A lot of Cold War history passed by Jesse Wilson II during his seven-year Army career. He helped keep West Berlin free of communist domination — and he enjoyed his work so much that he re-enlisted there.
Originally from Bangor and now an Orono resident, Wilson attended Bangor High School in the mid-1970s. He participated in Army Junior ROTC, which “helped me out a lot.” After working in the Bangor Daily News mailroom from 1975 to 1980, he joined the Army on Feb. 6, 1980.
He would not retire from military service for 23½ years.
The Army trained Wilson to be a military policeman, a job that took him to the American Sector in Berlin in October 1981. In that not-so-distant time, the four wartime Allies — Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States — still occupied specific sections of Berlin. East Germany physically separated Communist-held East Berlin from democratic West Berlin by building the Berlin Wall in late summer 1961.
Jesse Wilson got to know that wall very well.
Assigned to the 287th Military Police Co., he was stationed in the American Sector, “the south and southwest side of the city,” he recalled.
Military policemen had multiple responsibilities, including “jurisdiction over a million people in West Berlin,” Wilson said. The MPs worked closely with specific West German police officers, known as polizei, “who had to speak English, of course,” he recalled.
About 6 a.m. one weekday, Wilson and another MP watched a double-decker Berlin bus pass them on a city street. “This punk kid with the spiked hair and all that gave us the finger from the lower level of the bus,” Wilson said. “We apprehended him, pulled him off the bus, and let the polizei handle it.
“They let him know his rude behavior wasn’t acceptable,” he said.
Military policemen guarded Allied trains traveling through East Germany. One train traveled from West Berlin to Frankfurt daily; a second train traveled daily from Frankfurt to West Berlin. Wilson often pulled duty on these trains, including “special diesels for diplomats and generals.”
One day while a train was stopped at an East German border crossing guarded by Soviet troops, a three-star American general asked Wilson about the advisability of photographing Soviet personnel standing on the station platform.
“I told that if he did, the Russians would come onto the train and take the camera away from him,” he recalled.
Allied and West German personnel traveling to West Berlin passed through specific checkpoints while crossing East Germany. According to Wilson, trains and vehicles east-bound from West Germany to West Berlin “processed through” Alpha Checkpoint at the East German border and again at Bravo Checkpoint on the boundary between East Germany and West Berlin.
To reach East Berlin, people crossed at Charlie Checkpoint. “All’s it was was three buildings, sort of like ice shacks, stuck together in the middle of the road,” Wilson remembered. “We were in the front, facing the Russians. The French were in the middle. The British were behind them.”
This particular border crossing went into 20th-century lore as “Checkpoint Charlie,” made famous in film and reality. “Yeah, the name was reversed, but we called it Charlie Checkpoint,” Wilson said. “That was the correct name.
“Everybody came to Berlin” to see Charlie Checkpoint, he recalled. Roger Moore visited the checkpoint while filming the James Bond spy thriller “Octopussy” in the early 1980s. Other notables whom Wilson saw at the checkpoint were rockers Joan Jett and ZZ Top and Britain’s Prince Phillip.
“I was there when [President Ronald] Reagan was there” during his first visit to the Berlin Wall, Wilson said. “I saw his convoy go by. I was stuck on a roof with a sniper rifle” while watching for potential assassins.
Checkpoint Charlie “was used only by the Allies. It wasn’t for tourists” to use to reach East Berlin, Wilson said.
“There were a lot of things that happened over there in Berlin,” he recalled. The city’s canal system formed part of the Berlin Wall; about 9:30 p.m. one day, the American MPs watched a swimmer navigating a canal while East German border guards fired on him.
“When he reached the Allied side, we grabbed him and pulled him to safety,” Wilson said.
The threat of war was never far away; the Allies and the Soviets almost went to war during the Berlin Wall’s construction, and all four occupying nations kept strong military contingents in Berlin. “You had to be careful,” Wilson remembered. “You could create an international incident real quick.”
Allied soldiers had to look sharp. “Berlin was the only place during the Cold War where the tankers polished their tanks, every nut and bolt,” Wilson said. “We had brand new patrol cars every year. We had it better than the British and the French.”
While stationed in Berlin, Wilson decided to re-enlist at a special place. He “re-upped” at Charlie Checkpoint with East German border guards watching in the distance as he raised his hand and swore to defend the Constitution. “I did to kind of stick it in their faces,” Wilson explained.
For a soldier from rural central Maine, Berlin proved an exciting contrast to Bangor, Wilson remembered. He described Berlin as “a huge city” with “forests, beaches, rivers, lakes, canals.
“There was over 3,500 different nightspots. You could buy a beer everywhere,” even at a McDonald’s, he said. Wilson spent much time sightseeing in Berlin; he got around on the public transportation system or in his four-speed Ford Opel, a small car ideal for urban driving.
As for the Berlin women, well, “the ratio was 4-to-1, four women to every guy,” Wilson said. He dated and married a West Berliner named Anna-Christa, a Jewish woman who had lost all her family but her mother during World War II. Wilson remembered that his mother-in-law “used to save all her grease from cooking, and she would cover her bagels with that grease.
“She learned to do that during the war,” he said.
Anna-Christie and her mother had fled East Berlin before the wall went up. Wilson returned to Maine in January 1987 and quickly joined the Maine Air National Guard as a security police officer assigned to Bangor Air National Guard Base. Anna-Christie joined him in Maine in 1988, then returned to Germany about the time that East Germany collapsed.
“Coming from a city like Berlin out to the Maine woods was a shock for her,” Wilson said. He and Anna-Christie later divorced; he visited Berlin in 1989, and Anna-Christie later sent him a box full of pieces that she had chiseled from the Berlin Wall.
“I thought it was great that it was gone,” Wilson said. “I didn’t think that wall would ever come down.”
He retired from full-time military service on Oct. 31, 2003, 13 years after the two Germanys had reunited. Wilson now does carpentry work, “mostly for family.”
Looking back on his years spent in West Berlin, he recalled “what I missed the most. First, door knobs; the German doors had handles. And [TV] commercials. I couldn’t wait to come home and see a commercial.
“I’m glad I was stationed there,” Wilson said. “Germany’s free today, and Berlin is not divided any more. It’s a beautiful city.”