GI Blues: Today's Action Army in Germany

Battling racism in the US military

Credit: Brad Wilson/Getty

Mannheim, West Germany—Everyone in the bleakly military, green-and-white-painted Third Brigade courtroom looks up as Capt. Charles (Chuck) Jeglikowski, the Army prosecutor, rises to speak.

"Look very carefully again at the offenses," Jeglikowski, a cool, blond, upwardly mobile New Jersey boy who looks more like West Point than Seton Hall school of law, tells the five-officer jury. "Recall the violence," he says. "Recall the terror ... the fear of the victims ... think of the victims, victims of assault ... victims of grievous bodily harm."

The black-robed military judge, Col. William A. Zeigler, a tough nut called by some "the hanging judge of West Germany," has heard all of this before. He slumps with his back half turned to Jeglikowski, reading a document as the prosecutor tries to rouse the earnest, note-scribbling jury of officers to a suitable state of outrage against the defendants.

"These men," Chuck goes on, "have violated the fundamental rules of Army discipline. Your sentence must act as a deterrent, and the government insists that your sentence must punish as well. Must punish as well," he repeats, enjoying the phrase. "Think of the conduct ... think of the acts the defendants have been convicted of," Jeglikowski urges the jury once more. Then he goes for the crusher: "The government demands for each of these defendants nothing less than a Dishonorable Discharge and a long term of confinement—years at hard labor."

At this, the eyes of the 13 black defendants lose that courtroom glaze. Specialist 4 Reginald Baker stops reading the comic book in his lap. Pvt. Melvin R. Turner, 20, glances up at the prosecutor with an eye-rolling cynical look that says: "Oh wow, man, that's really heavy."

And it is heavy. Baker and Turner and the other eleven defendants, all young, all black and all enlisted men, are the "Vilseck 13," some of the latest casualties of the accelerating series of violent clashes between enlisted men, a growing proportion of them black, and the US Army in West Germany. Wherever the Army's 300,000 troops, some 15 to 20 percent of them black, are posted in Germany, similar explosions—many of them worse—are being seen on an almost daily basis.

The "13" are guilty. Even Ed Bellen, their American civilian lawyer and about the hottest GI defender in Europe, found it hard to dispute that all along. They did, in fact, on a hot, beer-heavy, Saturday afternoon last August charge into Motor Pool Barracks No. 223 with any weapon that came to hand, break down doors, waste a number of whites and generally run amuck. Nobody's denying that. They even told a chief warrant officer to "move his fucking ass out of the way," and when the base commander came around to cool things, some of them gave him much the same advice.

But, as Ed Bellen told the jury, "Nothing happens in a vacuum." Many of the white GIs were armed as well, sporadic black-white fights and friction had been going on all afternoon, and definite provocation had been offered the black soldiers who numbered only about 30 in a company of over 200 troops. In fact, the "Vilseck Massacre" was just one of an epidemic of racial incidents which have become routine in the God-forsaken little village of 250 persons in Northern Bavaria, as well as other remote Army bases in Germany.

The Vilseck defendants are by no means Black Power advocates. Sitting in the defendants' dock they look outrageously straight. No defiant afros, none of the symbols of black revolt such as the "power check" (clenched fist salute) which has been all but outlawed by the Army here. No, as black dudes in the Army go, the "13" are definitely non-militant. All had previously clean records, and the Mannheim stockade labeled them all "model prisoners."

Then why did it happen? The defendants talk about the isolation at Vilseck and the hostility of Germans toward them. "If a Vilseck girl had the choice of going out with me or a duffle bag full of pig shit," says Turner, a short man from Birmingham with shoulders like Sonny Liston who has been fingered by the Army as one of the real baddies in the incident, "she'd choose the pig shit every time." They also complain of slow promotions for blacks, incitement by racist white NCOs and total failure of their officers to handle the situation before it exploded.

These latter problems, according to Gen. Michael S. Davison, the Army's top man in Germany, can be laid to the failure of Army commanders to lead their troops properly. Black militancy and white backlash, Davison says, are due to the Army's failure to accept black GIs fully. Racial discrimination of any kind, he says, is "intolerable."

But it's not the Army that's facing a heavy rap here in Mannheim. For involvement in what was essentially a barracks brawl in which no one was seriously hurt, the Army came back with a barrage of heavy charges including "riot," which carries ten years in prison and a Dishonorable Discharge, assault and battery and aggravated assault. One of the defendants, Pfc Thomas Carter, could have received as much as 21 years in prison. As it turned out, the jury resisted the prosecution's deepest cries for blood and handed the "13" sentences of between one year and six years in jail, and each got a Bad Conduct Discharge, which is better than a DD ... but not much.

