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Col. Glover S. Johns, Jr.

During his visit to West Berlin, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson greets Col. Glover S. Johns Jr., Aug. 20, 1961. (CIA photo)
During his visit to West Berlin, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson greets Col. Glover S. Johns Jr., Aug. 20, 1961. (CIA photo)

On Sunday, Aug. 13, 1961, the world learned that spools of barbed wire had been stretched between East and West Berlin. In the weeks to come, the wires would be replaced by cement blocks. At first, Western powers did nothing, but soon, President John F. Kennedy sent in U.S. infantry troops under the command of Col. Glover S. Johns Jr.

Johns, a "peacock-proud Texan" in the words of writer Peter Wyden, was a decorated World War II veteran. His book "The Clay Pigeons of St. Lo" chronicled his feats in that critical battle; his three Silver Stars and three Legions of Merit spoke for themselves. Gen. Bruce C. Clarke selected Johns to command the 1,500 soldiers of the 1st Battle Group, 8th Infantry Division from Helmstedt, at the border of East Germany, to West Berlin. David Hackworth, who once served under Johns, notes in "About Face" that Kennedy personally selected Johns for the sensitive assignment. Kennedy wanted to maintain American access to the city without provoking a reaction from the Soviets.

The flamboyant Johns had many personal affectations, including the antique Colt pistol he packed. But his professional decorum was as rigid as the rules at Virginia Military Institute, where he had once been commandant of cadets. Wyden writes that Johns said "Everyone knew: if anything did start [in Berlin], we were in for certain destruction."

On the morning of Aug. 20, Johns was able to telephone the White House with the news that the first American reinforcements had crossed into Berlin. As West Berliners greeted the parade of infantrymen with open arms, the White House took a deep breath and prepared for the next stage of the Cold War.

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