Wednesday, August 9, 2023

The Berlin Crisis: Georgia Guard Signalmen Mobilized by President Kennedy

By Maj. William Carraway, historian, Georgia National Guard


Left: FORT MEADE, Md., March, 1962 – Specialist 4 Russell Terry and Pvt. Jerry Blanton of the 111th Signal Battalion operated a SB-22 Switchboard
as part of their active duty training during the Berlin Crisis. Photo by 111th Signal Battalion. Image courtesy of National Guard Educational Foundation,
Washington, D.C. Right: BUSH FIELD, Augusta, Ga., August 9, 1962 - Capt. Buddy Ouzts, commander of the Sandersville-based Company A,
111th Signal Battalion receives a citation from Maj. Gen. George Hearn, Georgia's Adjutant General upon the return of the 111th Signal Battalion
from active duty.

The Georgia Army National Guard of 2023 is a veteran organization with more than 200 mobilizations involving nearly 21,000 Soldiers over two decades of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Members of the Georgia Army and Air National Guard are presently deployed in support of operations in six geographic combat commands spanning the globe from the Pacific to Europe and Africa. The Guard has served as a seamless operational force for so long that it is easy to forget that this has not always been the case. Despite major combat deployments in the World Wars and mobilization of Air National Guard units to Korea, by the 1960s, the number of Georgia Guardsmen who had experienced a combat rotation or domestic mobilization was dwindling. That all changed with the Berlin Crisis of 1961.


Before the Mobilization: The Waynesboro-based Company B, 111th Signal Battalion becomes the first Georgia National Guard unit to receive a live
telecast during training November 30, 1959. Major General George Hearn, Georgia's Adjutant General, and Brig. Gen. David P. Gibbs, commanding general
of the Signal Training Center conducted the telecast from Fort Gordon.

Berlin Call Up, 1961

In 1961, Germany remained divided into two countries administered by the four victorious war powers. The German Democratic Republic, or East Germany was established in 1949 from land largely occupied by the Soviet Army at the conclusion of World War II. Berlin, the former capital of Germany, lay entirely within East German and was administered jointly by the United Kingdom, France, The United States of America and the Soviet Union. Beginning in the late 1950s, the Berlin Zone became the source of increasing agitation between the Soviet block and the West as millions of eastern European refugees took advantage of the considerably more lenient immigration standards in Berlin to escape west. Desperate meetings between U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev in 1958 and 1959 convinced both parties that Berlin resolution was possible and the two nations agreed to meet in Paris in May 1960 for further talks. But events would push the nations toward even greater crisis.


On May 1, 1960, A U2 aircraft piloted by Captain Frances Powers of the Central Intelligence Agency was shot down more than 1,000 miles inside Soviet airspace by a Soviet surface to air missile. A Soviet MiG 19 was also shot down by the same missile battery. As a result, the May summit did not materialize between the Four Powers. Eisenhower and Khruschev walked out of the proceedings on the first day and little was accomplished beyond entrenching positions.


The Washington, Georgia-based Headquarters Company, 111th Signal Battalion in 1961. Georgia National Guard Archives.

It was not until June the following year that the Soviet leader met with U.S. President John F. Kennedy in Vienna. Testing the new president, Khruschev revealed his intention of undercutting the existing treaty with the Four Powers by establishing a separate treaty with East Germany. Kennedy rebuffed the threat and in July called for six new Army divisions and the activation of Guard and reserve units.


Writing of the potential for Georgia Guard activations, Maj. Gen. George Hearn, Georgia’s Adjutant General assured Georgians that the Guard was ready.


“As the Berlin crisis mounts, your capability to perform your mission becomes of increasing importance,” Hearn wrote in the June 1961 edition of the Georgia Guardsman Magazine. “I feel that all of our National Guard units are in a high state of readiness, and I want to congratulate each of you for doing your part in preparation of your unit for any future contingency.”[1]


The Berlin Crisis and the Adjutant General’s words lent an air of gravity to Army Guard encampments held at Fort Stewart and Air Guard annual training at Dobbins Air Force Base. Georgia Guardsmen trained on their weapons systems and wondered how soon they would be employed to use them.


AUGUSTA, Ga., October 25, 1961 - Boarding their Pullman car for the trip to Fort Meade, Md., the 111th Signal Battalion leaves Augusta's Union Station.
Image courtesy of National Guard Educational Foundation, Washington, D.C.

Escalation and Mobilization

In August 1961, the Soviets blocked the lines of communication into Berlin, isolating the city and on August 13, 1961, construction of the Berlin Wall began. In response, President Kennedy activated 156,000 Guard and Reservists and dispatched two additional Army Divisions to Europe. Among the Guard units called was the 111th Signal Battalion of the Georgia Army National Guard. Commanded by Lt. Col. Erskine B. Wickersham of Washington, the 111th reported for active-duty October 15th and departed by train for Fort Meade, Md. October 25th.[2]

“This will be the end of my business for a while,” observed Wickersham who owned a small surveying company.[3]


2nd Lt. John McCaskill, GMI Class One.

