They Also Served: Cold War Casualties


U.S. Army Major Arthur D. Nicholson was called the last Cold War casualty, killed in 1985, 35 years ago. I argue he was not, tell the rest of the story about his death, and offer a brief account of a young soldier who died, as I recall, in 1988. Both Major Nicholson and a number of service members who are known mostly to their families and former unit members died in defense of our nation during the long Cold War.

Major Nicholson was in uniform, accompanied by a sergeant when he was shot dead in East Germany by a Soviet soldier. His sergeant was held at gunpoint and made to watch the major bleed to death. The Soviets were making a point. Major Nicholson was a true hero, not to be confused with “true heroes” as medical personnel who actually face minimal risk of death treating COVID-19 patients.

Major Nicholson was part of a small team of officially recognized scouts on each side of the Iron Curtain. There were Soviet Military Liaison Mission (SMLM) “Smellums” members watching our conventional forces in West Germany and there were U.S. Military Liaison Mission members keeping an eye on Soviet conventional forces. The purpose of these open scouting missions, like the Open Skies Treaty. was to lower the level of uncertainty which could lead to World War III and the incineration of much of civilization by nuclear fire.

So how was it that a Soviet soldier deliberately executed Major Nicholson, as if he were a spy? The official accounts in the news were that of unprovoked aggression, like that of KLM flight 006. Consider this representative telling in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, by way of the New York Times, “Soviets Kill U.S. Officer on Mission:”

The 37-year-old officer, identified in Washington as Maj. Arthur D. Nicholson Jr., was shot in the chest near the East German town of Ludwigslust as he was observing Soviet tank sheds, according to various American sources.

Nicholson was a member of the 14-member American military liaison mission, which has been stationed in the East German town of Potsdam since 1947 with a mandate to observe activities in what was once the Soviet zone of occupied Germany.

The United States said the killing was “totally unjustified.”

It also rejected a Soviet government assertion that the officer, who was part of a reconnaissance team, was in a prohibited zone and had disregarded warnings to halt.

[. . .]

Burt said that the shooting of Nicholson was tantamount to “murder” and had no justification. He added that the team, which was accredited to the Soviet forces in East Germany and operated out of Potsdam, was fired on without warning.

[. . .]

But Burt, basing his response on information provided by Schatz, said that Nicholson and the sergeant were driving in a marked U.S. military vehicle and were dressed in regular military camouflage field uniforms. He said that in keeping with such patrols neither man was armed, and that they did have a camera. Their mission, he said, was to monitor Soviet military movements in areas that are not off-limits.

He said they arrived in the area of the shooting about 9:30 a.m. EST Sunday. No Soviet troops were visible, Burt said. Nicholson got out of the vehicle and began walking around. About 10 minutes later, a Soviet soldier, hidden in bushes nearby, fired at the vehicle, missing Schatz who ducked, Burt said. Then two more shots rang out and a bullet struck the major in the chest. He fell to the ground, calling out to his companion, “Jess, I’ve been shot.”

The sergeant rushed forward with a first-aid kit, but Soviet soldiers appeared and forced Schatz back into the car, Burt said. About 4:20 p.m., a Soviet soldier with a medical kit arrived, but no effort was made to look at Nicholson until 4:50 p.m., by which time he was dead, Burt said.

I worked for another major in the early 1990s, two years after the end of the Cold War. He had either been on the same assignment or knew the major. Here is the rest of the story. Major Nicholson risked his life, breaking the rules, to get vital intelligence for our defense planners.

After Vietnam, the Soviets were way ahead of the United States in the modernization of equipment and also in modernizing doctrine and training to exploit the capabilities of the most modern equipment. We were desperately racing to catch up on both. Bill Whittle’s podcast on the Cold War gives some of the feel, but makes a serious error in the second to last episode, distracted by two really cool stories so he entirely missed what actually happened in the development of three words he merely name-checked: “Air-Land Battle.”

We will get to “Air-Land Battle” and a U.S. Army general named Starry on another occasion. Suffice it to say that at the intersection of finding the right equipment and figuring out how to win when we would be greatly outnumbered, tank design became critical. This is because a tank that can stop any other tank’s cannon and an anti-tank missile is impossible to build.

More precisely, you can build a “tank” that is invulnerable, but it will not be a fast-moving, mobile gun platform. It will sink through any road, any field, and crush any bridge. It will be the world’s most expensive pillbox or bunker. So, the race was on for armor good enough to defeat modern shaped charge anti-tank cannon and missile rounds.

The basic problem is this: traditional rolled or poured steel simply cannot be built thick enough, within practical weight limits, to stop the late 1970s and early 1980s “High Explosive Anti-tank” (HEAT) rounds each side had for their most modern tanks. Instead of an unfocussed explosion, you got the shaped explosive burning in the blink of an eye. That plasma jet burned through steel, turning the column of steel into molten particles and causing the inside wall to splinter around the hole, filling the crew compartment with hot steel death from the very armor that was supposed to protect the crew.

The British came up with a brilliant innovation, a patented and highly classified ceramic sandwich behind the outer steel layer. This was designed to disrupt, to dissipate, the lethal plasma jet that poured out the nose of HEAT rounds when they went off. We licensed that idea and put it into our new tank, the M1. Notice how boxy our tank and the latest British tanks look? That is because the special armor could only be made in flat shapes. We had not found a way to make it work with highly curved, rounded shapes.

