Episode 9



James Stejskal imagined a life of adventure when he was growing up - maybe he’d get a job as an oceanographer or park ranger - but when James watched the Clint Eastwood film When Eagles Dare he finally knew what his future held. James wanted to jump out of airplanes, work behind enemy lines and carry out dangerous missions. The 'fun' stuff, as he calls it. Luckily James could speak Greek and German. He was accepted into the military and later US Special Forces Berlin during the Cold War, an elite group of soldiers who had a mission to stall World War III. But, as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. James Stejskal was about to see a lot more action than he could have ever imagined back home in Omaha, Nebraska.
Read the transcript →

True Spies Episode 9: Shadow Games

NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? This is True Spies Episode 9: Shadow Games.

JAMES STEJSKAL: Being in West Berlin, 110 miles behind the Iron Curtain, inside East Germany, surrounded by a million Russian and East German troops, it was quite a feeling.

NARRATOR: Berlin, 1977. The frontline of the Cold War, divided by a four-meter high concrete wall topped with barbed wire, watchtowers, and guards trained to shoot to kill any trespassers who dared attempt to cross over the top. To the east of the wall - the German Democratic Republic, the frontline of the Soviet Union’s communist bloc. A once-cosmopolitan city ravaged by the Second World War and slowly rebuilt, Soviet-style. Neighborhoods frozen by the winds blowing in from the icy steppes of Russia, inhabitants growing ever more restless with the city’s poor working conditions, low pay, and totalitarian regime. Violent clashes between activists and the Stasi - East Germany’s notorious secret police - were a common sight.

NARRATOR: To the west of the wall, a different city of cafes, bars, theaters and, public parks administered by France, Great Britain, and the US. West Berlin in the 1970s attracted the likes of David Bowie, Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop - its cinemas showing the hit musical Cabaret on repeat. But West Berlin wasn’t just a bohemian playground. Under the surface it was a powder keg, waiting to explode into a Third World War between the communist regime to the east and the allied forces to the west. Its streets were home to the world's most powerful intelligence services playing a game in the shadows, seeking an advantage over their enemies. In amongst it all was our guide to the clandestine operations of the US in Cold War Berlin.

JAMES STEJSKAL: My name is James Stejskal. I was in Special Forces Berlin and our mission was to stall the break-out of World War III.

NARRATOR: Special Forces Berlin, an elite secret Army unit based in the city, was made up of only around 100 men. A team of just 100 to stall the outbreak of a World War against a million combatants on all sides. No pressure then.

JAMES STEJSKAL: We would work behind the lines to destroy the Soviet infrastructure if the war started, the Soviet infrastructure being things like the rail lines that went around Berlin that were critical to moving forces, power plants, Soviet field headquarters. We had a number of targets that our teams were assigned to take out.

NARRATOR: James and the soldiers of Special Forces Berlin merged unseen into the German population, taking on European aliases to learn the secrets of the city, building trust with assets to divulge the information they needed to destroy their targets when the time came.

JAMES STEJSKAL: Well, I spoke German but my German was not to the level that a German security guard would say [it was] German. But my ID showed me to be Greek, which is part of my background, so I was a Greek. What the Germans called Gastarbeiter - a foreign worker - and I had complete identification that showed me to be a Greek national. So I spoke German and Greek. So I was just trying to cover the fact that I was an American.

NARRATOR: This episode of True Spies tells the story of what was then a very different kind of operative, the kind that could gather intelligence on a target and then take it out themselves, an elite hybrid of an intelligence agent and a crack soldier. It’s no wonder that when the US government found itself planning the rescue of 52 hostages held at the US embassy in Tehran in 1979 they turned to this small unit in Berlin for help. You could say it was inevitable that James would end up in the military.

