Twenty years ago today, Army Major Arthur D. “Nick” Nicholson drove into East Germany to survey Soviet military activity. It was a bright Sunday morning, and he was about to become the last American to die in the Cold War.
Relatively few people have heard of Nicholson, even though his killing dominated newspaper headlines around the world for several tense days two decades ago. A handful of people won’t ever forget him: A small band of former comrades gathers at his Arlington National Cemetery each spring. They’re meeting again this Saturday. Today, at the site of his death near Ludwigslust, the Allied Museum will join Nicholson’s widow Karyn and his former commander, Major Gen. Roland Lajoie, in dedicating a memorial stone.
I wrote about Nicholson’s story in National Review last year. Since then, the Pentagon has made available a large batch of documents on the U.S. Military Liaison Mission, which is the organization Nicholson was serving when he died. Many of these papers describe in detail what happened on his final day. It would be an exaggeration to say they contain shocking new revelations, but they do deepen our understanding of what happened on March 24, 1985.
That morning, which was a Sunday, Nicholson headed into East Germany with his driver, Army Staff Sergeant Jessie Schatz. As members of the USMLM, Nicholson and Schatz were basically licensed spies. Their organization was a holdover from the Second World War, when the Allies assigned representatives to work with each other in Germany’s various zones of occupation as Hitler’s minions disarmed. These special liaison units did not disband with the onset of the Cold War. Instead, they were given something of a carte blanche to roam around the countryside and observe military activity. The Americans, British, and French had soldiers assigned to East Germany, and the Soviets had teams tasked to West Germany.
This awkward arrangement remained in place because both sides found it a useful way of collecting information on the opposition’s troop movements and military hardware. Yet there were enormous tensions, and these always carried the potential of deadly violence.
Sometime in the afternoon, Nicholson and Schatz followed a convoy of Soviet tanks returning from target practice. It was a typical USMLM activity. Nicholson was probably counting the tanks and studying their exteriors. A little while later, the Americans broke off and approached a tank shed. They thought they were alone. The USMLM’s 1985 unit history describes the scene and what happened next:
This facility served the Independent Tank Regiment of 2 Guards Tank Army. Known to be frequently guarded under normal conditions, it had a varied history of occasionally violent reaction. Thus, the tour [i.e., Nicholson and Schatz] entered the area with considerable caution, stopping in the forest to watch and listen at intervals as they did so. SSG Schatz, who had just visited the area a few days prior pointed out an area which had been recently occupied, but the Soviets had departed it. The tour then approached the sheds, photographed signboards displayed nearby, and positioned the vehicle to permit the tour NCO [Schatz] to pull security while the tour officer [Nicholson] checked for armor.
Unbeknownst to the tour, and despite its best efforts at observation, a sentry remained undetected, concealed in the adjacent woods. According to information obtained later, he had been walking near his post on the far side of the sheds as the tour approached. Hearing the vehicle, the Soviet soldier made his way through the flank of the range to a position about 50 meters behind the tour; SSG Schatz noticed him just before he opened fire. The Soviets claim that the sentry issued a challenge in two languages (Russian and German), fired a warning shot into the air, then shot to disable. This is simply not true. SSG Schatz, a native German, heard no challenge in any language. The sentry’s first shot whizzed narrowly over the heads of the tour; it was not a warning, but a miss. And one of the two remaining rounds struck MAJ Nicholson, by this time running back to the tour vehicle, near his center of mass: the upper abdomen. SSG Schatz shouted a warning as the first shot resounded — too late to help. He then slammed the hatch shut, started the car, and threw it into reverse to reach MAJ Nicholson. Hit by one of the shots, Nicholson groaned, fell, called to Schatz, and promptly lost consciousness. The tour NCO sprang from the vehicle to administer first aid, but the sentry refused to permit him to do so. Using sign language, SSG Schatz communicated his intent to the Soviet and took a step toward the fallen officer. The sentry, who had held Schatz at gunpoint the entire time, then shouldered his AK-47, took aim at Schatz’s head, and motioned him back to the vehicle. Seeing the futility of further action and the hopelessness of the situation, SSG Schatz complied. He secured and covered the tour equipment, check to be sure the doors were locked, and waited. Shock set in quickly. …
Over the next three hours many Soviet officers and soldiers arrived to secure the area, collect data, and investigate the situation; considerable confusion reigned. Yet no one, including the obvious medical personnel, rendered even rudimentary first aid. Finally at 1605A (one hour, 5 minutes after the shooting) an unidentified individual in a blue jogging suit took MAJ Nicholson’s pulse, which had ceased. The protracted failure to provide or even permit any medical attention at all ensured that the wound proved fatal.
An international furor ensued, as the Americans and Soviets traded accusations. The United States demanded an apology and compensation for Nicholson’s wife; the USSR claimed, outrageously, that Schatz had refused to leave his car to help his companion. After a while, the controversy subsided and the Cold War plodded on for a few more years.
One thing is not in dispute: Arthur Nicholson fell a hero, the last American casualty of the Cold War. “Nick did not want to die, and we did not want to lose him,” said his widow. “But I know that he would lay down his life again for America.”