Maj. Arthur Nicholson, Jr. becomes last Cold War casualty
When Maj. “Nick” Nicholson and his driver, Staff Sgt. Jessie Schatz headed out to patrol an area in Ludwigslust, East Germany, on the morning of March 24, 1985, there was nothing unusual about their mission. They were in uniform, driving a vehicle marked with the distinctive plates of the U.S. Military Liaison Mission, USMLM, and they were unarmed.
As members of this unique organization, the two men were basically licensed spies, authorized by a 1947 treaty with the Soviet Union, which allowed all parties of the occupation to maintain communications and exchange intelligence in the occupied zones of East and West Germany.
Originally, the agreement was designed to coordinate efforts and keep tabs on German disarmament and demilitarization. As the Cold War progressed, however, the liaison teams remained in place, keeping tabs on each other rather than the Germans. The Soviets had their own liaison mission which operated on the same principles inside the American, British and French zones of occupation.
On this particular day, however, something went very wrong. The two-man team was following a convoy of Soviet tanks returning from target practice — a very typical activity for a USMLM team.
At some point, the two Americans left the convoy and headed for a tank shed off the main road. Seeing no guards, they drove within 200 yards of the shed. Nicholson left the vehicle to take some photos, leaving Schatz with the vehicle to provide security. After a few minutes, Nicholson got back in and they drove closer, this time to within 10 yards.
With the driver watching, he got back out and approached the shed to look in a window. That was when Schatz noticed a young Soviet sentry emerging from the woods. Nicholson was turning to get back in his vehicle when the first shot rang out, narrowly missing his driver’s head. The Soviet sentry, a young sergeant named Aleksandr Ryabtsev, aimed again and fired two more shots.
One of them hit the major, and dropped him. Rising to an elbow, he shouted, “Jessie, I’ve been shot!” Then he collapsed.
Schatz reached for his first aid kit, showing the Red Cross emblem to the sentry, and attempted to assist his teammate. The sentry kept the AK-47 trained on Schatz, however, trapping him in the vehicle for over an hour. By the time anyone bothered to check for a pulse, Nicholson didn’t have one.
The Soviets refused to accept any blame, changing their story regularly and contradicting themselves repeatedly. In the final analysis by the U.S. Army investigators, Nicholson’s death was “officially condoned, if not directly ordered” by the Soviet leadership.
This incident caused immediate political furor, with both sides blaming the other. Nicholson’s body was eventually released, and he was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. All 13 of his USMLM team members were present at his funeral. He was posthumously awarded the Legion of Merit and the Purple Heart, and in an unprecedented move, promoted to lieutenant colonel upon approval of the president.
Three years later, the Soviet Union expressed “regret” over Nicholson’s death. Ironically, by the time Nicholson was inducted into the MI Hall of Fame in June 1991, the two divided sides of Germany had been reunited, on Oct. 3, 1990, and six months after his induction, the Soviet Union would officially be dissolved, on Dec. 26, 1991.
The veterans of the Cold War, America’s longest war, deserve to be recognized, honored and remembered. Lt. Col. Arthur “Nick” Nicholson, Jr., we thank you for your service.