The four young Americans sit behind a table clogged with microphones in the brief newsreel. As the announcer proclaims the news of their release from East German prison, one of the two African-Americans takes a drag on a cigarette, while fatigue and emotion tug at face of the young woman with the 1960s bouffant hairdo when the camera pans across the group.
It was Feb. 3, 1967, and the story of their release after secret talks was racing across the news wires.
Forty-eight years later, the phone rang to voicemail in the Akron, Ohio, home of Moses Reese Herrin.
Not until the words “I’m trying to find an ex-GI who was in Germany in the 60s” did he pick up.
Was he the former GI appearing in that newsreel, freed after being convicted in 1965 to eight years for smuggling East Germans across the Berlin Wall?
There’s an old photograph in the Post-Gazette files, and some news stories from the time about him and another ex-GI, Frederick Matthews of Ellwood City. Could he talk about it?
Oh yeah — now that it’s clear it’s not a telemarketer on the line.
He and Matthews had both stayed in Berlin after their Army tours were over, Herrin said.
“I was in my early 20s, naive, one day Fred came and said ‘Hey man, I got a deal, they want us to take a passport to East Germany and help someone get out.”
“So we talked to a German guy, who was a front for this organization, that was doing the rescue or smuggling or whatever you want to call it.
“The guy said, ‘We’re not going to use the passport thing, we got a special car.’
“I said ‘I don’t have license.’
“He picked up phone and next thing I know I have a driver’s license.
“Later on I found out this organization had the OK of the West German government and the CIA.”
“We took our first run, it was a young lady in her late 20s or early 30s. We went over, we had a point where we would pick her up. We put her in this car, a Peugeot, French made, there was a hidden compartment in the drive shaft. We put her in, came back to the checkpoint. You parked your car, go in, they check your passport, they check your car. What helped us, I think, we were African-Americans, so there was some sympathy, not much of a check. We got back [to West Berlin], she jumped out, hugged us, kissed us, then we drove to club, where we met her fiance, and celebrated.”
They were paid about 1,000 marks, he said, “at that time a lot of money.”
A couple of weeks later they went over again to take another woman out. “The unfortunate thing, this woman was too large to fit. So that trip failed.“ They successfully smuggled out a young man who was to enter the East German military, and then went back a couple of weeks later to take a young girl who was separated from her parents.
Herrin believes the authorities were tipped off, because instead of the usual quick search, the checkpoint guards went back to check the car a second time.
“They made enough noise to where the little girl panicked and she screamed and they found the compartment. We were arrested.”
Lawyers materialized, he said. “With 20-20 hindsight we know the American government had arranged all that,” he said. They were tried in Pottsdam in December 1965 and sentenced to eight years.
The two spent more than a year in a prison in Bautzen, near the Czech border.
Separately, Mary Hellen Battle of Oak Ridge, Tenn., a 25-year-old theology student described in news stories as a willowy ash blonde, was arrested and charged with plotting the escape of a young East German authorities said was a military deserter.
Mary Hellen, nicknamed Blackie, had been studying at the Free University in Berlin and was preparing to enter New York’s Union Theological Seminary.
She was convicted April 20, 1966, and also imprisoned at Bautzen. She wrote in a letter home that her work consisted of manufacturing radio and television parts.
The fourth American released, William W. Lovett, 26, of San Francisco, was charged in connection with an automobile accident in which East Germans were injured.
After secret negotiations, the four were released. The U.S. government said there was no swap involved.
The AP reported that the four shouted “Freiheit” (freedom) when they returned to West Berlin.
At the press conference, “Miss Battle, sentenced to four years, appeared tired, but in good health,” the story said. “As she talked to newsmen, her English was halting and sometimes she lapsed into German. ‘I can’t think anymore in English,’ she said.”
Herrin, then 26, was quoted as saying that he and Matthews, 24, were “treated very good because we are Negroes. The communists told us we were being mistreated back in the States. They tried to make the most of it.”
Herrin said he and Matthews didn’t know the other released prisoners. He only encountered Mary Hellen Battle at the press conference. He met Lovett later in Denmark.
The two ex-GIs were given new passports and offered a free ticket back to the United States, he said, but both decided to remain in Germany. Herrin was already comfortable in Germany ( “I’m going to pat myself on the back here — I was speaking fluently after two years. I was an interpreter on the post.”) and Matthews was given help in getting an apartment and setting up a business, he said.
He lived in Germany for several years, and then lived in Denmark, Sweden, Holland and Greece. ”I fell in love with Europe,” he said, learning Swedish and Dutch.
He moved back to the States in 1993, but returns to Europe each year to visit his children and friends there.
He and Matthews stayed in touch after their release, but Herrin said he hadn’t seen his old companion in several years. (Matthews apparently moved back to Ellwood City, but could not be located for this article.)
Although he returns to Germany regularly, he stays on the west side of Berlin.
“I remember one time going back, I got on the wrong bus, and ended up in what is now, well East Berlin. I panicked. Even though that wall is gone, there is a psychological wall.”