BERLIN -- Sgt. Jerry Brooks can't help grinning when he thinks of the irony. His unit's tanks -- the symbol of Western resolve to hold this city during the hottest days of the Cold War -- will not be allowed back into the United States until every bit of German soil is washed off.
"Department of Agriculture regulations against pests. It makes sense but is kind of funny. None of the soil we defended is allowed back," said the 27-year-old tank commander, who was born in Baltimore and grew up in Lynchburg, Va.
Sergeant Brooks and his three-man crew have spent the last two weeks taking their M-1A1 tanks apart, meticulously cleaning them, then putting them back together. Tomorrow the tanks will be sent to the German port of Bremerhaven, then shipped to the United States.
The departure is more than just another U.S. unit leaving Germany after the end of the Cold War. This unit, the 40th Armor Regiment's 6th Brigade, arrived in West Berlin 32 years ago when the Soviet Union was threatening to snatch up the Allied-controlled western sector of the divided city, which was surrounded by East Germany. Since then, the tanks have symbolized the U.S. answer to Soviet threats: Attack this unit in West Berlin, and you attack the United States.
The unit's 32 tanks were never enough to defend the city but were meant to show that taking West Berlin would not be as simple as marching across the border, said the unit commander, Lt. Col. William Betson.
"We were here to prevent a quick grab by the Soviets and to show the local population that they weren't forgotten," he said.
One of the favorite tactics of the East Germans and the Soviets was to pretend that the treaties allowing Allied troops to occupy West Berlin were no longer valid, meaning that all of Berlin should belong to the East. The East Germans would harass U.S., British and French troops, who formally occupied West Berlin, when they tried to exercise their right to cross into the Soviet-controlled East.
In the unit's most famous engagement, East German border guards tried to stop U.S. soldiers from driving into East Berlin at border crossing Checkpoint Charlie shortly after the Berlin Wall was built in 1961.
The U.S. soldiers retaliated by jumping out of their jeeps and pointing their bayonets at the guards. In support, 10 of the unit's tanks rolled up to the checkpoint. The Soviets countered with their own tanks, and the two sides lined up barrel to barrel across the border.
"It was one of the closest moments that we came to World War III," said Rainer Hildebrandt, who runs the museum at Checkpoint Charlie.
Sergeant Brooks said he remembers learning about the Berlin crises in school, but he never imagined he would serve in the city, which was considered a hardship post.
"I'm glad to go back but have enjoyed it a lot. The people are great," said Sergeant Brooks.
The 850 soldiers and officers are due to complete their withdrawal by August, when the unit will be deactivated. There are now 3,500 U.S. soldiers in Berlin, down from 6,000 during the peak of the Cold War. All but a handful are due to be gone by 1994, when the troops of the former Soviet Union finish their pullout from eastern Germany.
"The soldiers stayed here, first as occupiers, then as protectors. The soldiers and residents experienced quite a few desperate hours together -- the Soviet Union tried more than once to demolish Berlin," the Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel wrote in an editorial thanking the Americans for their service.