The Soviets’ most modern tank, the T-72, had a highly curved front end on its turret. So, would they be vulnerable to our best HEAT and anti-tank missile rounds? Or, had they found some way to put composite armor into that apparently large space between where the cannon stuck out and where the crew would be? See how important that question was?

The best way to answer that question was to take a quick look inside the turret of a T-72. Naturally, the Soviets had no more desire to give us such a look than we did to share the specifications of Chobham armor. Someone was going to have to do something very risky.

The story told by the major I knew, not a man known for exaggeration or embellishment, was that Major Nicholson took that risk for his country, placing himself outside of the safety of the official mission rules, actually getting that vital look, confirming that the T-72 was not equipped with any super-armor. It could be killed by more than just the latest super-tank guns, firing the kinetic energy SABOT discarding depleted uranium penetrator rods.

That explains why he was shot, or at least why his sergeant was made to watch helplessly, sent back with a sort of grim message. Why the Soviets did not kill both is not clear to me, and has never been revealed. Wiping out a whole team may well have been seen as far too provocative at the height of the Cold War. Both sides needed their scouts to remain in position to give their military and political leaders some level of confidence in holding back from massing troops on a hair-trigger along the intra-German border.

After the Cold War ended, we had plenty of opportunities to examine and even buy surplus Soviet equipment from the former Warsaw Pact nations, including T-72 tanks. There are no secrets left in their design. Given the Russians’ history of spying in Britain, I would be shocked if they did not have precise specifications on Chobham armor, and probably have had a chance to test their best stuff against this sort of armor.

Time moves on and secret technology is not secret for too long, but once upon a time, it mattered a great deal for us to know the secret of the Soviets’ most modern tank in mass production. As I heard it, that was what Major Nicholson died discovering. That information made a difference in calculating the number and mix of forces needed to slow and defeat the Soviets’ battle plans if the balloon went up in Europe.

Death of a Tank Driver

About three years later, U.S. Army forces in Germany were beginning early training rotations in the newly established European counterpart to the already legendary National Training Center (NTC). Hohenfels had long been a maneuver area, but now it was being upgraded to the intensity of an instrumented area that would soon have a dedicated red team or opposing force (OPFOR) that would faithfully replicate the very best Soviet units’ tactics. When you are vastly outnumbered, you need every crew, every unit at every level to be prepared to fight and win under those conditions. That was what the Combat Maneuver Training Center (CMTC) was intended to prepare units in Germany to do.

So it was that a unit was lined up on a tank trail, prepared to launch into an attack. The most basic rule is that tanks in a column alternate which side their main tank gun, their cannon, points. A young tank commander, probably a staff sergeant who had transitioned from the old M-60A3 to the M1, realized his gun was pointed the wrong way. He activated the electric motor that causes that massive turret to rotate.

The driver, usually one of the most junior soldiers, was sitting up in the driver’s hatch. Once in motion, with the hatch sealed, he would be in a semi-reclined position. Unfortunately, the vehicle commander had not keyed the intercom and alerted the crew, or the driver did not hear. The driver was caught and crushed as the turret and barrel swept across the driver’s hatch.

This was one of many accidental deaths from people following the command to “train as you fight.” Working around equipment that can crush, puncture, or blow you up is inherently dangerous. Properly trained discipline, from the individual to the largest organizational level, minimizes the risk but never makes military training “safe.”

We rightly remember battle deaths on Memorial Day, harking back to its origin. We ought also to remember those who died as a result of serving between the battles, including during that very long and sometimes not so cool Cold War.

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  1. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.

    The special armor on the M1 was not Chobham armor. It was a similar formulation typed as BRL 1. BRL 1, and it’s replacement BRL 2, were developed at the Army Ballistics Research Laboratory of Aberdeen Proving Ground.

    • #1
  2. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    The special armor on the M1 was not Chobham armor. It was a similar formulation typed as BRL 1. BRL 1, and it’s replacement BRL 2, were developed at the Army Ballistics Research Laboratory of Aberdeen Proving Ground.

    And. It was derivative of Chobham armor until perhaps the heavy version, intended to provide some protection against kinetic rounds.


    • #2
  3. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat

    Thank you for reminding us.

    • #3
  4. Bethany Mandel Editor
    Bethany Mandel

    What a fascinating story, thank you so much for sharing!

    • #4
  5. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    The special armor on the M1 was not Chobham armor. It was a similar formulation typed as BRL 1. BRL 1, and it’s replacement BRL 2, were developed at the Army Ballistics Research Laboratory of Aberdeen Proving Ground.

    And. It was derivative of Chobham armor until perhaps the heavy version, intended to provide some protection against kinetic rounds.


    The art in developing armor for the M1 was creating a blend of materials. Providing a significant improvement against kinetic rounds at expected combat range (approx 800m) with a high probability of defeating HEAT rounds.

    In testing, the frontal turret armor of a first generation M1 could defeat a Soviet 125mm long rod penetrator fired from 1,000m. Later developments, such as depleted uranium upgrades, were driven by forecasts of the Soviets fielding a 140mm tank gun. 

    • #5