UP & DOWN THE RIVER: Indescribable post-war Berlin

By Don Crockett

This is a true experience I encountered and participated in only weeks after Hitler’s suicide.  I searched for a word to describe it……it was bizarre.  Desperate, starving Germans in Berlin found refuge by the use of what was at hand: barter and available paper Allied Money.

For the better part of three years, I was with the Air Force’s Troop Carrier Command.  The TC Groups carried paratroopers and towed gliders into invasions and I was with the air attachment to the 82nd Airborne and trained with them in North Carolina during the autumn of 1942. 

During the ensuing years 1943-1945 we took these brave paratroopers to North Africa, Sicily, Italy and later, from England, beyond the beaches of Normandy and to Holland.

One day, following the news that the war was within days of being over, about 20 of us were ordered to see our Executive Officer. 

We got the news that we would be detached from TC Command and sent to an ”unknown” destination.  The good news was that the war was over in Europe was short-lived since we suspected our “secret” destination may be some godforsaken Pacific island.  A few weeks later we were ushered to an aircraft and took off.  After two days we were told that the destination was Berlin, where we would be the cadre for a new group, the Flight Section of the U.S. Group Control Council at Tempelhof Field.

At the war’s end, Germany was divided into zones to be ruled by Allies: the United States, Great Britain and Russia. However, Berlin, the city, was to be separately divided and zoned for their headquarters.  We were told that we could not leave the city unless on needed military duties and that we would be used only by American military government officials. We were housed in nearby apartments, one or two of us to an apartment, and the occupants were given one hour to vacate.  My stay in Berlin for six months was unbelievable.  I had my own apartment and purchased a 1936 Mercedes for a couple of hundred in Allied Paper Money.

Then things began to get genuinely weird.  The economic outlook for a closed city looked grim until Economics 101 became a reality.  A medium of exchange was needed to compensate for Allied Paper Money, the need for goods, and other day-to-day exchange.  It had to be a scarce item with some value for trade.  The answer?  Cigarettes.  We could purchase two cartons a week and the PX sold cartons for about 44 cents each.  The trade value? About $125 per carton.

A carton of cigarettes could purchase a peck of potatoes, milk and bread.  Those who sold products for Allied Money could use that money to make other purchases, and then send the money home for savings.  Visualize those exchanges between a million people.  A pack of cigarettes got one a good seat at the opera or a restaurant.  The area was literally, going wild with the trading activity touching nearly everyone.  Many GI’s, temporarily, gave up smoking and the post office was crowded.

Of course, we were not permitted to sell military items.  I sat next to a Russian officer one afternoon when I had been at Tempelhof for only a week or so.  He asked if he could purchase the watch I was wearing and offered me $750. I accepted, since the watch was worth about $30.  When he put my watch on his wrist I noticed he had watches from his wrist to his elbow.  Allied Money was no good in Russia, he said, but watches were valuable.

This was my introduction, and during the next month I sent home over $3000, but had to stand in line at the post office for an hour because of the crowds.

As soon as the Allied leaders saw what was transpiring, they put an end to it.  Russian soldiers had not been paid for a year and were given back pay in Allied Money and they scrambled to buy goods with the money that would be of real value in Russia.  We were restricted to sending home no more than 10% over our monthly pay.  We were never permitted to have American currency, but Allied Money could be sent home as a money order and then transferred to U. S. currency.  In retrospect, it was better than a 401K.

Who said economics was a dismal science?

Don Crockett resides in Reed City with his wife Ruth and is an occasional contributor to Up and Down the River.

Up and Down the River is sponsored by Artworks, a project partially funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities through Michigan Humanities Council. 

The Artworks office is located at 106 N. Michigan Ave., in Big Rapids. President is Alice Bandstra; Lynne Scheible, executive director; Pat Heeter, gallery team leader; and Cathy Johnson, editor.

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