Back during the Cold War, I served a stint over in Germany in a leg infantry unit (non-airborne) prior to my service with the 82nd Airborne and then SF. I was a young Corporal, and I was driving one of our Battalion Commanders (I speak fluent German; therefore, the Sergeant Major “volunteered” me), and we were in a hummer heading north. I was in the far right lane on the Autobahn; I saw a car pull up on my left fast, and then pass me as if I was standing still. I saw the plates, and they were…Soviet!
I almost had a stroke. The car was pulling off to the side of the road about ¼ mile ahead of us. I grabbed the radio and called back to BN HQ, reporting the sighting. In West Germany, yet! The adrenaline was rolling, and my M-16 was in the mount-clip next to me...
“(BN HQ call sign), be advised, I am following him and will ascertain his actions,” I reported.
My Battalion Commander was laughing, looking out the window.
“Sir?” I said, not understanding.
“Corporal, give me the handset,” he said, and I handed off the radio to the colonel.
As I watched the road and watched him out of the corner of my eye, he pulled out a laminated card for SMLM, or Soviet Military Liaison Mission. He followed the prompts on the card and called in a report.
“Hang off of them by about 50 meters. Let’em know we’re here…turn your lights on. Secure your weapon and stand by.”
The colonel called in the license plate. Although they were not really supposed to be here in this area, they had diplomatic immunity. We waited and watched for another 30 minutes before three MP vehicles with aBundeswehr (German Army) truck came up between us and the Sov’s. The colonel briefed the MP commander and the German officer. We then returned to the Humvee and left.
“Sir…I don’t understand how SMLM works if they’re not supposed to be in the area.”
“That makes two of us, Corporal. If I had my preference, we’d haul them in and question them about the espionage they’re conducting. That makes too much sense, though, so we have to look the other way.”
“I don’t like it, Sir,” I said, and the colonel sighed.
“Neither do I, Son. Neither do I.”
The Lieutenant Colonel had been in for almost 30 years, with 6 years in Vietnam as an enlisted man, and 4 of them with Special Forces and SOG. Hard stripes, hard-corps, and even then, harder than woodpecker lips. He was all-Army, and all business.
“Corporal, one of these days, they’re going to be doing the same thing as here…but in the United States. One day they will be in our country, and we will have to fight them. It’s the way it is.”
“I hope you’re wrong, Sir,” I said, and he nodded.
“So do I. But I’m not wrong on this. Mark my words,” said the colonel, and we continued the rest of our drive in silence.
He was German-American with a chin that looked as if it was made of iron, and his blue eyes were full of fire and narrowed. His teeth were clenched almost the whole rest of the ride. He didn’t say a word, just played around with his 1911 (his .45) as I drove.
The aircraft flew over San Diego on a 60 degree bearing, then doglegged back and returned again to the original heading but in a zigzag pattern, going around Sacramento. Other “tourist sights” seen in the flight were Edwards AF base, China Lake, a part of Area 51, San Diego’s naval base, the USMC’s 29 Palms, the National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, Las Vegas, and the Hoover Dam.
Here’s the punch line: The Russian aircraft had no call sign.