This super-secret Cold War military unit just came in from the cold
Dressed in civilian clothes with long hair, the men looked like any other on the streets of East Berlin.
Their German accents didn’t give away their true identities as American Special Forces soldiers, part of a clandestine military unit operating during the Cold War.
Berlin, a divided city located 100 miles behind the Iron Curtain, was a focal point in the tensions that developed between NATO forces and the Soviet Union after World War II.
With a literal line drawn between the forces — American troops and their allies in West Berlin and Soviet troops and their supporters in East Berlin — the city became the “Grand Central Station of East-West espionage” and a “playground for all sorts of secret agents,” according to Bob Charest, a retired Army master sergeant and former Green Beret.
It was there that, for nearly 30 years, an elite Special Forces unit operated. Today, those veterans are decades removed from their secretive mission, but are only now receiving recognition for their efforts.
The little-known unit, called Detachment A, held various missions during its short-lived history, but the longest-standing was the “stay behind” mission.
In the event of World War III — with Soviet forces expected to come pouring across the Berlin Wall — members of the detachment, who never numbered more than 100 men, were expected to blend into the city and make life difficult for the much larger Communist force.
Teams were assigned sabotage missions, ready to destroy key transportation lines, military equipment, and other targets. They also would be expected to train and lead guerrilla forces that would then be tasked with harassing the Soviet troops from behind enemy lines, buying important time to allow NATO forces to mount a counterattack.
Charest, twice a member of Detachment A, recalled one of his team’s forays across the Berlin Wall recently during a visit to Fort Bragg.
Despite the soldiers’ efforts to go unnoticed, it was not unusual for the men to realize they were being followed, Charest said.
When that happened, the soldiers were trained to evade the extra attention and disappear into the city. Failure was not an option.
“You’re a spy,” Charest said, decades after having served in the city. “You didn’t have any dog tags. You weren’t there, officially.”
“If they caught you, they would either kill you or put you in jail,” he said.
Despite the high stakes, Charest said, the men were highly trained and able to stay calm under pressure.
Part of that training involved how to surveil targets amid the busy city and, if needed, lose the enemy when under unwanted scrutiny.
“We knew we were being watched,” Charest said.
Luckily, the men also knew their way around the city. Unlike other American troops in Berlin, these soldiers were trained to blend into Berlin. They had to immerse themselves in the city, becoming as knowledgeable on its nooks and crannies as the locals.
As the team led their tail through the city, Charest said, the soldiers made their way to a train station, part of the city’s subway, or U-Bahn, network.
Instead of stepping onto a train, the men let the first one pull out of the station. A second train arrived and the men were seemingly set to let that one pass, too.
But at the last moment, just before the doors closed, Charest said, the soldiers stepped onto the train.
He turned just in time to lock eyes with the man who had been following them. Charest is unsure who he worked for. It could have been the East German Secret Police, known as the Stasi, or the Soviet KGB.
As the train pulled out of the station, Charest looked at the man. Then he smiled, and as he pulled out of sight, Charest waved goodbye.
For most of its history, Detachment A — sometimes known simply as “the detachment” or “Det ‘A'” — was as elusive as the men who served in the unit.
When it was formed in 1956 with the cover story of a “security platoon” assigned to another US Army unit in Berlin, only about 10 officers knew the true makeup of the unit, according to James Stejskal, a Special Forces veteran who spent two tours of duty in Berlin and later served with the CIA.
Stejskal, a retired chief warrant officer 4 who now lives in Alexandria, Virginia, has written what might be the only definitive history of Detachment A.
His book, “Special Forces Berlin: Clandestine Cold War Operations of the US Army’s Elite, 1956-1990,” was published this year by Casemate Publishers, following a two-and-a-half-year effort to research and write the book and another year-long review by the Department of Defense.
Stejskal was one of dozens of Detachment A veterans who gathered on Fort Bragg earlier this month.
Once covered in shadows — to the point that even the US Army has little official documentation on the unit — the veterans of Detachment A are becoming increasingly vocal, with the hopes of bringing the unit the recognition it deserves before all of its former members are gone.
Charest, who now lives in Campobello, South Carolina, has been a key part of those efforts.
Since Detachment A was first publicly acknowledged in early 2014, he has worked to tell the unit’s untold story.
Previously recognized by veterans of the unit as “The Man Who Brought Detachment A In From the Cold,” Charest is the group’s webmaster, maintaining a website — detachment-a.org — along with his wife, Linda. He’s also become their organizer, facilitating annual reunions.
The most recent gathering was at Fort Bragg, the same place where veterans of the unit unveiled a monument stone honoring Detachment A outside of U.S. Army Special Operations Command in early 2014.
Detachment A has long been a small, elite group. Over its nearly 30-year history, an estimated 800 men served among its ranks or with the Physical Security Support Element-Berlin, a similar unit that replaced the detachment from 1984 to 1990.
Charest said the annual gatherings, which once attracted more than 100 veterans, are starting to dwindle. Detachment veterans are growing older. They’re dying, he said. Or they don’t travel as well as they used to.
“We’re starting to slow down,” Charest said. “I can see the handwriting on the wall.”
That makes his mission to spread the word about the unit even more important.
“We’re getting the recognition we didn’t have,” he said.
In the years after the Cold War, the Army declassified many of Detachment A’s secrets. But its veterans were largely unaware that they were now free to speak about their experiences.
The breaking point came in 2014, Charest said. The ceremony outside the USASOC headquarters was a first for Detachment A.
In addition to unveiling the monument stone, the veterans also took the symbolic step of casing the unit’s colors, a flag used to identify the detachment, for the first time.
“No force of its size has contributed more to peace, stability, and freedom,” Army Special Operations Command officials said during the ceremony.
