By Devon L. Suits, Army News Service, and George A. Smith, Defense Media ActivityJanuary 27, 2020
FORT MEADE, Md. --- Serving as an Army broadcaster with the American Forces Network in the 80s, then-Spc. Charlie Gill was about to depart from the AFN Headquarters building in Frankfurt, Germany, when "history happened," he said.
It was Nov. 9, 1989, and Gill had just ended his evening broadcast when one of his coworkers caught his attention, he recalled. Up until that point, Gill had spent most of his Army career covering the Cold War and the turmoil between East and West Germany.
The teletypes in one of the newsrooms were "clicking like crazy," Gill said. "There were reports that East Germans were moving freely across the [Berlin] Wall."
After confirming the reports, Gill and the AFN news team released a statement over the radio before returning to the teletype machines to monitor the event. East Germans flooded into the west and started to collectively chisel and chip at the Berlin Wall, taking it down chunk by chunk, Gill said.
Gill was just one of the many faces of America as the anchor for "AFN Europe Evening News." He helped deliver the news to more than half a million Americans serving in the region. AFN also held a secondary audience: the millions of Europeans that tuned into AFN Europe's only TV channel.
"At that time, there were no choices -- there was AFN, or there was nothing," Gill said. "We had to put all the sports, talk shows, and news onto one channel. And since we only had one station that aired on 'prime time,' I was lucky to have a pretty good-sized audience."
Over the next few months, AFN reporters operating in Berlin continued to report on the fall of the Berlin Wall. With no real way to broadcast on location, many of the stories were flown back to the central AFN station in Frankfurt and released, Gill said.
Gill later relocated to Berlin to run the newsroom and provide support. He would spend the next 18 months covering various ceremonies to include the closure of the U.S. Military Liaison mission in Potsdam, Germany, in 1990.
A bilateral agreement between the American and Soviet chiefs of staff established the liaison mission in 1947. Throughout the Cold War, spies from the United States military leveraged Soviet credentials to gain unrestricted access into the Soviet areas of East Germany, officials said.
"The newsroom was extremely dynamic," he said." You had a real mix of people, as there were a lot of Europeans coming into the city."
Gill and his team also covered the closure of Checkpoint Charlie on June 22, 1990, where they removed the checkpoint booth on the American side.
"The closure of checkpoint Charlie was a huge event," he said. "Another reporter covered the main event while I covered the military police," Gill said.
At the close of the event, the captain of the military police approached and offered exclusive access to cover the MPs as they took down the American flag later that day, he said.
"Once everybody had left and the police cleared the area, the MPs came out in a formation," Gill said. "As they were preparing to lower the flag, a bunch of skinheads came up and started threatening the police."
Gill was asked to lower his camera and avoid capturing the ensuing tension. To their credit, the MPs performed a proper facing movement and marched back into their building instead of escalating into violence, Gill recalled.
"If a riot broke out, it would have been a huge political event -- but it was all avoided."
Gill served in the Army for 10 years, spending most of his career in Europe. During his tenure, he reported on tragedies, such as the 1983 truck bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon that killed 241. He also reported on the 1988 Ramstein Air Show crash of three Italian jets that killed 70 and injured 500.
Gill also provided some comic relief for his audience in a "traveling roadshow called 'Passport,'" he said. During one appearance, Gill replaced his Army uniform with a safari hat and floral shirt, only to go "on vacation" to a nearby indoor German swimming pool.
However, there were other times when Gill's team unintentionally created laughs, he recalled. During one moment, Gill and his videographer were perched in an opera house balcony as they tried to capture a performance by an acclaimed violinist.
As they stood from their seats, their wooden chairs created a loud slam as they folded away, stopping the show.
"Everything got very quiet and every pair of eyes in the place turned and looked up at us." Gill said with a laugh. "The violinist quipped, 'Please, no encore,' then resumed playing."
At the close of his Army career, Gill made his way to Orlando, Florida. It wasn't long before he received a call from the U.S. Army Europe public affairs office.
"They said Gen. Crosby Saint wanted me to come work for him in Germany," Gill said. "It was a wonderful compliment. We had established a special relationship when I interviewed him while I was a Soldier. He called me the Andy Griffith of AFN."
After holding positions in Korea and Germany, Gill moved to the AFN Broadcast Center in Riverside, California, before retiring at the end of 2019. He considers himself to be "extremely lucky" to have all these amazing experiences.
"In my opinion, AFN was integral in showing the Europeans and the Soviets the capabilities of the U.S. military. Everything you saw on television was for real. [AFN] was a valuable communication tool.
"The thing that I relished was being part of such a great team in the 80s," he added. "It was all about the Cold War, and [AFN] was in lockstep about the quality [and accuracy] of our work."