by Brendan Sample
Throughout the many decades of the Cold War, billions of people around the world lived in fear that nuclear war would break out between the United States and the Soviet Union at any point. While that war never came directly, both nations had to take precautions, and one of America’s was a Special Forces group stationed in Berlin from 1956-1984, with a new unit continuing their work until 1990.
The 39th Special Forces Detachment existed to get ahead of any potential conflicts that broke out in the German capital, and for the past 40 years, one member of that unit has been living in Chestnut Hill.
Throughout his life, Robert Olson has been involved in a number of unique ventures, from riding in the Olympic Trials in 1960 to co-founding a real estate company called Longview Property Group in 1976. Until 2014, however, he was unable to even speak about his military service because of heavy classification regarding the unit and its mission.
With that classification having now been lifted, an entire book about the group titled “Special Forces Berlin: Clandestine Cold War Operations of the U.S. Army’s Elite, 1956-1990” is set to be released on Feb. 17. While the book will describe the unit as a whole, there is still a more personal side to the story that Olson is now finally able to share.
“I joined the army after two years at Brown [University],” Olson said. “I couldn’t tolerate the notion of going back. Actually I went down to join the Marine Corps, and there were four people waiting. So I went over and talked to the Army guy, and he said, ‘You should be in the Special Forces,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I should.’ They get you to wear a little great hat that will drive the girls nuts. You get $55 a month more than anyone else and you get to jump out of airplanes. It sounded great, so I signed up and I spent a year-and-a-half training.”
Between the basic training and Special Forces training, Olsen acquired a number of skills that would prove to be invaluable during his time in Berlin such as parachuting and blowing up bridges. These traits in particular ended up being directly applicable to his overseas mission.
“The unit was set up in the early ‘50s, and the notion was to parachute small teams behind enemy lines during wartime that would assist guerrilla fighters,” Olson said. “If there was a war, the Russians would have to ship all their supplies basically through Berlin, and our job was to blow the rail lines in Berlin and then run to a submarine that was waiting for us in the Baltic Sea some 700 miles away. It was not quite clear how we would get there, but that’s what the unit was there for.”
While there was plenty of reconnaissance going on in Berlin at the time, Olsen and the rest of his unit didn’t spend every waking minute directly preparing for war. In addition to walking around and taking in the city during periods of free time, everyone was required to take classes on a variety of subjects.
“Every morning I went to German class,” Olson explained. “We also had a math class we had to go to, and after about three of those it was ridiculous. I said, ‘I’ll teach the math class,’ so I did. So we went to classes and everybody taught. Teaching math to Special Forces was a very special experience.”
Olson’s time in Berlin was from April 1958 to September 1959, and while the city was still divided into four sections – American, Soviet, British and French – the actual Berlin wall had not been constructed. Instead, the Soviets employed a far more brutal method of keeping people in and out of their section.
“The city in that time was very odd because there was no wall,” Olson recalled. “There were instead fences that consisted basically of telephone poles that had barbed wire stretched about every 18 inches that went all the way up. The theory, as we could figure it out, was that you’d look at this and think, ‘I can get through that with no trouble,’ and you’d get there and you’d find out that you couldn’t get through it with no trouble and they would machine-gun you, and that’s really what they did.”
Looking back on the Cold War, we now obviously know that war did not break out between the two nations, which, in turn, begs the question of whether or not this unit in particular was even needed. Although Olson never thought that war would actually happen, an opinion which he felt was perceived as “less than worthless” at the time, he still recognized the benefit of having such a precautionary measure in place during such a tense period.
“It was a wonderful idea,” Olson said. “I mean, consider the odds. There was an American garrison that blew in that probably had about 2,000 people. We had about 35 tanks and the Russians had about 3,000 tanks. That’s a war that would’ve lasted about 10 minutes in Berlin. Our job was to quiet it down. I’m convinced that if the war had started, we’d have blown the tracks for sure. What would’ve happened after that, in retrospect, I have no idea.”
After leaving the army and completing his degree at Brown, Olson eventually moved to Chestnut Hill shortly after starting Longview Property Group. He still resides in the area with his wife of 45 years, Elizabeth. The couple have two children: Kate, who earned her Ph.D. from Columbia University, and Josh, a Hollywood screenwriter who was nominated for an Academy Award in 2006 for his adapted screenplay of A History of Violence.
Having been part of a select group of people whose goal was essentially to try and prevent World War III from occurring, Olson certainly has plenty to reflect back when it comes to his time in the Special Forces. When considering his biggest takeaway from that time, however, instead of focusing on how he could have potentially changed history, he instead chose to highlight the men he served with and their extraordinary values.
“If you measure the people that I served with there by any decent measure of how you should measure people really – kind, friendly, brave, intelligent – they were all of those things, but they were all poor as dirt,” Olson said. “They were mostly far better men than I was and they simply didn’t have somebody who would send them to college … They were the kindest, best group of men I ever knew, and not for the reasons you would associate with being in the Special Forces.”
Brendan Sample can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org