Posts Tagged ‘Allan Lightner’

Cold War Checkpoint Charlie – Part 2

Monday, April 11th, 2016

For almost 30 years Checkpoint Charlie embodied the Cold War. Only a small shack, erected in the wake of the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, it served as the main demarcation point between Western-occupied West Berlin and Soviet-occupied East Berlin. To read about Checkpoint Charlie’s function and how it came by the name, please visit

Checkpoint Charlie and the East/West Showdown

Checkpoint Charlie became the scene of a nail-biting showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union. I remember it well because I lived in West Berlin at the time. According to Allied agreements, German personnel did not have the authority to inspect travel documents of members of the occupying military forces. But when U.S. diplomat Allan Lightner attempted to cross Checkpoint Charlie in October 1961 to attend the opera in East Berlin, East German border guards demanded to see his passport. Mr. Lightner refused, turned around and returned in the company of military jeeps and armed U.S. soldiers. The East German guards let him pass, but on the next occasion they again denied entry to American military personnel. The United States responded by moving ten tanks into position on their side of Checkpoint Charlie. The Soviets responded by moving three-dozen tanks to the eastern border. Then, on 27 October 1961, ten Soviet tanks rolled forward and faced the American tanks. For 16 hours American and Soviet tanks stood within 100 yards, facing each other. Along with the rest of the world I feared the beginning of World War III. But the standoff ended peacefully on 28 October following an American-Soviet agreement to withdraw all tanks.

Checkpoint Charlie and prisoner swaps

Occasionally, Checkpoint Charlie was also used for prisoner swaps. The best-known exchange occurred in 1962 when American U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers was traded for Soviet agent Rudolf Abel. While Powers and Abel were swapped at Glienicker Bruecke (Glienicke Bridge), Soviet officials released Frederic Pryor, an American student, at Checkpoint Charlie.

Checkpoint Charlie today

On 22 June 1990 the guardhouse at Checkpoint Charlie was removed. It is now on display in the Allied Museum in Berlin’s Zehlendorf district. On 13 August 2000, a replica of the original US Army guardhouse was erected in the Friedrichstrasse location. Today, it is one of Berlin’s most famous tourist attractions. Nearly 900,000 tourists from all over the world visit the replica every year. On one side, the image of a Soviet solder is shown; on the opposite side, the image of a U.S. soldier is displayed.

Checkpoint Charlie guardhouse on display at the Allied Museum in Berlin-Zehlendorf, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015

Checkpoint Charlie guardhouse on display at the Allied Museum in Berlin-Zehlendorf, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of