Cold War Memories: The Duty Train to the Zone

One of the unique features about duty in Berlin during the Cold War was the process of ground travel out of the city to what was called "the Zone," or West Germany. Air travel was fairly routine by the time I was stationed in Berlin. Taking a flight from Flughafen Tegel was similar to taking a flight from any other large, metropolitan airport. But leaving West Berlin by car or train was a different beast due to the necessity of travelling through the Deutsche Demokratische Republik. I left and entered the city a number of times by what was called the "duty train." The trains I took left West Berlin in the evening and arrived in Frankfurt the next morning. Shortly after the train departed from the RTO station near Drakestrasse in Berlin, Soviet soldiers would board to inspect our documents (we had to carry "Flag Orders" such as the ones below), the train's passenger compartments, etc. Although these inspections were routine, there was still a level of tension associated with coming nearly face to face with soldiers of our Cold War adversary. The rest of the trip was primarily a slow grind through East Germany. Travel during the long, Northern European summer evenings afforded passengers a glimpse of life behind the Iron Curtain. The rural nature of the route east to west was honestly rather unremarkable. After gazing out of the window for half an hour or so trying to imagine what life in the DDR was like, I usually turned my attention to whatever sleeping arrangements were available for the night. Four bunks to a compartment was standard, although my wife and I did manage to secure a private compartment on our last trip from Frankfurt to Berlin after spending a long weekend in Heidelberg in June of 1986. I called on my memories of those long train trips to write the passages about Bill Johnson's trip to Berlin in Switchback. Those are fond memories of an era now gone, but certainly not forgotten. 

Flag orders for travel from West Berlin to West Germany through the Soviet zone.

Flag orders for travel from West Berlin to West Germany through the Soviet zone.