Stories of the Highway Patrol
by John J. Peterson
Accolades to Smitty, our Association President / Administrator / Editor for keeping the 62nd H.P. alive, and for the considerable research expended in compiling the outfit's history and producing "The White Mice". As an ex newsman and writer, I can appreciate the enormous time and effort required in both areas.
The article: "The Day Those 69 Cars Hit", in the December issue of "The White Mice", basically a reprint of an article that appeared in a February 6, 1955, issue of OVERSEAS WEEKLY brought back memories of an event which occurred almost a half century ago, a two-hour, record pileup setting a new high in West Germany.
Whether or not that record had been broken in the ensuing years I had no way of knowing until January of this year when the ABC TV and wire service carried the following headlines: MASS PILEUP ON GERMAN MOTORWAY LEAVES TWO DEAD; ABOUT 80 VEHICLES CRASH ON PILEUP ON AUTOBAHN: 2 DEAD, 73 HURT; ABOUT I IO VEHICLES CRASH IN PILEUP ON AUTOBAHN ... So much for the question as to whether ours was the biggest.
At the time I was Detachment "B" CO. Since the pileup happened in our front yard we together with the German Police were charged with straightening out the mess. Personally, it was to be my claim to fame. How many First Lieutenants can gain notoriety over such a short period of time? But, I was fortunate in that the 62nd was staffed with some pretty highly qualified people. Being close to headquarters I also served as XO to Capt. Howard Smiley [Maj., Deceased], 62nd Commander, and on occasion sat with him when interviewing prospective patrolmen. His standards were high.
1st. Lt. John J. Peterson, Maj. Gen William Maglin, Lt. Col. Henry Becker
I also had the good fortune to have considerable support, and with the approval of Lt. Col. Henry Becker, Headquarters Area Command Provost Marshal, was able to call on the 382nd MP Battalion which immediately dispatched units to divert traffic around the area. In the meantime, Capt. Smiley, 62nd CO, directed nearby detachments to send all the manpower they could spare to the Seckenheim station.
Our location also had its advantages. Detachment B's station was situated next to a PX Service Center, so fuel and food was readily available, the German Land Police station was almost within walking distance and a Quartermaster Battalion was quartered behind us and made its facilities available in feeding the extra manpower and servicing the additional patrol cars.
Based on what was reported on January 2, I could conclude that although the recent pileup was numerically greater, it was not life threatening to the patrol officers as the one of 1955. The basic similarity was present, excessive speed [a problem which has not changed in the past 50 years in Germany, or the United States] and fog. However, the primary causation according to police reports was "rubbernecking" and which occurred in the lanes opposite from the initial accident.
In 1955, American and German highway police stood out in the middle of a highway so shrouded in fog that traffic in the opposite lanes went by unseen, waving flares in the attempt to alert the drivers in the effort to get them to slow down, then jumping aside as trucks and cars came roaring out of the fog, slammed on brakes, then disappeared again into the fog followed by the sound of screeching metal as trucks and cars collided.
It should be noted that 18-wheelers usually had two or three trailers attached, and I recall there was no speed limit other than one set on Americans. The butcher looking for the cows was not a figment of one's imagination. Injured livestock thrown from their transports staggered along the impact zone, many bleeding and crippled.
I'm sure all ex HP's recall the problem of tailgating. Entire families on motorcycles and sidecars, and the funny looking three-wheeled autos [one in the front and two in the rear] hugging the tail of a triple-trailer tractor to reduce wind resistance which suddenly applied brakes. The result, the tailgating vehicle impaled under the rear of the trailer, sometimes with disastrous and fatal results.
Photo Not Available
Then there was the motorist who could not just slow down. It was not unusual for patrolmen performing a "rolling roadblock" pulling a violator over to the side of the road, or investigating an accident, to observe a vehicle passing them on the grassy median at high rates of speed.
Because of the many nationalities traversing our area there were just as many different personalities. For example, there was the Russian staff car that broke down in front of our station. I'm sure, not by choice. A hole in the crankcase had allowed the oil to pour out. Since it had stalled within walking distance, I went to inquire of the problem and offered our help. At first there was no pretense that neither the officer or the driver spoke English. I called for our interpreter, who also spoke Russian, to join us. We quickly discovered the Major's English was as good as ours. However, the only help he would accept was our contributing a supply of motor oil which we got from the QM behind the station, after which they went, engine knocking, on their way. I assume determined to get out of the American sector.
Working with the German Police was always a pleasure. In the main they were experienced and professional, and usually unexcitable. In many instances when occupation personnel were involved in accidents with foreign nationals their expertise in handling such mixtures was invaluable. I left the Highway Patrol holding our German counterparts in high regard.
(Note: I am indebted to Frank Cohn for his clarification of the autobahn speed limit. My faulty recollection was that we enforced a 45 mph speed limit. He noted that the Status of Forces Agreement signed in 1952 allowed the Germans to remove the 50 mph speed limit on the autobahn'').
This story previously appeared in Volume # 3, Issue # 1, March 2000 edition of "The White Mice"