By Kate Tobiasson, Contributing Writer
Westborough – William Harris always knew that he was going to join the Army. In December of 1985, he was attending Westborough High School. At 17, he joined the National Guard. He spent the following summer at Fort Knox, completing basic training, returning two years later, following high school graduation, to complete armor school. Soon, he enlisted as an active duty member of the Army and was stationed in a little town outside of Nuremberg, West Germany.
It was 1987 and the Cold War felt anything but distant to Harris. He and his company were often asked to supply a contingent to support the Armored Cavalry in Camp Pitman out of Weiden, on the Czechoslovakian border.
“My first time serving on the border was interesting,” he recalled. “I was told that I was a human tripwire. They said, ‘Hey, if those guys (the Soviets) start coming across the border, you set off a flare, so everyone knows that they’re coming.’ We would have about two to three minutes to react if they started coming before we would be taken. It was the same thing across the East German border and the other stations to the north; we were just human tripwires.”
Fortunately, only Czechoslovakian and East German civilians crossed the line. Throughout the rest of his life, Harris remembered the risk that these people took to cross to freedom, avoiding checkpoints, guards and explosions.
Then one night, everything changed.
“On the night that The (Berlin) Wall fell, we knew that there was something going on. Leading up to that day, there were all kinds of protests, riots and problems in Berlin and cities east of the border,” Harris recalled. “Then, at 7:15 at night the guards moved towards the border. We had no idea what was happening. They pulled up the posts that marked the border. Down the service road, all sorts of cars were coming through; it was the first wave of civilians coming across the border without being stopped in the last 40 years.”
Harris and his company were directed by the West German border guards to hold their positions. They worked to begin to funnel people through checkpoints – not to track them or hold them back, but to protect them. Harris’ job was to watch the Soviet military forces and was directed to stay out of the way.
“The East Germans and the Czechs had buried landmines throughout the border, as a way of keeping people in – like a prison. No one had mapped or placed them, and they had even moved the engineers around so that no one could make a map or know where the mines were. While many had been removed by this time, the West Germans didn’t want people trying to cross the border until they could get out there and sweep the field,” Harris explained.
While the Cold War was over, Harris’ time with the Army was only just beginning. He served in Kuwait, this time with the Russians as his allies.
“It was strange,” he said. “The equipment that we were going to use if the Soviets came across was the same equipment we used in fighting with the Soviets as allies a year later. I served in Saudi Arabia during Desert Shield and went into Iraq in Desert Storm. There had been decades of tension about borders and control; to see such a powerful forces collaborate after all of this time collaborate to get a dictator out of Kuwait was amazing.
“When I was in Kuwait there were things that we saw and smelled that had been done to the Kuwaiti people…” Harris said. “Seeing these things helped solidify my idea that freedom is all that we have.”
Years later, he was sitting in an office in Brockton when the first World Trade Center tower fell. Gathered around the small TV on the base, he and the rest of the world knew that everything in the world had changed once again. Sept. 11 meant that America’s freedom had been challenged.
“There is all of this talk about building a wall between us and everyone else – but I feel like we’ve had enough of that. Freedom is always worth being fought for,” he said.
Now retired from the army, Harris doesn’t take anything for granted and remembers to honor the memories of those who paid the ultimate price.