Berlin Airlift of ’48: Mission of Mercy
Fifty years ago--already riding a groundswell of acclaim for its pivotal role in defeating the twin evils of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan--the United States established itself as one of the world’s truly good guys.
Launching an unprecedented effort to save a blockaded city from starvation, American fliers in a few dozen small transport planes began the Berlin Airlift.
The modest air fleet would mushroom during the months that followed into an armada of 689 planes that flew a total of 124 million miles, delivering more than 2.3-million tons of food, coal and equipment to the desperate people of West Berlin.
Although the British assisted in the airlift, it was basically an American operation, conceived by one American general, implemented by several others, and carried out primarily by American pilots flying American planes.
The cost was enormous--$350 million and 79 lives lost in 18 plane crashes--all to help people who, three years earlier, had been a detested enemy.
But to the Americans, abandonment of West Berlin and its more than 2 million people to a Soviet system bent on domination of the West was never an option.
“There were risks involved, but we understood and accepted those risks,” Army Gen. Lucius D. Clay, then commander of the U.S. occupation forces in Germany, would write later. “If we had withdrawn, our position in Europe would have been threatened . . . and communism would have run rampant.”
To beleaguered West Berliners, the airlift meant more than survival--it meant the promise of a meaningful future.
“Victors in war became protectors and partners, the adversaries became allies and friends,” German Chancellor Helmut Kohl told a cheering crowd of Berliners at an airlift anniversary ceremony a few weeks ago. “The Berlin population, [and] all other German citizens too, learned what it meant not to be alone in the hour of need.”
Celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the airlift began last month with a ceremony at Tempelhof airfield attended by President Clinton. The dozens of additional commemorations in Berlin included an open air concert Friday, an international conference in September and a wreath-laying ceremony next May 12 marking the end of the blockade.
June 26, 1948, was a critical time in an anxious Europe still struggling to recover from the ravages of World War II.
Germany, a bomb-blasted ruin, had been divided, with the United States, France and England controlling the western half of the humbled nation and the Soviet Union running the east.
Squarely in the middle of East Germany sat Berlin, a city in which the three Western Allies had been granted a continuing presence after the Nazis’ unconditional surrender.
This western outpost on this eastern turf provided social, economic and ideological contrasts that reflected poorly on Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s brand of communism. Stalin was determined--short of armed conflict--to force the Americans, British and French out of Berlin. The Western Allies were determined to stay.
The 1945 agreement creating the U.S., British and French occupation sectors in Berlin had established three air corridors for the Western Allies to use, but there was no guarantee of access to the city by land or water.
Bent on strangling the West into submission, the Soviets began a campaign of bureaucratic harassment in the spring of 1948 that snarled western train, road and barge traffic into Germany’s historical capital.
Intensifying the campaign on June 23, the Soviet military command announced that it was shutting down all surface traffic to West Berlin “because of technical difficulties.” Most electrical service from generating stations in the east to consumers in West Berlin was cut off.
The next day, the U.S.S.R. said it would no longer supply food or fuel to the people of West Berlin. It seemed only a matter of days before the Allies would have to back down and get out.
But Gen. Albert Wedemeyer, a member of the U.S. General Staff, made what sounded to many like an outrageous suggestion--why not try to supply the blockaded city by air, using Tempelhof airfield in the U.S. sector and, to a lesser extent, the smaller Gatow airfield in the British sector?
Nothing like it had ever been tried. By even the most conservative estimates, West Berliners would need at least 2,000 tons of coal and about 1,500 tons of food a day to survive. The planes initially available--twin-engine C-47 “gooney birds,” the military equivalent of civilian DC-3 airliners--could carry only 3 tons at a time.
Nonetheless, Clay asked Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay whether it was worth a try. LeMay, with characteristic aplomb, replied that he could deliver whatever was required.
The next morning--June 26, 1948--"LeMay’s Coal and Feed Co.” went into business.
The few planes available that day didn’t come close to meeting the needs of West Berlin, but they did haul in 80 tons--much of it medicine and milk for children. The Berlin Airlift was underway.
Within a week, with more C-47s being rounded up all over Western Europe, the fledgling operation was managing about 450 tons a day, but that was still less than one-eighth of what was needed.