Also mobilizing with the 111th was 2nd Lt. John D. McCaskill of Sandersville. McCaskill was an officer candidate at the Georgia Military Institute’s Class One from January 22 until September 25. On that date, he was ordered to report to the Alabama Military Academy to finish his officer candidate school training in advance of the rest of his class in order to deploy with the 111th. Thus, McCaskill was at once the first graduate of the modern-day GMI, he was its first graduate to mobilize for active duty. Commissioning as a 2nd Lt. October 12, he entered federal service three days later with his unit. McCaskill had previously served in the enlisted ranks, enlisting in 1954 with Company A, 111th Signal Battalion.[4]

The 111th was organized from infantry, armor and artillery units in July, 1959 during the reorganization of the 48th Armored Division.[5] When they boarded the train in Augusta’s Union Station bound for Fort Meade, they became the first Georgia Guard troops to mobilize since the Korean War. Although indications were strong that other units would be called, notably the Atlanta-based 129th Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron and Savannah’s 117th AC&W Flight, no additional units were mobilized. Hinesville’s 406th Ordnance Company was placed temporarily on additional training status and drilled twice per month but was ultimately not called to active duty.[6]


FORT MEADE, Md. March, 1962 - SP4 Walter Bull guards the command post tent against possible aggressor attack while his unit, the 111th Signal Battalion,
conducts field training during its tour of duty for the Berlin Crisis.  Photo by 111th Signal Battalion.   Image courtesy of National Guard Educational Foundation,
Washington, D.C.

Showdown in Berlin

Arriving at Fort Meade, October 26, 1961, the 111th relieved an active duty signal battalion for duty in Europe.[7] The next day, the Berlin Crisis reached new heights as U.S. and Soviet tanks faced each other with live ammunition at Checkpoint Charlie, a crossing point between East and West Berlin. Retired General Lucius Clay, special advisor to the President in Berlin recommended sending tanks forward to demolish the Berlin Wall, ultimately Kennedy and Khruschev, speaking through intermediaries agreed to deescalate the situation and the tanks were withdrawn.


Unaware of how close we had come to the brink of war with the Soviet Union, the 111th Signal Battalion settled in to their new environment at Fort Meade. In addition to their regular duties, the 111th trained aggressively for possible deployment, conducted field problems and became more proficient in switchboard operation and the emerging technology of television. While Headquarters Company, Company B and C remained in Fort Meade for the bulk of their mobilization, Company A was dispatched south to Fort Lee near Richmond, Va.

FORT MILES, Del. May, 1962 - An armored personnel carrier assigned to the West Virginia National Guard's 150th Armored Cavalry Regiment drives
through the surf during its landing as part of Exercise Wet Horse II. Photo by the Georgia Army National Guard's 111th Signal Battalion, Photo Platoon.

In May, 1962, the 111th Signal Battalion participated in Operation Wet Horse II, a U.S. Army amphibious assault exercise designed to test the capability of reserve units to conduct large-scale landing operations. Cameras of the 111th Signal Battalion covered the operation as tanks of the 150th Armored Cavalry Regiment drove ashore from landing craft piloted by the U.S. Army Reserve’s 231st Transportation Company. Images of these landings were prominently featured in U.S. and European newspapers and conveyed the resolve of the United States’ position in Berlin.


On August 9, 1962, their mission complete, the Georgia Guardsmen of the 111th Signal Battalion boarded charter aircraft for the flight home. Landing at Bush Field in Augusta, the 111th received a hero’s welcome. Major Gen. Hearn greeted each Guardsman as they departed the aircraft then read a special citation from Governor Ernest Vandiver commending the Soldiers for their” loyalty and sacrifices made in the national interest.”[8]

BUSH FIELD, Augusta, Ga., August 9, 1962 - Georgia Guardsmen of the 111th Signal Battalion return from Fort Meade, Md., where the unit had
been on active duty since October 1961 in response to the Berlin Crisis.

Boarding buses, the Guardsmen of the 111th departed for their home armories in Louisville, Augusta and Washington where additional welcome-home festivities awaited them.


[1] George Hearn, “The Adjutant General’s Message,” The Georgia Guardsman, March/June 1961, inside cover.

[2] “President Mobilizes Georgia Guard’s 111th Signal Battalion,” The Georgia Guardsman, Oct/Nov/Dec 1961, 4.

[3] “President Mobilizes Georgia Guard’s 111th Signal Battalion,” The Georgia Guardsman, Oct/Nov/Dec 1961, 4.

[4] “1st Graduate of GMI Goes With 111th,” The Georgia Guardsman, Oct/Nov/Dec 1961, 1.

[6] “President Mobilizes Georgia Guard’s 111th Signal Battalion,” The Georgia Guardsman, Oct/Nov/Dec 1961, 4.

[7] “111th Signal Battalion To Return 9 Aug.,” The Georgia Guardsman, May/June 1962, 10.

[8] “Signal Battalion Returns to Georgia After Ft. Meade Duty,” The Georgia Guardsman, July/Aug 1962, 8.

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