Berlin Crisis remembered after 50 years

By Carl Birk
Former rifle platoon sergeant, 32nd Division

It seemed only yesterday that I was a member of the local National Guard unit which was activated after World War II, in May 1947. Still a member, but now I held the rank of platoon sergeant in a rifle company in the 32nd Division, Wisconsin National Guard, located in Fort Atkinson.

During the spring of 1961 at weekend drills, we were preparing for the annual two-week training National Guard camp at Camp McCoy, Wis. Most of the men in National Guard units were from the local area the armories were located.

After National Guard camp at Camp McCoy, the 32nd Division was one of the top-rated National Guard Divisions in the country. In field training in 1961, the division received 28 superior and 60 excellent ratings.

On Sept. 19, 1961, the 32nd Division of the Wisconsin National Guard and the 49th Armored Division of Texas were called to active duty because of the Berlin Crisis. On Oct. 15, 1961 they were in federal service. Just 21 years before the division had been called up prior to World War II. The Defense Department ordered a total of 7,300 reservists to active duty in 1961.

The division was to train with the 4th Division at Fort Lewis, Wash., located near Tacoma and Seattle. Some members started active duty Oct. 1, 1961. On Oct. 15, the Guardsmen started training at their home station, 7:30 a.m. but reported at 6:30 a.m. for breakfast and ate at the Black Hawk Hotel.

We marched from the armory to the railroad depot on Oct. 23, 1961 and said good-bye as we waited for the train to depart at 7:30 p.m. There were few dry eyes as we boarded the train and waved good-bye to family and friends.

We took the southern route with the press (Chicago, Omaha, Cheyenne, Montpelier, Idaho, Portland and Fort Lewis). We heard so much about Mt. Rainier, but didn’t see it for several weeks due to clouds. The housekeeping started, and the transition from civilian to Soldier began. We started training 48 hours per week to become combat ready.

After several weeks, a brewery in the area noted, “Six months of beer is gone in less than 60 days after the 32nd Division arrived.”

Reservists started arriving from all over the country to fill units so they would be full strength. The questions began: Should we have been called up? Why me? Where was the equipment we needed?

The same thing happened when units were called up in 1917 and 1940, as stated in an article in the Milwaukee Journal, Dec. 6, 1961, titled “Camp Life Was Rugged in 1916, Too.” This article was about the Wisconsin National Guardsmen in Camp Wilson, Texas in 1916.

On Thanksgiving Day, we gave thanks and hoped to see our families for Christmas. The units with Guardsmen and Reservists started molding into combat units. The training increased — night problems; squad, platoon and company tactics; chemical, biological and radiological; escape and evade; armored personnel carriers, tanks, individual weapons, et cetera.

The news media called us “cry-babies,” but that was a small percentage of the men complaining. We were working day and night to become combat efficient. We couldn’t be 100-percent efficient unless we had proper equipment with which to train.

Christmas came and 75 percent of the division had a 10-day pass to see family and friends. Going by plane, bus, train or car was delayed because of weather. The 10 days passed quickly. Training demanded greater efficiency, and tactics continued to battle group and division level.

There was talk of early release from federal service. Part of the division was conducting exercises at Camp Irwin, Calif. There were more and tougher exercises in the field that took several days and nights to complete. The 32nd Division was outdoing the regular Army in weapons tests and tactics, and was proving that we were the best. More families were coming to Fort Lewis to live.

We had the big show on the parade grounds, infiltration course, Exercise Bristlecone, training in Yakima, Wash., became a STRAC division, Mesa Drive, World’s Fair in Seattle, and were released from federal service in August 1962.

We were called to duty and became combat-ready to serve our country when needed. Few people remember the few thousand men called in for the Berlin Crisis, but we shall never forget that many left as boys and returned as men. We are proud to have served in a time of need.

Editors Note – The Wisconsin National Guard will honor Berlin Crisis Veterans for their service Saturday, Oct. 15 at Camp Williams, Wis.