Guarding Americans : U.S. Europe Bases: Issue of Security

Times Staff Writer

U.S. Army headquarters in West Germany, situated at the southern edge of this medieval university city, is closely guarded by sharp-eyed military policemen with loaded automatic weapons.

Concrete flower boxes are positioned to ward off car bombers. Visitors are subjected to a rigorous security check by guards who refer to photos of wanted terrorists.

But just around the corner lies the sprawling Mark Twain housing complex for American dependents. The apartment buildings and children’s playgrounds are virtually unprotected.

This disparity says something about the problems of guarding U.S. servicemen and their families in West Germany, or anywhere else in Europe. For while security is tight at key military installations, most of the servicemen and their families live in private, off-base housing--much as they would in the United States.

300,000 Dependents

There are about 320,000 U.S. servicemen in Europe, 252,000 of them in West Germany. With them are about 300,000 dependents, about two-thirds of whom are in West Germany. They are scattered around Western and Central Europe, at several hundred locations ranging from big headquarters complexes to tiny detachments of no more than a dozen men.


The West German area around Kaiserslautern, between the French border and the Rhine River, is said to contain the largest American community outside the United States. About 70,000 service personnel and their dependents live there.

American officers are fully aware of the problems involved in protecting all these people and places, particularly in light of a recent surge of activity by the terrorist Red Army Faction and supporting groups.

Gen. Glenn K. Otis, commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, said the other day, “We’re very concerned, and we have taken measures to make us a harder target.”

New Barriers Installed

Obviously, some of the more sophisticated security systems are not being discussed to prevent terrorists from finding out about them. But Otis made no secret of the fact that additional guards have been placed on duty and additional barriers put up to frustrate bombers.

Also, all American personnel are being urged to be on the alert for suspicious strangers and suspicious vehicles. Before terrorists can mount an attack, the general pointed out, they have to scout out a target and formulate a plan.

“In the past 10 months,” he said, “we’ve foiled several attempts at reconnoitering that might have resulted in terrorist incidents.”

At places like the Rhein-Main Air Base, where two Americans were killed last month in a car-bomb attack, security has been stepped up sharply.

And Lt. Col. William H. Johnson Jr. told a reporter at U.S. Air Force headquarters at the big base at Ramstein, “We are concerned with doing everything we believe is feasible to protect our people.”

No Bunker Mentality

Still, most senior U.S. military officers want to avoid developing a bunker mentality. They do not want Americans here to hunker down in a state of near-panic.

Maj. Robert E. Dittmer II, who is attached to the Army headquarters command here, said: “What we don’t want to do is encourage a frame of mind where we are drawing up the wagons in a circle. We definitely do not want to develop a laager (circled wagons) or ghetto mentality among our people. Our enemy is not 60 million West Germans but rather a hard core of 20 or 30 terrorists. We have to keep that perspective in mind.”

The U.S. responsibility for security ends at the gates of the U.S. bases. Outside, West German police are responsible for Americans’ safety.

German Security Praised

As an American diplomat put it: “The German government is responsible for security within its own country, and it is quite good at it. We maintain confidence in their ability to protect us as well as their own people from terrorists.”

U.S. officials point out that in the past decade only half a dozen Americans have been killed by terrorists in West Germany. Many more servicemen are killed every year in accidents that occur on maneuvers--to say nothing of highway crashes.

Few servicemen here seem to have any fear of possible terrorist attacks. Sgt. 1st Class Robert W. Lentner said: “Terrorism is a criminal activity, so you do what is normal and prudent to protect yourself against any criminal activity, like vandalism or even mugging.

“I feel much safer in Germany going out to dinner with my wife than I would in some American cities. I keep my eyes open, on the base and off the base. I don’t know any soldiers who are developing any paranoia about these latest developments.”

Dressed in Civvies

Most servicemen wear civilian clothing off the base, but not because of any threat. “We’ve been wearing civvies after hours for years,” Lentner said.

But terrorists would have little difficulty in identifying American servicemen. Their accents are distinctive, as are their short haircuts. And their cars bear U.S. military license plates.

Many U.S. military installations in West Germany are on the site of old German garrisons occupied by American forces just after World War II. Typical in many ways is the Heidelberg Kaserne, or barracks. It was built in 1937, in the German military style of the time, for Hitler’s 110th Infantry Regiment. With the Allied victory in May, 1945, the post was taken over by the Americans and called Campbell Barracks, after a sergeant who led the assault west of Heidelberg.

It has since been occupied by various American commands and is now headquarters of the U.S. Army, Europe, which includes the 7th Army. It is also headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Central Army Group, which would take command in the event of a general war in Europe. As at bases elsewhere, accommodations for dependents have grown up around the perimeter.

Some major U.S. commands are located in large cities--Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, for example. These are for the most part divisional commands; brigade headquarters are usually in relatively remote locations.

The U.S. Support Command has dozens of West German bases, ranging from sizable engineering and ammunition complexes to small warehouses. It was a Support Command installation, at Muenchen Gladbach, west of Duesseldorf, where an unmanned radio relay tower was recently damaged by explosives. Security at such places varies with the importance of the activity.

At many bases, there is not enough dependent housing to meet the need, and as a result many families live in private West German housing and shop in West German stores rather than at military commissaries.

“It would simply not be feasible to build new quarters for all our personnel and their dependents on our bases,” a senior headquarters officer said. “It would cost billions of dollars, and there wouldn’t be room anyway. And it would not be a good thing in terms of community relations. We are here not as ugly Americans but to work and live alongside the West German people.”

High-Visibility Targets

The Red Army Faction has in the past aimed at high-visibility military targets as a way of demonstrating its hatred of “U.S. military imperialism.” In 1981, Red Army Faction terrorists set off a bomb at the Ramstein Air Base. Also in 1981, they fired a rocket at a car carrying Gen. Frederick J. Kroesen, who was then U.S. Army commander in Europe, as he was being driven to his headquarters here in Heidelberg.

Kroesen was not injured, which has led some soldiers to question the terrorists’ competence. And some of them have wondered about the strike at the radio tower, which is used to beam routine programming to the servicemen; the tower, they say, is hardly a high-priority military target.

But men involved with security are genuinely concerned about the recent slaying of Spec. 4 Edward F. Pimental, 20, a soldier based at Wiesbaden.

Pimental had spent the evening at a discotheque and was last seen about midnight leaving with a German girl. His body was found the next morning, shot in the head. He was killed only a few hours before the attack at the Rhein-Main Air Base.

Pimental’s death has not been positively linked to terrorists, but after the bombing his identification card was delivered to the office of a news agency with a note from the Red Army Faction indicating that the identification had been used to get into the base.

If this is so, Pimental would be the first American soldier killed as a means of gaining access to a base targeted for attack.

Reflecting on this, a soldier observed, only half in jest, “If I have to worry about who I leave a disco with--now that could really hurt my morale.”