Lt. Gen. Charles T. Cleveland, then-commander of USASOC, said the men operated amid untold risk, fraught with uncertainty.
“Detachment A was literally in the eye of the Cold War hurricane,” he said.
The next day, a story about the ceremony was on the front page of The Fayetteville Observer.
Charest said it was the first public exposure for the unit, whose existence and missions had been highly classified secrets. It began a flurry of queries from veterans of the detachment, some of whom had never even told their families about the unit.
“We were out of the cold,” Charest said. “This unit — nobody knows about it. Nobody knew we ever existed.”
Stejskal, who interviewed 65 veterans of Detachment A for his book and dug through what little information was available from official sources, said it was long past due for the unit to receive its recognition.
“No one became famous because of his exploits in Berlin; they were classified,” he said. “The Army has no history on us. They know of it, but they don’t know anything about it.”
Stejskal said that when he visited the Army’s Center for Military History to research his book, the organization had six pages of documents and little information. Most of the unit’s actual documents have been lost or destroyed.
“After 25 years, I figured it was about time,” Stejskal said of his decision to put together a history of the unit. “We’re on the verge of dying out and losing it all, all that historical knowledge.”
Detachment A, also known by its classified name — the 39th Special Forces Operational Detachment — was formed in August 1956 from carefully screened and selected members of the 10th Special Forces Group based in Bad Toelz, Germany. The unit was first housed at McNair Barracks and later, at Andrews Barracks in West Berlin.
Over the years, the men assigned to Detachment A remained a select group. They were highly trained, often with experience in World War II or, later, in Vietnam.
Members of the unit had to be Special Forces qualified. They needed to have a top-secret clearance. And they needed to be able to speak fluent German or another Eastern European language.
In the early days, nearly half of the unit came from soldiers who joined the Army under the Lodge Act — often refugees from Europe whose families remained under Soviet rule. Those immigrants provided important knowledge to the detachment members, who needed to appear to be German.
Charest, who served with the clandestine unit from 1969 to 1972 and again from 1973 to 1978, said the slightest mistake could blow a soldier’s cover.
“The Germans handle a knife and fork different than we do,” he said. “They count with their fingers different.”
Detachment members had to study the habits of locals, Charest said. They needed to dress like a local, wear their hair like a local, and talk like a local.
They carried paperwork provided by German authorities or passports from Eastern European nations that supported their cover stories. Even their ranks were classified, Charest said. Instead, members usually referred to each other by their first names.
Even within the Special Forces community, Charest said, the detachment was largely an unknown.
Some soldiers were assigned to the unit assuming it was a conventional support unit. They wouldn’t learn the truth until they were in Berlin being debriefed by leaders.
“They knew it existed, but nobody knew what they did,” Charest said.
At first, Detachment A had about 40 soldiers, but it would grow to about 90 troops for most of its history. Most soldiers stayed in Berlin for three years.
Amid the backdrop of the Cold War, the detachment would have been little more than a speed bump against Soviet forces in a conventional fight.
But Charest said the detachment never intended to “fight fair.”
With Berlin more than 100 miles behind enemy lines, encircled by what could have become the front lines of a war, those allied forces stood little chance at stopping the Soviet forces.
Stejskal wrote that the city would likely have become the world’s largest prisoner-of-war camp. He compared the hypothetical plight of the detachment to the 300 Spartans who faced a superior Persian force at the legendary Battle of Thermopylae.
“If the Russians decided to roll across the wall, that would have been World War III,” Charest said. “It was a suicide mission.”
“The odds were against us,” he added. “But that’s part of the game.”
The most the detachment could hope for, Charest said, was slowing the Soviet juggernaut.
Stejskal described the detachment mission as a “Hail Mary plan.”
He said the soldiers were there to buy time and disrupt the enemy, much like World War II’s famed Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the modern CIA.
Charest said the soldiers were constantly “poking and prodding” German and Soviet defenses. Sometimes, that would mean sneaking into East Germany via canals and tunnels.
“We were constantly trying,” he said. “If you heard the stories, you wouldn’t believe them.”
As the Cold War stayed cold, the detachment would see its missions expand.
It was tasked with probing and testing allied security vulnerabilities across Europe.
At the same time, it would become more of a counterterrorism force, training to respond to hijacked airplanes and participating in the famed Operation Eagle Claw — the failed mission to rescue American hostages in Iran in 1980.
Detachment soldiers were tasked with rescuing three diplomats being held by Iran, and two detachment members were stationed in Tehran, providing information on the target buildings and preparing to receiving the rescue force.
When the mission was scrapped and disaster struck a staging site — resulting in the deaths of several troops — the detachment members in Iran were left to escape the country on their own.
Retired Maj. Gen. Sidney Shachnow, who commanded Detachment A from 1970 to 1974 and later commanded all American forces in Berlin, said the city was full of spies and the Soviet KGB had known about the detachment since the late 1960s.
But, Shachnow said, the Soviets greatly overestimated the size of the unit, assuming it was about 500 men instead of less than 100.
“They knew our capabilities but did not know what our targets were,” he said.
Shachnow is a Holocaust survivor who was born in Lithuania and spent three years imprisoned in a Germany concentration camp as a young boy. He moved to the United States in 1950 and became a legend in the Special Forces community.
He said he had the privilege of deactivating the Special Forces presence in Berlin.
“It was a sad ceremony in an empty room with only about 12 guest spectators seated in folding chairs,” he said. “I awarded some medals, made some short remarks, and the ceremony was over in a matter of minutes.”
“Det A was a small, covert unit staffed with incredibly talented people willing to make the ultimate sacrifice,” Shachnow said on Fort Bragg earlier this month. “They served on the front lines of the Cold War and never fired a shot in anger. No force of its size in history has contributed more to peace, stability, and freedom.”