LTC Nicholson Shooting in Ludwigslust, March 1985 Background

Post 21 of 27

NB: The USMLM Association made a slightly modified version of the following paper available to press representatives who attended the 24 March 2005 ceremony in Ludwigslust.  [Document provided by COL (ret) Lawrence Kelley, USMLM Navrep 1983-1986]



nicholson_portraitExcerpt from Annex F to the 1985 USMLM Annual History




            In the early spring of 1985, there were indications of a thaw in US-Soviet relations that could be perceived within USAREUR as well as at the national level.  For the first time since the Soviets’ 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, USMLM received authorization to attend the annual Soviet Army-Navy Day reception in Potsdam in force rather than with token representation; GSFG greeted the decision with scarcely concealed glee.  And in a move of consummate irony, USAREUR had scheduled – and USMLM had orchestrated with SERB – the first visit by its CINC to HQ GSFG since 1977.  Only last minute exigencies forced USAREUR to cancel the visit; it would have taken place a scant four days before the shooting.


            Thus, as MAJ Arthur D. Nicholson, Jr., departed the Potsdam USMLM compound with SSG Jessie G. Schatz for the northwest GDR on a sunny Sunday morning in March, one could not avoid a sense of optimism toward dealings with the Soviets.  No operational grounds existed for anxiety, and the prospects for collection seemed fair.  A qualified, extremely experienced crew on a routine tour reconnoitering standard targets during an off-day should have encountered nothing more menacing than boredom.  Instead, tragedy struck.




 1991 Bw Karte-Ludwigslust Zoom (2)           MAJ Nicholson was shot at 1545A outside tank sheds located on Ludwigslust Subcaliber Range 475 (PE675081), where he had dismounted from the tour vehicle to check for the possible presence of armored vehicles.  This facility served the Independent Tank Regiment of 2nd Guards Tank Army.  Known to be frequently guarded under normal conditions, it had a varied history of occasionally violent reaction.  Thus, the Tour entered the area with considerable caution, stopping in the forest to watch and listen at intervals.  SSG Schatz, who had just visited the site a few days prior, pointed out an area that had been recently occupied, but the Soviets had departed it.  The Tour then approached the sheds, photographed the signboards displayed nearby, and positioned the vehicle to permit the Tour NCO to pull security while the Tour Officer 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 his post on the far side of the sheds as the Tour approached.  Hearing the vehicle, the Soviet soldier made his way through the woods on 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, who was 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-74, took aim at Schatz’s head, and motioned him back into the vehicle.  Seeing the futility of further action and the hopelessness of the situation, SSG Schatz complied.  He secured and covered the tour equipment, checked that the doors were locked, and waited.  Shock set in quickly.


            The sentry reported his action by telephone immediately, specifically mentioning “Missiya” (Mission), and a contingent of armed troops appeared within minutes.  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 obvious medical personnel, rendered even rudimentary first aid.  Finally, at 1650A (one hour, five 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 permit any medical attention at all ensured that the wound proved fatal.  In the final analysis, it was this culpable negligence more than any other single factor that the US Government stressed in its protests, and the charge evoked tremendous Soviet ire.


            It was 1807A before MAJ V. A. Chernykh of SERB-Potsdam notified USMLM of an “accident involving USMLM vehicle 23.”  COL Yu. V. Pereverzev, CSERB, requested the immediate presence of CUSMLM at the site.  However, the location was not stated; Chernykh apparently believed that the Mission had acquired that information via its own channels.  An hour of frenzied inquiry ensued before he finally revealed the approximate location of the “accident.”


