50th anniversary of Berlin Crisis activation
In September 1961 about 10,000 32nd Infantry Division Soldiers from the Wisconsin Army National Guard were alerted to an impending call-up and then ordered to report to active duty at Fort Lewis, Washington on Oct. 15, 1961.Among the units activated was Merrill’s Company A 1st Medium Tank Battalion 105th Armor, the members of which recently reunited to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the deployment.
About 45 of the unit’s surviving members got together at the Merrill’s Eagles Club to reminisce and catch up on each other’s lives. Some brought scrapbooks and memorabilia from the deployment.
President John F. Kennedy ordered the mass National Guard call-up in response to the Berlin Crisis, an ongoing standoff between American and Soviet troops in the city of Berlin, Germany.
Wisconsin’s 32nd Infantry Division was ordered to Fort Lewis, Wash., which had been designated as their mobilization station.
The period of active duty was to be 12 months. In all, the 32nd Infantry Division would spend about 10 months in Washington before returning home in August 1962.
A total of five officers and 83 enlisted men reported to the Merrill Armory on Oct. 15, 1961, for mobilization. Fifty years later, those soldiers of 1961 are now mostly in their 70s, and have lost 21 of the original unit members.
Harry Schweigert, commanding officer of Company A back in 1961, remains duly proud of the service his men rendered to their country.
“This group of men was one of the best in the U.S. Army. They won the Draper Award over all regular Army armor units,” Schweigert said. “They did things that were phenomenal.”
The men kept a fleet of outmoded tanks up and running for the duration of the deployment.
“On maneuvers for 30 days straight, they kept 17 tanks operational,” Schweigert said. “Those tanks were in bad shape.”
The division spent much of its time at the Yakima Firing Base in Washington, drilling to become combat ready.
The unit distinguished itself by persevering through adverse conditions.
“When it was too rough for everybody else, it was just right for us,” Schweigert said.
The men – most no older than 25 at the time – pulled a few memorable shenanigans, as young men are known to do. But their commanding officer was mostly tolerant.
“They were good guys, with a lot of vim, vigor and vitality,” Schweigert said.
When the 32nd was called up in 1961 it was with the expectation that they would be deployed overseas. Ironically, Schweigert would discover, the 32nd was not intended to go to Berlin as everyone in the unit had initially assumed. The real target destination was Vietnam. However, politics intervened and the Wisconsin soldiers were sent home without being shipped overseas.
“We were very close to going to Vietnam,” Schweigert said.
All of Wisconsin’s Berlin Crisis veterans are invited to Camp Douglas on Oct. 15, for a special day to commemorate the selflessness, dedication and duty of these Wisconsin citizen-soldiers 50 years ago.
The veterans of the Merrill unit voted to hold reunions every year from now on.