A U.S. Army major lay dying in a pool of blood on East German soil, March 24, 1985, shot by a Soviet sentry. American spies in Berlin knew something was wrong. They knew it because they were monitoring highly sensitive communications by Soviets, frantically asking Moscow what to do with the dying officer.
Could the major have been saved if American intelligence officials weren't so concerned about tipping off the Soviets to our ability to intercept their messages?
The major was Arthur D. Nicholson, part of a 14-member military liaison, legally stationed as observers in East Germany. His death at the hands of a Soviet sentry in Ludwigslust, East Germany, sparked American outrage. Nearly three years later, mystery continues to surround the murder of Nicholson, but the outrage has died with detente.
Pentagon sources have approached Dale Van Atta with a new story -- that while Nicholson lay bleeding to death, U.S. officials knew it, but held back from rushing to his aid. The sources claim there were arguments between American officials in East Germany, West Germany and Washington over what they should do.
Sometime during the eight hours that Nicholson lay on the ground, an American colonel arrived on the scene, talked to the Soviets and then left, according to our Pentagon sources. What angered the sources, and caused them to talk to us, was the promotion of that colonel to general last year. (Neither our sources nor the Pentagon would identify this colonel.)
For a year, we have made repeated attempts to get the Army's version of the shooting, but received nothing until last week. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the Army Criminal Investigation Command declassified its 1985 "final" investigative report and gave it to us.
It raises more questions than it answers.
Maj. Nicholson and his driver, Sgt. Jessie Schatz, were assigned to be legal spies. A 1947 agreement with the Soviets allows us to observe them in East Germany and them to observe us in West Germany as long as nobody tramples on restricted territory.
Nicholson and Schatz arrived at a Soviet training area about 3:20 p.m.
The report says Nicholson and Schatz had been in the area about 25 minutes before three shots rang out, without warning. The second hit Nicholson in the abdomen as he was heading back to the vehicle where Schatz was waiting.
"Nicholson was believed to have expired as a result of his wound several minutes following the shot," the Army report said. "However, the exact time of death was not known because no Soviet medical personnel had attended to Nicholson for at least one hour following the shooting."
Did Nicholson bleed for hours before he died? Could prompt U.S. action have saved him? Did an American colonel get there within several hours of the shooting while Nicholson was still lying on the ground? And, if so, why didn't he bring a doctor with him?
And did that colonel, as our Pentagon sources claim, turn around and walk away after the Soviets "chewed him out"?