"We were railroaded," says Specialist 4 Ozzie L. Terry, 21, a former student at Louisiana State University at New Orleans who drew a year and a BCD. "The whole thing was dying down," Terry says, and white witnesses agreed, "when some guy in the motor-pool barracks leaned out of a top window and yelled: 'Right on, whites!' So we turned around and wasted them."

"It's this kind of overreaction," says Ed Bellen, "in a situation which could have been handled by the local commander, which indicates just how frightened the Army is. But they're not going to stop what is happening among GIs in Germany with tough sentences."

Short and undramatic in an off-the-peg blue suit slightly specked with dandruff and cigarette ash, Bellen says in a flat West Pennsylvania accent, "Continued black rebellion in the Army is inevitable. The Army has got to change, not stiffen its defenses." A veteran of eight years of military law at 33, Bellen, along with half a dozen associates, handles some 1,500 GI defendants a year in Germany and Vietnam. Bellen shuttles back and forth between Frankfurt and Saigon inspiring a good deal of fear in Army prosecutors. He lost the Vilseck case, but with another attorney the sentences might have been tougher.

Bellen carefully praises the Army courts and the quality of military justice, but at the same time he says that Army prosecutors and investigators do all they can to persuade GIs not to hire a civilian attorney.

"They tell them all we're after is the GIs' money," Bellen says, "and even suggest that a civilian attorney doesn't have much of a chance when the judge and jury are all Army."

An even more serious attempt to hamper civilian attorneys in Germany is a current investigation by the Army into charges that certain American lawyers have tried to bribe court-martial witnesses. It is said that a number of American lawyers are under investigation, but it's generally believed that there is but one real target. "The Army is out to get Bellen," says an American journalist. "The others are just small fry, but the brass would like to see Bellen thrown out of Germany altogether. He gives them too much trouble."

One reason for the Army's hardline, hysterical and apparently racist reaction to the ruckus at Vilseck may have been its out and out defeat in a similar confrontation in Darmstadt last summer. In that situation, after a black-white brawl in a mess hall, a black GI was arrested and jailed, but no whites were arrested. In a reaction which has become typical all over Germany, 53 black GIs got together to protest this apparent racism and demand justice.

Their commanding officer responded to their demands by calling in bayonet-wielding riot troops who surrounded the black protestors and hauled them away to confinement. Charging failure to obey an order, a blacks' commander offered the 53 lightweight punishment, but 26 of them demanded a court-martial.

Expecting to have a nice, quiet court-martial, the Army was surprised to find that the incident rapidly blew up into a major civil rights issue. Outside money and support for the "Darmstadt 53" began to pour in. The ACLU and the NAACP took a heavy interest, and as the case came to trial seven high-powered lawyers, six of them civilian, were assembled to blow the Army's case apart. William Kunstler and F. Lee Bailey were rumored to be ready to join the defense.

The brass quickly went into a nervous huddle, and when they came out all charges were dropped and the defendants were freed. But with typical Army revengefulness, the "53" were broken up and shipped to posts all over Germany. The Army claimed that resentment among lower-ranking white enlisted men and NCOs made this necessary. But the blacks' point had been made: faced with enough muscle, the Army would back down.

By no means are all of the GI rebels black, but there is no way to separate GI rebellion and the ever-increasing violence among US troops in Germany from the race problem. Knowledge of what is going down in the States and traditional—if unofficial—discrimination from the Army have driven the brothers together in a way that the whites can't emulate. Blacks feel that the only way they can get anything like justice is to band together and demand it. In addition, a shortage of black officers in Germany has forced blacks outside ordinary channels with their grievances.

"Why do I want to tell some white man my black troubles?" asks a 22-year-old tank driver in an outfit without a single black officer. "I take my problems to my brothers."

The blacks also find that awakening awareness of racial pride and identity are discouraged on all sides by a white-oriented Army that tells them: You're a soldier first, then you're black. On many posts, the "power check"—a clenched fist either raised high or thumped on the chest—is discouraged or even forbidden as a provocative symbol. Even the "dap"—a ritualized extension of the black hand-slap greeting, which goes something like "slap hand, slap hand, snap fingers, bump fists, snap fingers"—is frowned on and ridiculed by whites. This makes the blacks do it all the more.

There's a lot to the white GIs' claim that it is getting impossible to deal with many blacks as individuals because they retreat into the black group and avoid off-duty contacts with whites as much as possible. "We're friendly," complains Specialist Paul Underwood, a white clerk at Neubrucke, a small missile base not far from the French border, "but the black guys don't want to be. We hardly ever see them around."

This is the situation at Army posts all over West Germany. Public places, both on-post and in the towns around them, are unofficially designated either black or white, and members of the other race who stray into them risk anything from a rude reception to threats against their lives. As we drive past Bop City, a "black" club on the outskirts of Baumholder, a small town in the west, the white sergeant with me says: "I wouldn't go into that place even if I carried a submachine gun. No white would."