JAMES STEJSKAL: I had two older brothers, one of whom was, in the 1960s, would have been referred to as a beatnik - he was a rebel - and a middle brother that was probably more conservative than I was. But I was always enamored of my father's second job. He had a first job but he was in the US Army Reserves. He was in World War II and Korea but he was my guidepost, really, for what I wanted to do eventually. I knew it was going to be something that was an outdoors’ adventure - like I went back and forth between becoming a park ranger or an oceanographer - but it was the 1968 movie Where Eagles Dare that sealed the deal. Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton, of course, the British commando and the American ranger who jump into Germany. It's all part of a big deception plan to get a German spy who was working in the British headquarters. Anyway, it encapsulates just about everything that I ever wanted to do in the Army here, jumping into an enemy country, working in civilian clothes, lots of weapons, and fun things like that.

NARRATOR: After college, James joined the military thinking, somewhat naively, that when you got there you just wrote your name on the sign-up sheet for the secret Special Forces department, and then you were in.

JAMES STEJSKAL: Well, it was a bit of a misconception on my part. A recruiter told me that's what I could do. I could just sign up and go in but that was not actually the case. So I ended up in a conventional infantry unit, which was not a bad thing but it's not exactly where I wanted to be. And so from day one I was planning on making my escape and getting over to the Special Forces. Ostensibly, you're supposed to have some experience already to know the military, to know your job, and then you can make an application for it. So after about 18 months, I was able to take the test. Luckily, I made it through.

NARRATOR: Life in the Special Forces was different from the regular infantry. It suited James.

JAMES STEJSKAL: I'm not going to say it did not have discipline but the standards were much different. They expected you to know the job. They did not do stupid things like make you show up for formations every day with spit-shined boots and a pressed uniform. As a matter of fact, the first time I showed up at the company headquarters - when I was assigned to a Special Forces unit after about 10 months of training - my team sergeant came up to me and said: ‘Okay, you look very good here. Uniform's pressed, your boots are shiny. Don't ever show up that way again.’ Because they did not press their uniforms. They did not spit-shine their boots. They made sure their equipment was ready to work but they were all about the job and not about the show.

NARRATOR: Things were about to get a lot more like those spy movies James had watched as a teenager. Whilst on an exercise in Germany he heard whispers about a secret unit within Special Forces that was based in Berlin.

JAMES STEJSKAL: My first Special Forces unit was in the States. We deployed to Germany and were part of a large exercise there, and one of the guys that was helping us out was in civilian clothes. He looked German. He spoke German well and I got to know him a bit and I said: ‘What are you? Who are you?’ He said: ‘Well, actually, I'm one of you.’ And so I thought he was from a different Special Forces unit elsewhere. But he goes: ‘No, not quite.’ And kind of left it at that. Then it was only through asking some of the people on my team about it that they finally told me. They said: ‘Well, actually, there's a unit in Berlin that nobody talks about. And it's a Special Forces unit.’ And from that moment I wanted to be part of that unit.

NARRATOR: A little background on this clandestine Cold War unit known as Special Forces Berlin. They were based in West Berlin, known to westerners as this sort of island of freedom surrounded on all sides by Soviet-controlled East Germany. That meant, of course, that should the Allies posted in the city be attacked there was nowhere safe nearby to retreat to. It was the unit’s job to buy them time to escape to Allied-controlled West Germany, 100 miles away. By the time James joined, the unit had been around for almost 20 years.

JAMES STEJSKAL: It came to be in 1956 at, really, the beginning of the Cold War when the commander of the US occupation forces in Berlin had decided that he needed more than just conventional infantry and conventional armor. He wanted to have, sort of, an ace in the hole. And he requested specialists that would help him do sabotage tasks in case of war. And the Army, in its infinite wisdom, decided that a company of Special Forces troops would be assigned to Berlin undercover, under military cover, but they would be assigned there. And that was the start of the unit. And from the very beginning, its mission was, as one of the commanders of US Forces in Europe, was to buy that military time in case the Russians attacked the West - and that was to sabotage the Russians in any way possible to slow their advance into West Germany and into France, into the Nato countries.

NARRATOR: This tactic of inserting a clandestine force behind enemy lines to disrupt the enemy is known as unconventional warfare.

