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The Briefcase

June 2024
1min read

How I Protected Military Files from Cold War Spies

In the summer of 1961 I was assigned temporary duty from Headquarters Company, 3d Medical Tank Battalion, 33d Armor, Fort Knox, Kentucky, to Camp Breckenridge, Morganfield, Kentucky, as billeting officer.

Various reserve and National Guard units were sent to Camp Breckenridge for their annual two weeks of active-duty training. My job was to assign quarters and issue equipment—mattresses, sheets, and blankets—and upon completion of the stint, to inspect, re-inventory, and receipt the return of issued items.

It was the height of the Cold War. The Bay of Pigs invasion had failed. The East Germans were soon to close the border and begin to build their wall in Berlin. Elvis J. Stahr was the Secretary of the Army and a native Kentuckian. The Kentucky National Guard was completing its annual training with a review for the Secretary and the many dignitaries who were present because he was.

The Secretary and his family arrived at the camp airstrip in a twin-engine military plane on the morning of the review. They were to be billeted at the largest of the visiting officers’ quarters. It was my duty, as the billeting officer, to attend to the luggage of the Secretary and his family. With my senior NCO and a pickup truck, I met the plane. When the dignitaries, the Secretary, his wife, his children, and the press finally left the runway, I saw to the offloading of the luggage. As we finished, a first lieutenant wearing the insignia of an aide to the Secretary of the Army handed me a locked black-leather briefcase, saying, “The Secretary left this on the plane. Please see that he gets it.”

Once back to quarters, we gave the luggage over into the care of various staff members. However, I kept personal possession of the briefcase to ensure its security. I remained there for four hours, with sidearm, afraid to surrender the case to anyone other than the Secretary, in person.

Finally, after the review and all the speeches, the Secretary and his entourage returned. When I was able, I approached, saluted, and said, “Mr. Secretary, you left this briefcase on the plane, sir.”

“Thank you very much, Lieutenant,” he replied. “It’s my son’s.”

As I left the room, I saw him hand the case to a 10-year-old, who unlocked it and retrieved his comic books.

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