Bigger planes--four-engine C-54s capable of carrying 10 tons at a time--were ordered in from around the world.
Beating the Odds
If the airlift was going to meet the needs of West Berlin, the planes would have to fly around the clock, landing and taking off every three minutes during peak hours. The narrow approach and departure corridors would often be blanketed with fog and clouds, and any aircraft that strayed from the permitted routes would run the risk of being shot down by Soviet fighter planes and antiaircraft fire.
To that end, a special airfield was set up in Great Falls, Mont., to train military and civilian pilots for the demanding missions.
“It was an exact replica of what we were going to face--the same routes, the same beacons and the same runways as those at Tempelhof,” said Earl B. Hammack Jr., an airlift pilot who’s now a 75-year-old resident of Denham Springs, La.
But pilots said that flying the 250-mile legs between Frankfurt and Berlin still turned out to be a very tough job.
“The weather was the worst problem--freezing rain, wind, lightning, poor visibility,” said Tom Key, 77, a former Navy pilot who now lives in Fullerton.
“On top of that, the Russians sent up planes to buzz us, and they tried to blind us with arc lights,” Key added. “They were mean bastards, but we never deviated from our course, not one degree.”
The harassment and the weather complicated landings already made difficult by hazards on the ground in Berlin.
Planes landing at Tempelhof had to thread their way past tall apartment buildings that flanked the final approach to the runways.
Pilots also had to dodge the 400-foot smokestack on a brewery next to the airfield. Berliners like their beer, and the owner, who had withstood attempts by the Nazis to tear the chimney down during the war, was equally successful in blocking the Allies’ proposals to raze it.
The aircraft of that era often were not as reliable or as carefully maintained as the planes of today, and mechanical problems were frequent.
Key landed safely one time despite the failure of his C-47’s hydraulic system.
Hammack said the control yoke of his Air Force plane locked up one day as he was coming in, but he used his legs to push it forward with all his strength and the yoke finally broke free.
“They later found coal dust, a couple of crescent wrenches and a bunch of rags jammed around the control cables,” Hammack said.
A Test of Stamina
Pilots were often in short supply, and Key said they usually had to fly a minimum of two round trips a day for 15 days at a stretch before getting a few days off.
“Sometimes it felt as though you had just barely gotten to sleep before they were waking you up to go again,” Key said.
The Soviet press ridiculed the airlift as a fool’s errand, but despite all the problems, the efficiency of the operation improved rapidly.
As increasing numbers of ground-based planes landed at Tempelhof and Gatow, the British brought in seaplanes that could set down on a lake in their sector.
Tankers in the Atlantic were diverted to ensure a plentiful supply of aviation gas. Turnaround time for planes being unloaded at Tempelhof was cut in half--to less than 30 minutes--and workers scurried out between landings to repair a runway that was being pounded to pieces.
By mid-July, American planes were hauling in 1,500 tons a day, with the British adding 500 tons. During August, the combined total doubled to an average of 4,000 tons a day.
Looking ahead to the probability of continued Soviet intransigence and the prospect of a cold winter, Clay realized that he would need to increase the tonnage if he was to haul in enough coal to keep West Berliners from freezing. The problem was a lack of heavy equipment in West Berlin to build the additional runways needed to land more planes.
That is where American ingenuity came in, according to an account of the airlift by Frank Donovan in his book “Bridge in the Sky.”
A civilian engineer, H.P. Lacomb, figured out how to cut up earthmoving equipment into portable pieces that could be welded back together again in Berlin.
Expropriating a field near Tegel in the French sector that Nazi Field Marshal Hermann Goering had used during the war to train antiaircraft gunners, Allied engineers started building a new airport.
The airfield at Tegel was completed in two months--less than half the estimated construction time. But another problem remained in the form of a nearby radio tower that was controlled by the Soviets.
Like the brewery smokestack, the 200-foot tower was a hazard to navigation. Unlike the smokestack, the tower was felled one night by a “mysterious” explosion. The French promised to investigate, explaining to the Soviets that such probes “often take some time.”
Using Lacomb’s techniques, generating equipment was brought in and installed. For the first time since the blockade began, West Berliners had a reliable, if limited, source of electrical power.
The tonnage hauled by the airlift continued to increase. Food rationing in West Berlin eased. Previously skeptical residents gazed up at the seemingly endless procession of planes and began to realize that the airlift might save them from a Soviet takeover after all.
