power to the lights!"

"The tunnel's been empty since Detroit made his first report," replied Corporal Neumann. "The tunnel is dark," he added, turning the key in the switch that activated a big red light at the tunnel entrance. The light said "Do Not Enter."

"Good," replied Sergeant Laufflaecker, "and get the fifty-caliber into place."

• To find out what happens next, you'll have to buy a copy of Voices Under Berlin.

For those whose Cold War vocabulary was challenged by this excerpt, the novel has a glossary at the front.

About the author:
T.H.E. Hill, the author of Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary, served with the U.S. Army Security Agency at Field Station Berlin in the mid-1970s, after a tour at Herzo Base in the late 1960s. He is a three-time graduate of the Defense Language Institute (DLIWC) in Monterey, California, the alumni of which are called "Monterey Marys". The Army taught him to speak Russian, Polish, and Czech; three tours in Germany taught him to speak German, and his wife taught him to speak Dutch. He has been a writer his entire adult life, but now retired from Federal Service, he writes what he wants, instead of the things that others tasked him to write while he was still working.

You can learn more about T.H.E. Hill and his books at:

This guest post and my review tomorrow were coordinated through Pump Up Your Book Promotions and I thank the coordinators there for putting me in touch with T.H.E. Hill and this wonderful book