Baumholder, a town of some 7,000 Germans in a slightly mountainous, forested part of the Rhineland Palatinate between Frankfurt and the Luxembourg border, is a good example of a breeding place of Army rebellion. Nicknamed "the armpit of Germany," Baumholder has almost nothing to offer the GIs of H.D. Smith Barracks, most of whom are infantry grunts and who outnumber the locals by about three to one when they're all in the garrison.

"The troops here are virtually prisoners," says a master sergeant who's been in Baumholder since 1962 and is waiting for his retirement papers to go through. "Most of the Germans don't like GIs, especially the blacks, and the only girls who will even talk to a soldier are the bar girls brought in from outside."

To add to the charms of Baumholder, the barracks, originally built in 1937 to house a German artillery brigade, were judged in a recent inspection to be among the worst in Germany. Only a small fraction have any kind of efficient heating, and many of the troops there are more or less resigned to falling plaster, overcrowding and non-working showers. To make it worse, Baumholder is one of the places big-city Army commanders send troublemakers and would-be GI revolutionaries to get rid of them. "One of these days," says the master sergeant, "Baumholder is going to explode."

Almost every Saturday night in Baumholder is a sort of miniature explosion, especially near payday. The Kennedyallee is alive with packs of GIs—some black, some white and almost totally self-segregated—kept from collisions, sometimes, by a thin line of Military Police and Courtesy Police, ordinary GIs pressed into nervous duty in an effort to keep the peace.

These packs of GIs move in and out of Baumholder's nearly 30 bars, also self-segregated for the most part, because there's absolutely nothing else to do. Everybody knows which bars are black, which are white and which are strictly for Germans and don't welcome GIs of any color.

You begin to notice that there are no women or girls to be seen on the streets of Baumholder after about nine at night, except perhaps for bar girls hurrying down the Kennedyallee to work. This is because, according to the young German wife of a supply sergeant, "The women here are all afraid of the GIs. A woman can't walk down the street without being yelled at or worse. And sometimes even if you're with a man, the soldiers won't leave you alone. They think all German girls are whores."

It's not only the German women who are afraid in Baumholder. According to Peter Schmidt, a 17-year-old apprentice mechanic whose father was an American soldier: "When you go out in the street, the GIs start hollering at you, and the best thing to do is not to answer. At the end of the month when they're broke, the GIs would run you down for maybe a mark [30 cents]."

This particular cold, gray night in November, Baumholder is quiet. Hell, it's dead. The patrolling MPs are almost alone in the narrow streets, and the usually crowded bars are deserted and cheerless. In the Playboy Bar under a cave-like ceiling covered with metal foil, a fat, redheaded German girl behind the bar badmouths a tall black with a repressed afro: "Listen, motherfucker," the girl says, "if I wanted to know you, I'd say so, but I don't, so don't fuck with me."

At the Central Bar down the street, things are a bit more genteel. White GIs sit at three or four tables nursing 75-cent beers while on a wall-sized motion picture screen in living color two young girls dressed in nuns' habits come to the rescue of a naked sailor. The middle-aged owner of the bar stacks other porno films near the silent projector while his wife sits in a leather booth fondling a toffee-colored poodle. On the screen, one nun comforts the sailor while the other, wearing only a headdress, makes friends with a thick, white candle. B-girls move lazily among the GIs soliciting glasses of cognac (short shots of cold tea at four dollars a go) which, surprisingly, the GIs buy for them.

At the post dispensary, Sgt. Leon Peters, a black medic from Washington, D.C., is having a quiet night, too. There haven't even been any bum trips tonight. "Usually," Peters says, "we get guys walking in who think they might be having a bad trip and want to talk to somebody about it. We talk them through it if we can, and if they're not all right by the next morning, the doctors and social workers take over."

The Army figures that drug abuse is one of its heaviest problems in Germany, ranking it at the top of the list with racial conflicts and GI crime. But GIs say that if it weren't for the easy availability of soft drugs, the Army would have a lot more discipline and violence problems than it does now.

"I know a lot of young guys in our company," says a platoon sergeant in a line company at Baumholder, "who in the old days would be out getting drunk and fucking up. But now they just score and lay up in the barracks and get stoned. Some of the guys the old man thinks are his best soldiers are just too spaced to get in trouble most of the time. But I don't think he'd appreciate it if he knew."

Whether or not the Army appreciates the beneficial side effects of hash and grass on the GIs here, there's no way it can ignore the extent of the situation. GIs say that over three-fourths of the troops have at least tried hash—grass is harder to come by—and close to half of them smoke as a regular thing. "If there was a raid right now in every barrack in Germany," says a young American lawyer in Frankfurt who specializes in defending GIs, "over 40 percent of Army personnel—officers, military police, security men, the lot—would be under arrest."