There was a grim joke among the West Berliners: “If there must be a blockade, it’s better to be blockaded by the Soviets and fed by the Americans. Imagine the other way around.”
It wasn’t that West Berliners liked the military occupation, but their gratitude for the efforts of the airlift pilots was genuine.
Children made little gifts for the pilots, including Christmas ornaments fashioned from tinfoil and knitted amulets that the flight crews wore on their sleeves. Adults brought the flight crews everything from cuddly puppies to valuable oil paintings.
When an airlift C-47 crashed near Tempelhof, killing two of its crew, West Berliners erected a plaque that read: “Once we were enemies, and yet you gave your lives for us. . . . The Berliners of the west sectors will never forget you.”
Exercise in Compassion
Flight crews responded to the expressions of gratitude with individual acts of kindness.
Key brought an entire Thanksgiving dinner from an American mess hall to a German family on limited rations who had never seen turkey with all the fixings.
Air Force pilot Gail Halvorsen started with two sticks of chewing gum.
Halvorsen, who’s now 77 and living in Provo, Utah, said he was standing along the landing pattern at Tempelhof one day in 1948 when he struck up a conversation with some children. He said they talked about the importance of freedom, and although he was a “rich American” and they were impoverished Germans, they never asked him for anything.
“That blew my mind,” he said. “I wanted to do something for them, but when I reached in my pocket, all I had were two sticks of Doublemint. I broke the gum into four pieces, and the kids who got them looked like they’d just been handed a thousand dollars. The other kids saved little pieces of the wrappers, just for the smell.”
Halvorsen said he told the children he would be back with his plane the next day, and he would drop enough treats for all of them.
That night, he fashioned three little parachutes out of handkerchiefs. To each one, he tied a bunch of candy bars. The next morning, as his plane was about to touch down at Tempelhof, Halvorsen dropped the precious cargo to the children waiting below.
“When I took off again, I saw the kids down there, waving those handkerchiefs,” he said. “We waved back.”
Word of what Halvorsen had done spread quickly, and within weeks, scores of pilots were dropping candy to the children of West Berlin.
“Pretty soon, people in the United States were sending us thousands of handkerchiefs and tons of candy,” Halvorsen said.
The airlift’s efficiency continued to improve, and by February 1949, the Americans and British were hauling close to 8,000 tons a day. The figure climbed to 10,000 tons on Easter Sunday, and from then on it never dropped below 9,000 tons.
Little treats, like strawberry jam, began creeping back into West Berlin diets that for months had been restricted to salted fish, canned meat, dehydrated vegetables and a little bread.
The Soviets could see that they were licked.
An agreement to end the blockade was negotiated quickly, and on May 12, 1949, cargo trucks bedecked with flowers started rolling down the autobahns into West Berlin.
The planes kept flying--in case the Soviets changed their minds--until 300,000 tons of emergency supplies had been stockpiled in West Berlin. On Sept. 30, the last plane of the supply effort touched down at Tempelhof. It was the 276,926th flight of the Berlin Airlift.
Among those attending several of the anniversary celebrations is Halvorsen, who said he met a man from Berlin recently with a vivid recollection of the airlift.
“I guess he was about 8 back then,” Halvorsen said. “He told me he was walking to school one day, when out of a cloud came a parachute with a Hershey bar.
“ ‘It wasn’t the chocolate that was so important,’ ” he told me. ‘It meant that somebody knew I was there, that I was important.’
“What that meant was hope,” Halvorsen said. “Without hope, the soul dies.”
Times researcher Christian Retzlaff in Berlin contributed to this story.
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Breaking the Blockade
Trying to force the Western Allies out of divided Berlin in 1948, the Soviets cut off all cargo shipments to West Berlin. In response, U.S.--and to a lesser extent British--planes flew more than 2.3-million tons of supplies past the blockade.
* The routes: Planes flew into Berlin using north and south air corridors and back to West Germany via a central corridor.
* In Berlin: After Germany was divided into East Germany, controlled by the Soviets, and West Germany, controlled by the United States, France and England, Berlin was similarly divided. Allied pilots used the Tempelhof and Gatow airfields, and later the Tegel airfield.