Good Friday 1984: The Cold War turned hot

For two years in the early 1980s I was assigned to the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment as an intelligence officer. The unit’s peacetime mission was to patrol the border between West Germany and Czechoslovakia/East Germany. The patrols were conducted by troops on foot, in vehicles and in helicopters like the AH-1 Cobra (shown above). I left Germany in the fall of 1983 but given the staggered assignment pattern of the army at the time, many of my good friends were still in the unit the following spring when a little-known but very dangerous incident occurred.

On Good Friday (April 20, 1984) a 2nd ACR Cobra helicopter that was flying along the heavily wooded, lightly populated and very hilly border with Czechoslovakia unknowingly strayed into that country’s airspace. The pilots realized there was something wrong when they were attacked by two Czech Su-27 Floggers with cannon fire. The Cobra evaded and retreated back into West Germany, escaping without any damage.

The initial reports from the American pilots to their headquarters (where my friends were working) was that the Czechs had attacked them while in West German airspace. This caused quite a stir that quickly reached all the way to the Situation Room at the White House while the soldiers on the ground began breaking open boxes of live ammo. Soon a West German Border Police official called his US counterpart and asked “Why did one of your helicopters just fly into Czechoslovakia?” In an age before GPS devices, that was the first indication our side had that the helicopter had been on the wrong side of the border.

The crisis quickly deescalated. Supposedly President Reagan passed along a discreet apology to the Czech government for the incursion. A recent email from a friend who remained in the military through the end of the Cold War put the incident in a historical perspective. Here’s part of what he wrote:

And retrospect puts this all in a bigger perspective. Allegedly Andropov, in 1983, thought that Reagan was preparing a decisive first strike on the USSR, and in the West we didn’t know how close the Soviets were to being completely overcome with paranoia from border incidents and other actions that really weren’t intended to be hostile.

6 Responses to Good Friday 1984: The Cold War turned hot

  1. DickH says:

    Thanks. It was a very interesting time and for those of us who grew up during the Cold War, the thought that Communism would disappear so suddenly, quickly and peacefully was beyond our ability to comprehend. Similarly, I think those who grew/grow up after 1989 will find it impossible to fully appreciate how the Cold War touched so many aspects of our lives. At a minimum, it’s a good topic for future blog posts.

  2. Corey says:

    Being at the end of my 20s, I missed most of the Cold War and all of the coldest parts. I was too young to understand the part I did live through, but looking back at all the EBS testings during Sesame Street, etc…it was a scarier time than I could’ve ever appreciated as a kid. How fast the world can change. Jr High kids today were far too young to grasp 9/11.

  3. C R Krieger says:

    The comment about the Soviets being nervous about Reagan is solid.  In the early 1980s the Warsaw Treaty Organization did it’s first and only nuclear load out of aircraft in response to a NATO ABLE ARCHER Exercise (exercise of the nuclear command and control system).

    But, sometimes it is relative.  I was with the 14th Armored Cav for a month as a Ground Forward Air Controller—the month the Soviets and Friends went not Czechoslovakia.  Would we react?  No, we let the Prague liberation pass.  A few Czechs died.  More suffered.  World War was avoided.

    Later, in an Air Defense squadron at Bitburg we had an Operations Plan, CREEK BALL, to fly to the border and support US Army helicopters being harassed.  Given the border up around Fulda it was possible for Soviet helicopters to pinch off a US helicopter in some small projection of land into East Gmany—and in happened, but very infrequently in the late 1960s.

    Regards  —  Cliff

  4. Dale Weaver says:

    I was in the 2nd acr at the time and I remember laughing at all the press that recieved. Word was that a cobra was facing off a hind delta and each were showing off their manuverabilty and the Hind d couldn’t match the cobra and fired a middle at it knowing it was too close to be armed in a kind of ok show let’s see how fast you can move now. Neither helucopter was supposed to be messing around like that so the story you see here was the official account that made world news but the truth if it was just covering butts. The cobra never entered their air space although I witnessed hind deltas cutting corners crossing over our side I assume we did the same because the border was pretty jagged no one ever shot at anyone over it in fact we were so restricted on when we could engage the Russians that there had to be more than two platoons crossing and actively shooting at us before we could return fire. I assume they had pretty strict rules of engagement too. No the unit gossip was as I described. Would be interesting to talk to the pilot and see if he would tell the truth now that he can’t be court martialed. Ha ha