Hash, and sometimes grass, are available in virtually ever Casern (Army post) in West Germany from regular GI dealers who buy from German wholesalers, although a lot of hash is brought into Germany by the GIs themselves from France or the Middle East. A good quality of hash will cost from four to six marks ($1.20 to $1.80) a gram and up to twice as much at posts out in the boondocks.

The growing universality of hash smoking has made it difficult for the Army to maintain its former "all dope is bad" attitude. Every time it swoops in to nail some baddies it ends up sweeping up a lot of valuable personnel with them. Recently, a drug bust at Ramstein Air Force Base snowballed until it had gathered in 125 troops including a whole company of hard-to-replace security police. As a result, Army commanders are treading more carefully in order to keep their better troops out of jail.

"On a bust for only a small quantity," a GI says, "a guy who is pretty straight otherwise is likely to get an Article 15 [a non-judicial punishment handled by unit officers] and maybe a one-stripe bust. But if the guy caught is a bad egg or a suspected dealer, he's likely to get a special court-martial which could mean a $200 fine and a bust all the way down to recruit. And this means a federal conviction which will be with him as long as he lives."

"Eventually," predicts the American lawyer, "all soft drug busts will go to Article 15s instead of courts-martial unless the Army is out to get the doper anyway."

The Army may be coming to terms with soft drugs, but the increasing influx of the hard stuff into GI barracks in Germany in the last year has the European command sweating. This fall, the Army pulled a "random survey" urine test on 5,000 troops—GIs and officers—in Germany. They haven't released the total results but indications are that amnesty and drug-abuse programs are being taken more seriously.

Overseas Weekly, a rabble-rousing newspaper for GIs, says that some brass at Army headquarters in Heidelberg are suggesting off-the-record that the increased flow of hard drugs into Germany may be due to the insidious hand of the Chinese Communists. The theory goes that a recent dry-up in the availability of hash and a simultaneous and mysterious appearance of crude opium in Germany are both the work of Mao's baddies.

"It was exactly as if someone had turned off the hash tap and replaced it with opium just long enough to get the hard drug a good start," says an officer at USAREUR headquarters. The same source claims that much of the opium confiscated by the military and German police in the last few months has come through Yugoslavia from Albania, China's number one friend in Europe.

One other source of smack and other hard drugs is the stream of Vietnam veterans into Germany as the operation in the Far East is choked off. According to Pfc Mike Vermillion, a grunt stationed in Geinhausen, about five percent of his outfit use smack. "It comes in from "Nam in the mail," he says, "and many of the guys who come here from Vietnam are already strung out on the stuff."

An indication of the hardening drug situation in Germany is that the chief copping spot in Frankfurt, a park only two blocks from the old tower at the center of town, long known as Score Park, has recently begun to be known as Needle Park. And so notorious have the rip offs become there, that many call it Burn Park.

Faced with the worsening situation among GIs in Germany the Army is pushing new, less stringent regulations under the guise of the MVA (Modern Volunteer Army), including such sops as allowing slightly longer hair and the sticking up of posters in barracks. But no one believes that this sort of thing will curtail the growing number of troops willing to force face-to-face confrontations over more important issues.

Nor will they impress a smaller, hard core of troops more interested in hitting and running than demonstrations. A growing number of "incidents," many of them involving stolen explosives and weapons, have the brass sweating anti-Army guerrillas. They never have discovered who it was in Hohenfels who recently lobbed a grenade into a mess hall in an attempt to waste unpopular officers. In October, angry troops at Karlsruhe, near the French border, struck company headquarters with firebombs and left four buildings burning in their wake. In Butzbach, a new commander came into a signal battalion to try to shape it up, and within two weeks 25 GI guerrillas converged on his headquarters and tried to burn it to the ground with molotov cocktails.

As a result of such scenes, some Army commanders are overreacting in a way calculated to turn peaceful GI demonstrations into riots or midnight firebombings. At Camp Pieri, Weisbaden, a commanding officer ordered peacefully demonstrating troops to disperse immediately. When they stayed to argue, he called in the MPs who surrounded the area with barbed wire and decked three of the demonstrators with rifle butts.

Such heavy-handed reaction can only result in the escalation of violence, soldiers say. And the troops seem to be acquiring some of the armament necessary to fight back. Rumors about black GIs busily outfitting themselves with stolen arms are everywhere. In Hanau, it was discovered recently that 15 antitank rockets—with operating instructions neatly stenciled—were stolen from the 3rd Armored Division, and an inside job was suspected.

And even non-militants interested in self-defense, if necessary, seem to be stocking up on armaments. In November a midnight shakedown of a unit at Neubrucke turned up two pistols, three swords, several gas pistols and a lot of long knives.