JAMES STEJSKAL: Well, unconventional warfare really is a very broad term. Special Forces on its own was unconventional warfare. When you put a team into a country to work with the locals in uniform, but behind the enemy lines, that is unconventional warfare. Working with guerrillas against superior military forces is unconventional warfare. What Berlin was doing was taking the tactics of the Office of Strategic Services that worked in World War II, dropping military people in civilian clothes to work with resistance forces in France. That's essentially what we were going to do in East Germany. We were in civilian clothes about half the time.

NARRATOR: So in 1977, a 23-year-old James Stejskal found himself with his new identity tucked safely in his back pocket, heading for the frontline of the Cold War. Take a moment to ask yourself, as you prepare to wave goodbye to your family, would you be able to do it? Detach yourself from your life, everything that makes you... you? If you think you’d struggle, don’t worry, even secret agents do.

JAMES STEJSKAL: There were a number of people that were then Special Forces all within the US Army, that had a bit of a difficulty with that, not being able to tell people who they were and what they were doing. As far as working with people, I didn't have any problem. You know, they would ask me what I did and I would give it and give them the very boring response that: ‘I'm working with the US military air support mission. I don't do anything fancy. So, yeah, my life is not interesting. Please go away.’

NARRATOR: James says when he arrived it really was like something out of a spy novel.

JAMES STEJSKAL: Being in West Berlin, 110 miles behind the Iron Curtain, inside is Germany, surrounded by a million Russian and East German troops. It was quite a feeling. The first time I was there, the unit was right around 95 people. So the total number of Americans, British and French forces was probably around 12,000 in the city and we were about 100 of that. And on the other side of the wall, as I said, close to a million Russian and East German troops. So we were kind of outnumbered.

NARRATOR: Having arrived in Berlin, your first assignment? Disappear into the shadows.

JAMES STEJSKAL: So to be in Berlin, basically, you had to adopt a persona of being boring, not to attract attention yourself. But I think one of the big things about life in Berlin was if you're not kicking doors and shooting guns and blowing explosives, it can be pretty boring being on a surveillance mission for hours at a time, or running a counter-surveillance route, or... casing a spot for a particular mission is very long and slow and tedious. And you had to have discipline to do that. You also have the discipline to want to do it.

NARRATOR: Assignment two: reconnaissance.

JAMES STEJSKAL: When we were collecting information it was primarily by observation and what would be called ‘elicitation’ - basically conversations with somebody that you thought might know something. Our requirements were to support our wartime mission. So much of what we needed would be by actually going out and observing - and that might be in the surveillance of a portion of the wall or surveillance of a military unit on the other side of the wall - and a lot of our time was spent looking for those spots where we could exploit the weakness in the East German defensive system. And we used aerial photography. We used foot reconnaissance within West Berlin and we used some means to check out what was on the other side of the Berlin Wall as well.

NARRATOR: Whilst gathering information, James took several trips across the wall to East Berlin and deeper into enemy territory. Posing as a civilian or a soldier depending on what the mission called for.

JAMES STEJSKAL: The difference between West Berlin and East Berlin was stark. The kind of economic differences, the color, the buildings, the cars, everything. Everything was different. It's just an oppressive atmosphere. You can tell from when you process through the checkpoints and go into the country and go in East Berlin or even East Germany that it's a different area and you just feel like you're under surveillance. You feel a threat. It's sort of an ominous terror about you. And it may be psychological. I'm not sure that you could ever get used to it but coming from the United States, it was the difference between being in Texas and being inside of a prison - very much an oppressive feeling. When you did come back into West Germany, West Berlin, it would be a lighter atmosphere. There was just a palpable difference between the two cities.

NARRATOR: Back in West Berlin your mission has been a success and you’ve located someone who knows something you need. How do you get them to open up? Getting the asset to talk: a guide.