            At 1938A COL Roland Lajoie USA (CUSMLM), LtCol L. G. Kelley USMC (NavRep), and SSG R. B. Everett USA (Tour NCO) departed West Berlin at high speed for Ludwigslust.  Arriving two hours later, the group entered an eerie atmosphere of numbing, subdued formality.  Led by a Soviet UAZ-469 for the final few kilometers of the journey, it encountered a random group of roughly 50 Soviet officers – most of them relatively senior – clustered under the glare of vehicle headlights on the subcaliber range.  It was only then and under the direct questioning of CUSMLM that an unidentified colonel very reluctantly revealed that MAJ Nicholson had been killed.  The on-scene principals, GEN-COL G. F. Krivosheyev (C/S GSFG) and CSERB, were actually absent; they returned to the range shortly afterwards.


            Under such circumstances, one would have expected expressions of remorse and condolence, but despite the magnitude of the sentry’s actions and their traumatic implications on the personal and political planes, C/S GSFG immediately directed an impassioned protest at CUSMLM, accusing him of personally sabotaging relations between the commands and placing all responsibility for the outcome squarely on his shoulders.  Krivosheyev appeared awkward, uncertain, aggressive, and cold; he required considerable prompting from and unidentified GEN-MAJ.  USMLM had noted his limited mental capacity on previous occasions, and the trend continued.  C/S GSFG then transferred direction of the proceedings to the Deputy Procurator for GSFG, COL V. P. Mel’nichuk.  The latter arrogantly and obstinately ordered that CUSMLM witness an inventory of Nicholson’s belongings, direct SSG Schatz to submit to interrogation, and permit an interior inspection of the tour vehicle.  He threatened to have Schatz incarcerated and subjected to interrogation without US presence, should COL Lajoie refuse.  Further, he stated that Nicholson’s body would undergo an autopsy at a Soviet medical facility the following morning, which an American observer could witness.  Not surprisingly, the atmosphere quickly became acrimonious and agitated.  The Soviets threatened CUSMLM and NavRep with personal consequences in response to their barbed depiction of the proceedings and refusal to acquiesce.  CUSMLM insisted that Schatz be accorded the rights guaranteed under US law during the questioning; Mel’nichuk refused, citing Soviet jurisdiction   Additional heated argumentation followed, and the hours dragged on.  Ultimately, with some intercession by CSERB, CUSMLM elicited the right for Schatz to refuse to answer questions that he considered inappropriate.  The Soviets then began their interrogation.  Schatz invoked this right the moment the queries became substantive, which prompted a vitriolic retort from Mel’nichuk toward CUSMLM; however, the ploy had ensured Schatz’s freedom.  The tour vehicle remained inviolate.


            At nearly midnight, CUSMLM struck an agreement with CSERB that the USMLM party could depart in both its vehicles.  NavRep, however, would escort MAJ Nicholson’s body – in Soviet custody – back to a medical laboratory in Potsdam, where forensic specialists planned to perform an autopsy as part of the legal investigation directed by Mel’nichuk.  The US vehicles left for the nearest Autobahn, and CUSMLM informed the Potsdam House OIC MAJ J. M. Silva USA of the events while en route back.  Silva, in turn, relayed the information to Berlin, where USMLM notified the chain of command.  With SSG Schatz’s commentary the Mission possessed an accurate picture of what had transpired; his distraught story evoked concurrent sympathy and revulsion.  But yet another traumatizing experience, the notification of next of kin, remained to be accomplished before this dismal evening could be concluded.


            At approximately 0230A on Monday morning, 25 March, CUSMLM, accompanied by Nicholson’s close friends MAJ J. E. Eschrich (Ground Operations Officer), MAJ T. G. Wyckoff (Tour Officer), their wives, and LTC (Rev) W. A. McAllister, presented the sorrowful news to Nicholson’s wife Karen and daughter Jenny.  This exercise in consolation marked the beginning of a long and comprehensive effort by USMLM, US Army-Berlin, and the entire Army chain of command to ensure the welfare of the Nicholson family; Majors Eschrich, Wyckoff, P. A. Nelson, and T. R. Milton, Jr., made tireless contributions in this regard.  The provision of a support network assumed the utmost importance to officers at every level, and through their generosity and active benevolence the Nicholson family weathered the gale of loss with considerably less pain.  These efforts continue today, a full year after the shooting.


