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“Such a unique place to be”

INTERVIEW: Invited to perform at the 70th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift this Tue, US officer David A. Ratliff reminisces on his time in the divided city as an army band player.

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Members of the 298th US Army Band playing at the Allied Forces Day Parade in May 1983.

On August 7, Tempelhof will be brought back to its military air base days, and Berliners to their occupied history, as some 100 US army veterans who served in the divided city commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift. Expect official speeches, a wreath, and even Hershey’s Chocolate (just like those dropped by the famous ‘Candy Bomber’ to besieged West Berliners back in 1948!). The ceremony will also include a concert by former members of the 298th Army Band under the direction of their commander, retired Warrant Officer 5 David A. Ratliff.

In this spirit of reminiscence, we spoke to Ratliff, who served in Berlin twice for a joint period of seven years from 1974 to 1976 and again from 1980 to 1984. In our interview he conveys his memories about his unique connection, through music and the military, to the city and citizens of a once divided Berlin.

What was it like to land in West Berlin in 1974, as a 23-year-old US army man, heading from Fort Meade, Maryland ?

I guess there was a little bit of fear of the unknown; not knowing the German language, not knowing the German customs, or if we’d be able to navigate such a large city. I was born in Indiana, grew up on a farm, and I joined the army two weeks after I graduated in 1972. I had been to New York once, but to come and live in a city the size of Berlin…

I learnt very quickly that Berlin was run by older women. These women had rebuilt the city with their own hands and took great pride in that.”

Then of course you had the political situation with the Cold War, so you were never sure what was going to happen. I had seen pictures of Berlin in 1945, but then, when I arrived and saw such a lively vibrant city that really never slept, it was a little bit of a shock. It was just an unbelievable experience.

How did it feel to be part of the occupying forces in divided Berlin?

The people were very friendly, they appreciated the Allies. West Berliners knew that they were free, and that the Allies were there to ensure that freedom, and they pretty much went on about their business just as they would. The German economy was booming, people were relaxed, people could afford to buy the necessities of life, they could afford to have a roof over their heads, they could buy food to feed their families, they had good paying jobs. So, I think there was a great deal of optimism for the citizens of West Berlin back them. Even with the Wall surrounding the city, I think they were very happy people. I learnt very quickly that Berlin was run by older women. You looked around and there weren’t as many older men as a result of the war. These women had rebuilt the city of Berlin with their own hands and took great pride in that. Berlin was probably the cleanest city I had ever seen. You didn’t see trash, you didn’t see litter. It was kind of an eye opener to realise that people cared that much about not only their own lives, but the lives of their fellow citizens and the people in Berlin to make it such a beautiful and accommodating place.

The 1970s were marked by student unrest, not everyone was so pro-US back then… Did you ever encounter any antagonism?

Yes, there were students who were leaning towards the communist way of life, and less towards the way of life that the Americans, the British and the French portrayed, which was kind of funny, because many of them were going to the Free University that was founded and paid for primarily by the Americans. They were not happy because of our involvement in Vietnam, or the idea of missiles being placed in West Germany.

Students threw Christmassy ornaments filled with paint at the band. It ruined about a dozen uniforms and cracked the windshield of our bus.”

In the summer of 1980, we had a concert in Kreuzberg, and the students threw Christmassy ornaments filled with paint at the band. It ruined about a dozen uniforms and cracked the windshield of our bus. The military police and the German Polizei got the situation under control very quickly but I believe it was the older German ladies who confronted the demonstrators and told them they weren’t really doing the right thing. Then, the following May or June, when we played at the Allied Forces Day parade, which took place on Universitätsstraße, a group of demonstrators got in between the back row of the band and the front row of the soldiers, but there was no altercation and the Polizei quickly solved the situation. But those two incidents were exceptions.

What would you do when off-duty – wasn’t life in West Berlin feeling a little insular back then?

People would often ask “Don’t you feel confined living in the city of Berlin?” But not at all! First, we could travel, you just had to get the appropriate paperwork and either take the duty train, or drive off from Checkpoint Bravo, Checkpoint Alpha or Helmstedt. But in fact, there was so much to see and do here anyway! There was something going on 24/7 in the city of Berlin, whether you wanted to go eat, or shop, go to shows, the concerts, or just mingle with the people. There was biking around Wannsee, going on hikes. The German people were very robust and healthy – even the older ones. We’d see them hiking in Grunewald and had trouble keeping up with them, it was quite an experience! It was such unique place to live! Just the ability to do our job as musicians was unparalleled to anywhere else in the world.

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Ratliff with his Berlin-born daughter in 1984, the year they left the city.

So, what was it like performing in West Berlin as a US military band player?

