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See the triumph of hope over fear

Times Staff Photos/Randy Litzinger
The museum's chunk of the Berlin Wall bears Germany's national colors.
The Berlin Wall no longer divides Germany's capital, but it's remembered in places like the Cold War Museum at Vint Hill, just south of Gainesville.

Visitors can see a chunk of the wall now gone for 25 years, view a “duck and cover” public service message on sheltering after a nuclear blast, and recall the Kennedy-Khrushchev confrontation over Soviet missiles in Cuba that nearly led to war.

It's history that younger folks know only from books and grainy black and white film while those who lived through it remember an often scary time when the West feared communist expansionism from 1945 to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 during what became known as the Cold War.

The museum's chunk of the wall, painted in Germany's colors and swathed in barbed wire under a display case, gains new significance with the recent 25-year anniversary of the wall's destruction.

The museum also contains photographs of the wall from U.S. Army Photographer Hugh Palmer – and a personal account of the fall of the wall from Gillian Cox, who studied as an exchange student in 1989.

“As I banged away at the grafitti-laden concrete, I realized I had pieces of history in my hands,” Cox wrote. “Tears of joy streamed down my cheeks.”

A clandestine history

The fields in of the Vint Hill area once sprouted crops, but an “antenna farm” took root after it was discovered that the iron oxide in the soil “acted like a giant antenna,” in the words of Jason Hall, executive director of the museum.

A farmer who was a ham radio operator reported to a friend in the military that he could pick up what taxi dispatchers in Berlin were saying to cab drivers, Hall said.

Vint Hill's importance as a listening post thus started during World War II, the “hot” war that predated the cold one. There are only three other sites equally suited for eavesdropping, according to Hall. One is in California. The other two are still functioning and their locations are hush-hush but he said they aren't in the U.S.

The museum has an antenna fixed to a gutter of the building that can still pick up radio transmissions. “It doesn't take much,” Hall said.

Upwards of 2,000 people worked at Vint Hill during the war as cryptanalysts and radio operators.

Hall said coded radio transmissions were done in bursts of five Morse Code snippets. In November 1943, Pvt. Leo Mudlof passed along to a team of language specialists a transmission one that he took down. The specialists determined that the message labeled urgent was being sent from Berlin to Tokyo.

The Japanese “Purple” code had already been cracked and it was determined that the Japan's ambassador to Germany was talking about the Germans' defense plan for the French coast. But the Germans expected the point of attack to be Calais, not Normandy, so the Allies created a dummy army as part of a plan to reinforce the enemy's belief in a Calais landing.

After the war, intelligence gathering became the job of the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency. The Cold War Museum traces the evolution of snooping and aircraft that enabled it such as the U-2, the Stealth and the SR-71, which was “faster than a speeding bullet” in the words of Hall and could reach an altitude of 85,000 ft. on the edge of outer space. The museum also has exhibits on surveillance from satellites.

It also has an assortment of uniforms worn by servicemen and border guards East and West, flight suits, and border warning signs in German and English, There is a flight suit on display that was worn by a Strategic Air Command pilot with an “insect goggle eye” black helmet visor to protect the pilot's eyes from a nuclear blast. The pilot also carried a slide rule in a pocket as a low-tech way to navigate.

One of the co-founders of the Cold War Museum is Francis Gary Powers Jr., whose father was piloting a U-2 when he was shot down in 1960 and held by the Soviets until he was exchanged.

The U-2 is still flown today. Though the SR-71 is more technically advanced, “it's a giant gas hog” when it comes to fuel consumption, Hall said.

The museum has the booster for a SA-2 surface to air (SAM) missile on display. “We own the entire missile but it's 35 feet long and we keep it in a warehouse” along with other items the museum has collected but doesn't have room to display.

Hall has a doctorate in modern European history and teaches at George Mason University. He lived in McLean, home to CIA headquarters, where many “smart, nice people, really remarkable people” were his neighbors.

They were retired from the CIA though they would say they worked for the State Department.

More than just the Wall
The Cold War Museum strives to educate the public, preserve artifacts, and encourage research about the period. It is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday and by appointment other times. It's at 7172 Lineweaver Road, Warrenton, but once within Vint Hill just follow the signs.

The phone number is 540-341-2008.

The website is www.coldwar.org.

The museum is next to the Covert Cafe. It's separately owned but it has Cold War era photos and according to its website has a Decoy burger and fries.
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