            In Potsdam, the disorder that had characterized the scene at Ludwigslust continued unabated.  Extensive waiting, unexpected arrivals, and uncertain planning became the norm.  CUSMLM issued and relayed to NavRep the order – reflecting the Nicholson family’s wishes and USAREUR’s instructions – not to permit an autopsy.  By battling the GSFG procurator and interceding with others on the Soviet side, he succeeded in preventing one, although Mel’nichuk attempted on multiple occasions to exclude NavRep from the proceedings and win US acquiescence via pressure.  Finally, in mid-afternoon the procurator conceded that GSFG would insist only on X-rays and an external examination of the body and uniform.  MAJ (Dr.) M. A. Morgenstern USA, the Berlin MEDDAC physician designated to officially observe the forensic proceedings, encountered a four-hour delay on the GlienickeBridge before the Soviets would authorize him to cross.  Once he arrived at the laboratory, Mel’nichuk deprived him of his tape recorder, thus hindering him in the performance of his professional duties.  However, despite his far from benign reception by Soviet officials, the somewhat primitive and insensitive medical procedures employed, and brazen retention of pieces of Nicholson’s uniform in defiance of repeatedly articulated US demands, Dr. Morgenstern and NavRep compelled the Soviets to respect the dignity of the body.  SERB returned the missing uniform articles later that night.


            The US party (NavRep, Dr. Morgenstern, MAJ R. A. Wise, SSG Everett) escorted MAJ Nicholson on his final crossing of the Glienicke Bridge at 1715A.  Under the attentive gaze and before the whirring cameras of a legion of media correspondents, and in the center of the Allied section of the bridge, CUSMLM draped MAJ Nicholson’s body with the Stars and Stripes.  The Berlin Brigade Honor Guard, dispatched at the personal direction of the Brigade Commander BG(P) Thomas A. Griffin USA, rendered a final salute to the fallen Tour Officer, and the short motorcade sped off. 


            By this time, word of the shooting had flashed across the world, with the media focusing attention on the AMLMs, their activities, reputation, and the detail of the shooting.  Inevitably, they reported many inaccuracies as truth.  The MLMs, which had long flourished in the grey half-light of obscurity, became objects of stylish notoriety and far too fixed attention; they suffered for it.  Expressions of indignation accompanied the reporting, and the country experienced a wave of patriotic zeal and sense of wronged innocence that exceeded even our own; the emotion often belied the facts.


            On the evening of 25 March the three AMLMs, US Army-Berlin, and the major commands in the American military community bade MAJ Nicholson farewell at TempelhofCentralAirport.  To the accompaniment of the Berlin Brigade Band’s subdued rendition of “Abide with Me” the honor guard placed his casket on a waiting aircraft and dispatched it through the somber night to Frankfurt, where a USAREUR honor guard headed by MAJ GEN C. J. Fiala, Chief of Staff of USAREUR, waited.  As with the ceremonies on the bridge, the media dutifully recorded both ends of MAJ Nicholson’s journey toward his final resting place.  The scene deeply touched a mourning country.


            As more and more information came to light, USMLM filled in its picture of the events, reported it, and plotted a course of action.  USAREUR dispatched a senior officer to conduct the command’s formal investigation of the shooting, and he solicited detailed statements from those involved.  Throughout this trying period, HQ US Army-Berlin and HQ USAREUR remained totally supportive of USMLM’s positions and ready to provide assistance whenever asked.  LTC M. P. Peters USA (Chief of Ground) interrupted a trip to CONUS and stationed himself in Heidelberg to provide firsthand knowledge of USMLM’s procedures/operations; his assistance proved invaluable.  And MAJ R. D. Lyons USA (Tour Officer), who had escorted MAJ Nicholson’s body to Frankfurt, remained in place to perform a variety of personal and professional services required by the situation.  HQ USAREUR composed a sharply worded protest letter that GEN Glenn K. Otis, CINC USAREUR, signed and sent via USMLM to CINC GSFG.  Additionally, MG C. J. Fiala summoned COL Pankratov (acting Chief of SMLM/F) to lodge a similar formal protest.  The news seemed to take the SMLM/F representative by surprise; incredibly, he appeared not to have been fully informed!  On 28 March, the Berlin community paid tribute to MAJ Nicholson in a moving multinational service at the American Community Chapel.  The memorialization integrated British and French military honors with American themes to symbolically express the solidarity always felt by the three Missions.


