Soviets killed U.S. Army officer 30 years ago |

Soviets killed U.S. Army officer 30 years ago

David Henley
This photo, taken in the early 1960s from West Berlin by LVN columnist David Henley, shows East Berlin border policemen on the East Berlin side of the Berlin Wall looking at a West German memorial honoring an East Berliner who was shot to death attempting to scale the Wall to freedom in West Berlin.

Throughout 2015, we will be recognizing significant events that relate to the 70th anniversary this year of the end of World War II.

But another event, even though it occurred many years later and is much lesser-known than, for example, the surrenders of Japan and Nazi Germany that brought about the end of WW II in mid-August, 1945, must be recorded as well.

What I am referring to is the 30th anniversary of the last U.S. Cold War casualty, which will be commemorated on Tuesday.

This commemoration will honor the memory of an unarmed U.S. Army major who was killed by a Soviet soldier four years before the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, an event that led to the reuniting of West and East Germany and the subsequent breakup of the Soviet-controlled Eastern Bloc nations.

It was on March 24, 1985, when Maj. Arthur D. Nicholson Jr. met his death while pursuing authorized intelligence-gathering activities in Soviet-controlled communist East Germany near the East German town of Ludwigslust, about 100 miles northwest of Berlin.

Nicholson, 37, an intelligence specialist and Russian-speaking graduate of the U.S. Defense Language Institute, was a member of the U.S. Military Liaison Mission which had monitored Soviet and East German military activity in East Germany since the end of WW II.

As a representative of the liaison group, he, along with mission members from Great Britain and France, was basically a licensed spy. The mission had been authorized by a 1947 treaty with the Soviet Union to keep tabs on post-war German disarmament and demilitarization and to probe East German and Soviet military activities in East Berlin and East Germany.

The East German and Soviet liaison groups carried out the same, authorized spying activities, in West Berlin and West Germany, and they, like their Western counterparts, utilized helicopters, fixed wing aircraft, automobiles and trucks to carry out their tasks.

Maj. Nicholson’s fateful late-March day in 1985 began on a Sunday morning when he and his driver, Staff Sgt. Jessie Schatz, who spoke German, left their liaison headquarters near Berlin in a four-wheel-drive Mercedes “Gelaeddewagen” bearing U.S. Military Liaison Mission license plates and headed towards a Soviet tank-training facility and gunnery range near Ludwigslust in the Soviet Zone.

Schatz and Nicholson, both of whom were in uniform and unarmed, carried cameras, tape recorders and binoculars, as permitted by the 1947 treaty.

Arriving near a Soviet tank shed located on a muddy path off the main road, Nicholson noted fresh tank tracks on the ground, ordered Schatz to stop their vehicle and walked toward the shed where he photographed the tracks, the unoccupied shed and Soviet military training posters tacked to its inside walls.

All of a sudden, Schatz, who had stayed with the car, noticed a Soviet soldier emerge from the woods behind the shed.

The soldier aimed his AK-47 rifle at Nicholson, and Schatz yelled, “Sir, get back in the car.”

But it was too late. The soldier fired three shots. One hit Nicholson in the chest, and he fell to the ground, gasping, “Jessie…I’ve been shot.”

Rushing to Nicholson with a first aid kit, Schatz was ordered back to the vehicle by the young Soviet sergeant named Aleksandr Ryabtsev, who pointed his weapon at him.

Nicholson, critically wounded, lay on the ground unaided for more than an hour until Soviet Army officers, including a lieutenant general, arrived at the scene.

The Soviets, although their group included a medical team, made no attempt to examine and treat Nicholson, and he died before their eyes. An autopsy conducted the following day at U.S. Army headquarters in West Berlin concluded Nicholson had bled out…sentenced to death by his untreated chest wound.

It took several hours for his body to be released to the American authorities. His remains were flown by a special U.S. Air Force plane to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C. On the flight were his wife, their 8-year-old daughter and several members of his liaison team.

Maj. Nicholson was buried with military honors in Space 171, Section 7A at Arlington National Cemetery, and he was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, the Legion of Honor and promoted to lieutenant colonel.

It took the Soviets three years to apologize for Nicholson’s cruel death.

If Nicholson were alive today, he would be 68 years old.

David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus and may be reached at