JAMES STEJSKAL: Techniques you would try to talk to a person and work around subjects until they would start to reveal information that you might have interest in. And is just a method to talk and continually prize out the information the person has with them - either not realizing what you're asking for or them just totally willing [to talk to you]. It's a delicate technique, and it may or may not work, and you may have to change roots on it. Some people will not talk to you at all about something and other people will be happy to talk to you about it. Yeah, so it is building a relationship, talking to a person, working on their personalities to get them to talk about something. And again, it would depend on what it was. But, you know, you're probably not going to get the nuclear secrets from somebody by talking to them in a bar - unless they really wanted to share with you.

NARRATOR: Are you up to the job? James says there’s still time to pick it up.

JAMES STEJSKAL: It's definitely something you can learn... from my later career with the Agency.

NARRATOR: When you’re an insider that’s what you get to call the CIA. I had a senior officer come up to me once who I was working with and he said: ‘Jim, you're just like I was when I started. You're an introvert. You need to become an extrovert.’ So, at certain times of my life, I became an extrovert so that I could talk to somebody and interact with them well. And other times I'm back to my normal self being an introvert. Now there are two different schools of thought on this. Some people say extroverts are better at being intelligence agents, intelligence collectors. I actually think that's incorrect. I think introverts are because extroverts tend to talk too much and not listen, whereas introverts are just the opposite.

NARRATOR: But living for a long time undercover, building relationships with those around you? Surely the lines must blur sometimes? After all, even secret agents need friends.

JAMES STEJSKAL: Well, you had a few American friends. The people in the unit, although we did not associate really closely with the other teams. We kept our distance. But you also had local friends, local girlfriends, maybe boyfriends. I don't know. And you got to know them. Some of them were just friends and others were people that you thought might be useful when the time came - someone who could help give you a safe house, a place to stay, a person that might be able to move you with a truck, a person that could give you a warehouse to store things. And so, although those were all aspects, so it's like any other intelligence mission. You look at people and say: ‘What can they do for me?’ And I know that's a bit one-sided, but it was a requirement of the mission. You had to look for people that could help you.

NARRATOR: This is the reality of friendships when you’re a spy. There’s very little room for sentiment.

JAMES STEJSKAL: I think it's like any other friendship. I mean, certain people you would engage with just because you wanted to be able to use them for something and that was more of a business relationship. But then you also might have a close friend who would turn out to be somebody that could help you. And it's like any other friendship. You have a friend and someday, you know, you might have to ask them for a favor or for them to help. And they may, or may not, be able to help. They may not want to help. So you have to take those things into consideration. Most people made it very clear, most of the Germans - or sometimes other nationalities - that they understood why the Allies were in Berlin and they made it very clear that either they would support the mission or they would not. It was fairly simple to figure out their politics.

NARRATOR: James was stationed in Berlin for four years from 1977 and then again from 1985 to 1989. So how close did it come to what they called ‘Day X’? The codename for the day the Third World War would begin.

JAMES STEJSKAL: We lived under a sort of a threat of war at all times, but at certain times it was more ominous than others. I think if you go back to the beginning of the Cold War until the end, well, 1990, let's call it. There were points along that time spectrum where the threat of war was higher than others. Obviously, when the wall went up in 1963, the Cuban Missile Crisis... Those were all spikes in the relationships between the Warsaw Pact, Russia, Nato, and the United States. So it went up and down in the 1970s, although I remember even more of a threat was the threat of terrorism. And yeah, it was localized. It was not as grave as World War III, but that was more of an issue at that point of time. So between 1972 and 1980, the threat of terrorism in Europe was one of the bigger threats.

NARRATOR: One of the threats James is referring to is the Red Brigades, a far-left terrorist organization from Italy responsible for a string of violent attacks and assassinations such as the murder of Italy’s 38th Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978. Their aim was to remove Italy from Nato and create what they called ‘a revolutionary state’. With extremist organizations like the Red Brigades popping up across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, Special Forces Berlin turned their attention to a new type of mission: counterterrorism. 