It was great, no matter where you played! Typically, they’d be a sign saying that the 298th Army Band is playing a concert at 11pm on Sunday, and five minutes to 11 there’d be no one and you’d think “Okay, why are we here and who are we performing for?”, but then people would suddenly appear, whether it was out at Krumme Lanke or by the Wannsee. We also did a lot of performances on street corners in Steglitz and many other parts of the city and passers-by would stop and show their appreciation. The biggest thing we did each year was at the Allied Forces Day in the spring and the police show at the Deutschlandhalle [demolished in 2008]. I don’t know how many thousands of people were in there, but they would sit through a two- or three-hour concert and be wanting more. We had the French band and the British band, the American band and the police band and we would put on a performance that would rival anything else, anywhere in the world. On July 3, we’d go out to Potsdam for military liaison mission day.

So, you’d go to Potsdam and officially perform in East Germany…?

There was a military liaison mission out there and the mission was, I guess, to watch what was going on with the East Germans and the Soviets, but on that day, the Allies all came together for an all-American cookout. The band was there providing music, there was volleyball going on, hamburgers and hot dogs, and it was the British, the French, the Americans… and the Russians!

Being in the band, we had the opportunity to mingle with the people of Berlin much more so than the other soldiers…”

Behind the mission house, there was a small river or stream where we’d hang out and play and we would see these small kayaks or boats come up and it was East Germans coming up to get a taste of America. We played a couple of times in the American ambassador’s house in East Berlin, and of course the entire compound has a fence around it and as we would leave, there were many people on the sidewalk who had been there to hear our performance. So, music truly was the universal language. It could overcome any political or ideological differences.

What was it like to step into East Germany?

It was a hugely different feeling. As soon as you crossed into East Berlin, there was that lack of colour. Everything was cold and dreary. We used to joke that it was five degrees colder when you crossed through Checkpoint Charlie. The East Berliners couldn’t really mix or get involved with the Americans. Whereas the West Berliners would come up and talk to us, for example after concerts, East Germans couldn’t. It was pretty much forbidden.

What type of music did you play?

Some American patriotic music, some popular music. We played “Rock Around the Clock”, “Saint Louise Blues” and we always included Glen Miller’s “In the Mood”. The Germans absolutely loved the American big band sound and style and we put in a lot of favourite German tunes.

Star Wars was the big hit and we had a musical arrangement with Darth Vader chasing Princess Lea through the aisles of Deutschlandhalle, and the crowd went crazy!”

We always played “Berliner Luft”, or “Alte Kameraden” and then we would generally end with “Stars and Stripes Forever” and have our Blutwurst and Beer or whatever the sponsor was providing and make conversation with the citizens and just relax and enjoy ourselves. Being in the band, we had the opportunity to mingle with the people of Berlin, much more so than the other soldiers because of going out and playing music.

Do you remember some special concerts that you played?

My first year back when I returned in 1980, Star Wars was the big hit and we had a musical arrangement with Darth Vader chasing Princess Lea through the aisles of Deutschlandhalle, and the crowd went crazy and thought that was great! But for us, the local things we did in various districts for those people to come out and enjoy were probably the most rewarding.

Did you ever return after you left in 1984?

My daughter was born in Berlin, so we wanted to come back and see the city. We had made plans in September of 1989, bought the tickets and had everything arranged, and then one evening in November we saw the news and wondered “why are all these people standing on the Berlin Wall?”…. We ended up coming the following February and were in for quite a shock: to see the opening in the wall down by the Brandenburg Gate, people walking back and forth! I had seen pictures of people doing that in the 1930s-40s, but never dreamed I would have the opportunity to experience it!

And was that your last visit to the city?

No, my last time in Berlin was in August of 1994 for one of the last celebrations before the Americans officially left the city. They’d put together close to a hundred musicians from other bands in West Germany, some that were still in Berlin, and I brought 35 people from Maryland and we put on a machine show at the Olympic stadium. We conducted the German national anthem in front of 62 thousand free Berliners, which was a very humbling experience: It was also amazing to see the city newly united and all the ills of the communist regime gone and the city rebuilding before our eyes. The entire skyline of Berlin was construction cranes, they were everywhere. And Berlin was now the capital again. It was amazing!

Returning now to Berlin and performing again here, this time to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, how does that feel?

To be a part of something that historical and monumental is an honour. Celebrating something that a lot of people said could not be done: the city of Berlin was cut off and there was no way they could be supplied, and somehow the Allies figured it out! This reunion was arranged by the Berlin-US Military Veterans Association, which is a group that has existed for many, many years and comes to Berlin frequently. They were the ones who gave us the opportunity to perform. There will be some tributes made to the Candy Bomber. Hershey’s is supposedly distributing chocolate during the ceremony. They will be ringing a bell 31 times to remember the people who died during the airlift and then there will be some speeches and a wreath will be laid. It should be a memorable event to mark quite a significant part of history.