            On 29 March, in an effort coordinated among the Allied headquarters, the three chiefs of mission all demanded appointments with General of the Army Mikhail M. Zaytsev, CINC GSFG, to deliver official protests.  Claiming that circumstances beyond his control prevented his attendance, he sent his Chief of Staff to receive them in Potsdam.  Thus, Krivosheyev, who had displayed such callous insensitivity at Ludwigslust, became the target of a planned and purposeful barrage.  All of the chiefs carried caustic letters from their CINCs condemning the shooting (“a wanton act of violence”, “uncivilized behavior”) and stressing the aspects of it that angered the Soviets most, in particular GSFG’s refusal to permit or administer first aid.


            USMLM had the first appointment of the morning, followed by FMLM and BRIXMIS.  The session, attended by CUSMLM and NavRep, quickly became intense and heated, as expected.  Anticipating preemption, countercharge, and obfuscation – which so typify Soviet behavior on the defensive – USMLM had developed a plan by which to avert them.  Krivosheyev attempted to dominate the conversation, but CUSMLM repeatedly interrupted him to take command.  In a near rage at the telling points that had been made, Krivosheyev – who speaks no English – refused to let his translator translate, replying haphazardly to points perceived but not made.  CUSMLM alternated between English and Russian, parrying Soviet blows immediately, while Krivosheyev lashed out disconcertedly at what he thought might have been charged.  The performance was less than convincing, to which the shaken expression on CSERB’s face quickly attested.  Having given Krivosheyev several opportunities to express regret for the actions of his sentry, each time without effect, CUSMLM asked him point blank whether GSFG felt any remorse at all over the incident.  The latter replied emphatically in the negative.  At this, CUSMLM and NavRep rose and, cutting Krivosheyev off in mid-sentence, left.  The insult shocked the Soviets.  When the Chiefs of FMLM and BRIXMIS arrived at their respective times to deliver protests, they found C/S GSFG unavailable.  It was said meekly that he had left in haste for Wuensdorf, and they were compelled to leave their letters with the translator – the only SERB officer who could be found!


            Immediately following delivery of the protest CUSMLM and NavRep boarded a helicopter that was standing by at the GlienickeBridge for the brief flight to TCA, where a C-12 was waiting to take them to Frankfurt.  In Frankfurt they joined the Nicholson family and a 14-man USMLM contingent reinforced by BRIXMIS and FMLM representation and departed for Washington, accompanying MAJ Nicholson’s body for burial   The nine-hour C-141 flight from Rhein-Main AB terminated on the tarmac of Andrews AFB, where Vice President George Bush, Deputy Secretary of Defense William H. Taft IV, Secretary of the Army John O. Marsh, the Chiefs of Staff of the Army and Air Force Generals John A. Wickham and Charles A. Gabriel, and a variety of other dignitaries met the party.  The Vice President made brief but blunt remarks that sent an unambiguous message of disapproval to the Kremlin.  An unofficial organization of USMLM alumni and friends congregated to provide massed attendance; their support at the activities of the following days and enduring loyalty impressed all concerned.