Special Forces Berlin was the first American unit to be involved with counterterrorism, about 1974. And this is, of course, when terrorism is picking up in Europe. The commander of American Forces decided that skyjacking - plane hijacking - was a problem and he wanted to make sure that he could do something to counter it. And Berlin was selected to train up for that mission of being a counter-hijacking unit, and it went on - 1974, 1975. We started preparing even larger counterterrorism missions - and hijacking, hostage-barricade incidents, things like that - and the unit by 1978 had 12 assault teams and also 12 sniper teams set up to do the counterterrorism mission. And this is all while we're training for a regular mission, so it was very much a very busy time.

NARRATOR: The unit’s biggest counter-terrorism mission since its inception came in 1979: the Iran Hostage Crisis. On the 4th of November, 1979 the US Embassy in Tehran was seized by Iranian students who took the 90 people inside hostage. They later released 38 and kept 52 in captivity for a total of 14 months. The diplomatic standoff came after the overthrow of the country’s last Shah or King - Mohammad Reza Pahlavi - months earlier by an Islamic revolutionary government. It had led to a steady decline in Iran-US relations. So when the exiled Shah was admitted to the United States for medical treatment, a crowd of 500 stormed the embassy in Iran’s capital. A small number of hostages were also held at the foreign ministry.

The president of the United States, Jimmy Carter, was unable to negotiate their release diplomatically so a plan was put into motion to rescue the hostages quickly and with minimal collateral damage. It would not be a simple undertaking. Their target was in hostile territory and too far from US bases for conventional methods of reconnaissance. Aerial photographs of the embassy wouldn’t cut it. They needed someone on the ground who’d know the city’s street’s inside and out, its traffic patterns, the best routes to and from the city, the layout of the embassy building. They needed Special Forces Berlin.

JAMES STEJSKAL: The Iran mission was both an extremely complex and an extremely delicate mission because President Carter did not want to commit overwhelming military force to rescue the hostages. So in some ways, it was almost a bargain-basement kind of operation. Very few people, very few resources, just the resources that were absolutely necessary. But part of that made it necessary [to have] very precise intelligence on what was going on in Tehran and that required putting people on the ground. Now, the CIA was not able to do so because most of their officers had been taken hostage and were in the embassy. They did not have any good communication methods with any of their people who were left behind. Special Forces Berlin was chosen for the Iran mission because of its training and because of its mission of working undercover to collect information. A conventional military intelligence guy might be able to go in undercover, but he would not have the background to know what he was looking for as far as an offensive hostage rescue mission.

NARRATOR: So three of James’ comrades were assigned to the job. They were to drop silently into Tehran disguised as businessmen and collect the intelligence the US government needed to plan a rescue. It was the first phase of what became known as Operation Eagle Claw. Now, this part of the Operation has remained top secret for almost 40 years. It is only in recent years, thanks to James, that the world knows what really happened during the most infamous rescue operation in US military history. He’ll take the story from here.

JAMES STEJSKAL: The people who were chosen were Americans who knew what they were looking for. To set up the mission, one of the guys was nicknamed ‘the mad German’. He is still around and I'm not going to reveal his name, but he was a German national, sort of an irascible personality, very direct speaking, but very knowledgeable and able to carry off another personality quite well. The second guy I have named, Scotty. He was a Scot and spoke English with a funny accent. But his cover was to go in as a buyer for certain goods in Iran. A third American by the name of Dick Meadows was a civilian, had been military, and served with Special Forces in Vietnam. And then there was a fourth guy who was probably either the craziest or the bravest of them all. [He] was an Air Force guy who is an Iranian national, joined the American Air Force and was a technician and just volunteered because he spoke the language and said: ‘I'd like to help.’ And he was one of the guys that went over as an ‘aide’ to Dick Meadows. And he was a translator, so he had no training whatsoever. All he had was an Iranian passport and the desire to help out. When they arrived in the city they moved into, basically, hotels that were close to the area. They had to stay with - or in some cases away from - other foreigners. The mad German chose a hotel that just happened to be, sort of, the hospice for the new Iranian government so he was living among a bunch of Iranian government officials while doing his mission. Scotty and some of the others stayed in hotels like the Intercontinental where there were a lot of foreign journalists and foreign businessmen and worked from there.

