Flashback: US Army | The Road to Donnersberg and Beyond

January 1970

I finished the Microwave Radio AN/FCC-18 Multiplexer Operations & Maintenance course at U.S. Army STRATCOM headquarters in Mannheim, Germany in mid-January. My classmates and I were immediately given temporary travel orders to proceed to our various assignments at STRATCOM microwave radio stations across Germany. I received a railroad ticket that would take me west of Frankfurt along the Rhine Valley to my final destination at Dannenfels, near Donnersberg Mountain.

The train ride had been a good adventure after it had steamed out of Mannheim toward snow capped mountains, visible on the horizon.

When I began to feel feverish I found a toilet on the train and washed up. In the mirror I saw red dots all over my face and in fact my entire body. When the fever worsened I flagged down the conductor. He looked at me and said in broken English that there was a US Army hospital near the next stop. My memory is vague after that, but a very nice German couple took me in. I was told that they called the U.S. military facility and I was taken to Sembach, a U.S. air base.

Unbelievably, I was placed in quarantine at Sembach’s medical command center. I was diagnosed with the GERMAN MEASLES.

Fourteen days later two guys from Donnersberg’s STRATCOM facility showed up at Sembach in a deuce-and-a-half truck. They laughed when I revealed that the mysterious ailment had been the measles.

I threw my duffel bag in the rear of the truck and we drove to the Company B, the 447th  Signal Battalion at North Point Depot, Kriegsfeld about an hour away.

The commanding officer gave me a welcome aboard (without mentioning the German measles). The company clerk assured me that there were no killer contagious diseases at post before he assigned me to a room with two other STRATCOM troops.

I would soon learn that my room mates Tom and Howard were probably two of the most unlikely soldiers in the army. Tom, whose family had political ties to Washington D.C., spoke German fluently and considered himself expert on gourmet food and German wine. He worked in the admin side of STRATCOM. Howard owned a civilian BS degree in electrical engineering and considered himself a step above what the army had to offer.

The STRATCOM microwave radio relay station atop Donnersberg Mountain was about a twenty-minute journey from North Point. My first job, a kind of “Donnersberg initiation” was to learn how to drive a deuce-and-a-half truck. The troops took turns as drivers to and from the work place at Donnersberg. I was told the winding road could be difficult to negotiate in the winter.

Over the ensuing months I worked at learning my job at the radio site. I had been tasked with troubleshooting radio circuit problems within the vast array of multiplex equipment.

In the center of Donnerberg’s large radio room, about the size of a basketball court but wider, the tech control aisle ran down the middle. Patch-panels spanned both sides of the aisle where tech controllers worked eight-hour shifts to bypass, to reconstruct or work around circuit problems with six feet long patch cords. The tech controllers were required to have good memories, the ability to think fast, and had to stay on their feet for hours during US Army military operations in Europe.

The design of the radio facility was accredited to a civilian top-level engineer who even my engineer roommate Howard revered. Occasionally the “Doctor” would walk down the tech control aisle and I would think irrelevantly to myself of Dr. Strangelove.

Like the tech controllers, my job could get stressful, especially when a priority circuit went out. I was told that the “hot line” circuit from the White House to Moscow passed through Donnersberg.

Following those stressful times I would take a walk on the mountain. Every radio station had a canine mascot and Donnersberg had “Dog-Dog.” Part German Shepard he would faithfully accompany me during my treks. The mountain views were fantastic. Often I would cross paths with German citizens out for a “walk.” One of the civilian contractors at work, Herr Kolpinger, was known for his mountain climbing feats. Dog-Dog and I would join him for occasional walks.

After six months at Donnersberg I had gained the reputation as being responsible and dependable, which was saying a lot. It surprised me to learn that drugs ran rampant at North Point. I mean hard drugs and I don’t think the army knew how to cope with them (the drugs and the soldiers). Their use had cut down on moral (and responsibility and dependability). Maybe two or three times I wandered out in the forest with Tom and company and smoked hash (hashish), but that was the extent of my experience.

I bought a Fiat 850 coupe from a dealer in Wiesbaden in the summer. Every chance I could get I enlisted a fellow troop and took a road trip that including a visit to Switzerland and Amsterdam. I was beginning to enjoy Germany when a huge decision was put before me in early August.

Our C.O. had chosen my roommate Tom for reassignment to fill a position in Asmara, Ethiopia, in East Africa. Tom didn’t want any part of it and told the C.O. so. Frustrated, he returned to the room and told me about it. I thought Ethiopia would be a great adventure. When I explained my concerns Tom assured me that the army was required to ship a POV to your next assignment.

We went in to see the C.O. the next morning. I volunteered to take Tom’s place as long as the army shipped my car to the location of my reassignment. The C.O. agreed and that was that or so I thought…

Author note: Reader kindly click on 1970 Flashback | Donnersberg, Germany | A Perilous Journey Down the Mountain” for the conclusion of this message.

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