            The nation laid its fallen son to rest with full military honors and conspicuous dignity on Saturday, 30 March.  As the networks watched vigilantly, a horse-drawn caisson from the Old Guard bore MAJ Nicholson on this overcast morning from the chapel at FortMyer along verdant, tree-lined pathways to his final posting in ArlingtonNationalCemetery.  With the band playing muted strains from “The Navy Hymn” and “America the Beautiful,” his family, friends, and USMLM alumni – those who had shared his successes and danger – bade MAJ Nicholson a final farewell.  A grateful country awarded him the Legion of Merit and Purple Heart at the ceremony.  One chapter in the Nicholson saga had come to a close, but another was about to begin.




Common misconceptions and incorrect allegations/statements about the Nicholson shooting:


  1. 1.     Allegation: The Soviet sentry did not recognize Nicholson as a member of USMLM and fired only at an “unknown intruder.”  Fact: The sentry, Junior Sergeant Aleksandr Ryabtsev, immediately recognized that he was confronting a Mission Tour and reported that fact to his superiors.  
  2. 2.     Allegation: As required by Soviet guard instructions, the sentry issued a verbal challenge in two (or, in some versions, three) languages and fired a warning shot in the air before shooting at Nicholson.  His aimed shots were intended only to disable.  Fact: The sentry failed to comply with Soviet guard directives (as articulated in the Устав внутренней и гарнизонной службы, УВГС) altogether.  He issued no verbal challenge in any language and fired three aimed shots at the Tour, none of which was intended as a “warning.”  Two of these shots missed their intended target(s); the third hit Nicholson in the abdomen and killed him.  Disabling shots target the extremities, not the body’s center of mass, where vital organs lie.  
  3. 3.     Allegation: GSFG attempted to save Nicholson.  Soviet medical personnel were summoned promptly to the scene but arrived too late to change the outcome.  Fact: Soviet personnel made no attempt to provide first aid to Nicholson and, at gunpoint, the sentry prevented SSG Schatz from doing so.  Probable Soviet medical personnel arrived at the subcaliber range over an hour after the shooting and, at that juncture, merely took his pulse and pronounced him dead.  Given the severity of the wound, Nicholson’s chances of survival depended directly on immediate, intense, and continuous medical care – all of which GSFG denied him. 
  4. 4.     Allegation:  In covering the Ludwigslust subcaliber range, Nicholson was returning to a site where he had collected sensitive information on Soviet armor at great risk only three months earlier.  In this light, his activity on 24 March represented a continuation of his earlier efforts.  Fact: Nicholson had indeed participated in two daring operations that resulted in the penetration of Soviet T-64A/B tanks and the performance of interior photography, but these operations took place fully fifteen months earlier, and neither occurred at the Ludwigslust subcaliber range.   His reconnaissance at Ludwigslust on 24 March 1985 related to unconfirmed reports of a new Soviet tank (suspected to be the T-80) in the area and had nothing to do with the earlier operations.

Allegation: The Soviets (in some versions, the KGB) ambushed and killed Nicholson as an act of revenge for his previous collection of sensitive information on GSFG, which was particularly damaging to Soviet security.  Fact: Regrettably, the firing of shots at Mission personnel was far from a unique event.  Gunfire represented an objective operational hazard that Mission Tours encountered regularly, albeit infrequently.  All Tour personnel were vividly aware of Soviet guard regulations and the actions required of a Soviet sentry on his post, and they factored this knowledge into the planning and conduct of their missions.  Notwithstanding official denials by GSFG, several times per year Soviet officers/soldiers fired shots (both aimed and unaimed) at Mission Tours.  FMLM’s experience at Ludwigslust in late 1984 had clearly demonstrated this point.  Further, the Soviets could not possibly have known that Nicholson would visit Ludwigslust on 24 March, because his principal taskings lay elsewhere and were expected to consume his entire available time.  Ludwigslust represented an optional, back-up objective for him.  Further, it remains unclear whether in March of 1985 the Soviets were even aware of USMLM’s earlier, sensitive collection actions against armor.

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