NARRATOR: They were in. Now for the tricky part.

JAMES STEJSKAL: What they had to do was to figure out the best way to get a force of around 110 from outside the city into the two targets, the embassy compound and the Foreign Ministry compound. So part of that was acquiring a warehouse with vehicles, knowing the streets back and forth intimately so that they could drive them at night, knowing the target facility as well as they could to observe what was happening in those locations, to look at the people that were holding the hostages, figure out what kind of weapons they had, what their security posture was... Were they awake or were they not awake during the day? At night? They looked at the walls, the locks, the chains, the gates, everything to figure out how to get into those facilities. And basically every small bit of information that you could possibly want to plan the mission.

NARRATOR: All under the noses of the city’s government and police, not to mention the notorious Revolutionary Guard. This was before the internet and mobile phones, so how to get the intel back to the US government without being intercepted?

JAMES STEJSKAL: There was a lot of memorization going on. There were cameras. They took photography and they took pictures, even video in some cases, and they were able to smuggle all that information out, either in cryptic notes or memorized in some cases. A lot of ingenuity on their part to go in and collect the information and to get it out safely.

NARRATOR: But what if they did get caught?

JAMES STEJSKAL: They would have had no backing. They would have been arrested as spies, probably put on trial, and either jailed or shot.

NARRATOR: The stakes were high. The entire US government was relying on them. Fifty-six lives in their hands, including their own.

JAMES STEJSKAL: One day Scotty and Dick were in their car retracing a route that Scotty had determined was the best way to get to a location. Unfortunately, he had walked that route. He hadn’t driven it. And when the mad German was driving the route, Scotty was giving him directions based on his walk and put him into a bus lane, which was a restricted lane much like London. He got stopped behind two busses and a policeman walked over and started giving him a hard time about being in the wrong lane. Once he determined that he was a foreigner, he obviously wanted his documentation - whether or not he was going to ask for a bribe I don’t know what he was going to do. Good question. But when the mad German went to look for his ID he couldn't find his briefcase, his passport, and his international driver's license being rather large documents he had squirreled away in his briefcase. Unfortunately, Dick had moved the briefcase to the trunk.

NARRATOR: Stop. In the trunk are the papers and all the surveillance equipment for the mission. What would you do? The police officer looks expectantly and suspiciously at you, waiting for you to hand over your driver’s license. You’re here on official business, supposedly, so why the hesitation? If the policeman sees what’s in the trunk of the car, it’s game over. How are you going to get your papers without revealing your true identity?

JAMES STEJSKAL: So mad German had to figure out how to get from the front seat of the car to the trunk to get his papers without having the cop seeing his radio and other equipment sitting in the trunk. So, as he told me, he put his evil twin into action and started yelling at the cop. And while he was doing that walk to the back of the car, opened up the Scotty and the other trunk, and was able to get his briefcase out without opening the trunk too far. It was basically through a sleight of hand I think that nothing happened there. But needless to say, he was upset with Scotty for not seeing the fact that it was a bus lane and he was upset with Dick for moving and stuff without telling him. That was probably as close as they came to actually being arrested.

NARRATOR: Intelligence collected, fast-forward to April 24th, 1980, the night of the US military raid on the embassy in Tehran. Operatives in helicopters and planes are ready to make their way to the city and then to the embassy to rescue the hostages and fly them out of Iran. But quickly the operation descended into chaos. Three of eight helicopters failed, crippling crucial plans. The mission was rapidly canceled, but during the withdrawal one of the retreating helicopters collided with one of the six transport planes, killing eight servicemen and injuring five. It was a disaster. James was in Germany with the rest of his unit, awaiting news of the rescue.

JAMES STEJSKAL: The 25th of April 1980, I woke up in southern Germany. I was in a small guesthouse supporting an operation there. When I went down to the breakfast bar and saw the newspaper lying on a table that basically said: ‘American rescue attempt in Iran fails’. And I knew exactly what it was at that point. I didn't know what had happened, but I picked up the German newspaper and read it and it was one of those moments of, like... dismay, despair, heart-wrenching kind of feeling knowing that the operation had failed. Eight servicemen had been killed in the accident that followed the mission being called off. So it was a very bad moment from about then onward. 

NARRATOR: What do you do when the worst thing that could happen, happens? Morale was low.

JAMES STEJSKAL: The only thing I can say for morale is you press on regardless. We had our own internal ways of dealing with things -maybe that was a bit more drinking than usual - but we also were more oriented now or directly after the accident, after the mission abort. We are more revenge-minded. I think we were very much upset with the way things had gone. We were already beginning to plan for the second operation.

NARRATOR: But that second operation never came because in November 1980 America got a new president in Ronald Reagan and negotiations commenced again. And, thankfully, all the hostages were eventually released, but remember the mad German, Scotty, and the other Berlin operatives? Well, they were still in Tehran and needed to get out of there quickly.

JAMES STEJSKAL: Unfortunately, somebody in the Department of Defense, somewhere deep in the bowels of the Pentagon, gave a deep-background briefing that said: ‘Oh, and by the way, some American soldiers are inside Tehran, or were inside Tehran, collecting intelligence.’ And then, at that moment, they knew they were in deep... What's the word? Deep something. So they had to find their way back out of the city. They had open-ended tickets on their airline flights but they also knew that they couldn't run for the airport. So they waited several days and then were able to go through the airport. They were questioned naturally, being foreigners, about lots of things but they ended up getting onto the airplane one by one. 

NARRATOR: The sigh of relief when the plane took off must have been immense and I understand a few cognacs were knocked back during the flight home… Meanwhile, James stayed in Berlin until 1989, leaving just months before the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 8th of that year, marking the end of the Cold War. He stayed with the Special Forces until an injury took him out of active duty.

JAMES STEJSKAL: I was in Somalia in 1992 at the very beginning and essentially helping get American forces into the country. I had been there for about a month and we were deep inside Somalia when the vehicle I was riding in ran over an anti-tank mine and we were the first casualties in Somalia, three of us were injured fairly badly. And then one of us was killed outright. And that injury basically put me out of the active-team mode. And I began to work staff operations after that and a couple of years later, 1996, I was about to get married. I had 23 years in the military by then. And I said: ‘Well, it's basically time to change gears and try a new career.’ For the next 13 years, I worked overseas intelligence operations with the CIA.

NARRATOR: When James looks back at his life, he’s glad he’s spent it living in the shadows of Cold War Europe and didn’t decide to become an oceanographer or a park ranger instead.

JAMES STEJSKAL: I can't really imagine going back and redoing things, knowing what I do now, about what I would have missed. Good points and bad. You know, I've done some other things since I retired from the military. I've become a historian, a writer, and a conflict archeologist looking at aspects of conflict around the world. So everything that I have done in my life has been sort of a sequential plan that I didn't make up but worked out for me pretty well as it did anyway. So I'm happy with things now and I can't really imagine going back.

NARRATOR: If you try to do some reconnaissance of your own on Special Forces Berlin, you likely won’t come across very much. Or if you do, it’s likely to have James’ name attached to it, thanks to his book Special Forces Berlin, which he wrote in 2017.

JAMES STEJSKAL: It was classified. Many of the records, the official military records, were destroyed. Some have been lost. Had that book not been written, there would basically be no history of the unit. No legacy for anyone to read about.

NARRATOR: Without James Stejskal the legacy of this elite unit was completely unknown to the public and even to most of the military. 

I’m Hayley Atwell. Join us next week for another liaison with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former head of training at British intelligence, for free now at SPYSCAPE.com.

Guest Bio

James Stejskal is a former Special Forces Berlin soldier and later a CIA operative. He is also a historian specializing in conflict and unconventional warfare and the author of Special Forces Berlin: Clandestine Cold War Operations of the US Army's Elite, 1956–1990.

Listen on Youtube
No items found.
No items found.