Fifty years ago, they worked around the clock to keep Berlin from starving. Now, in a year-long celebration, Berlin invites them back.
- By Linda Shiner
- Air & Space magazine, July 1998
(Page 3 of 7)
Though the accident rate was low--31 U.S. fatalities in 189,963 flights--the congested airspace over Berlin dramatized the need for ever larger transports to lift the same loads in ever fewer trips. The airlift helped fuel a "bigger is better" trend as well as a push for mission-specific airlifters--both apparent in the heavy-lift C-5 and the short takeoff-capable McDonnell Douglas C-17A flying today.
"We have policies today that are directly related to the Berlin airlift," says Tom Cossaboom, the historian of the Air Mobility Command. "It's more than Air Force policy. Airlift is today an instrument of national policy."
The success in Berlin, he continues, also had a tremendous impact on the course of U.S. foreign relations. "Remember there was a Republican-controlled Senate at the time," he points out, "and Republicans were historically reluctant to get involved in long-term foreign alliances. The airlift influenced the decision to stay in Europe." Not only did it make the U.S. Congress a more willing participant in NATO, says Cossaboom, "it did a lot to push European governments into the alliance."
It instantly changed the attitudes of the people involved in it. Some of the pilots who flew to Berlin had bombed the city just a few years earlier, and most flying the lift still considered Germans the enemy. Earl Moore, a retired Navy commander, remembers the animosity he and his colleagues felt toward the Germans at first. "I didn't give a damn whether they lived or died," he says, "until I saw them."
Werner Hauer, a communications specialist living in New Jersey, was a young man in Berlin during the lift and says he witnessed the conversions. "In those days [before the airlift], no troops were friendly," he says. "Not Russians, not Americans or British either. There was a very hostile feeling. It wasn't over. They terrorized us as badly as Hitler. It changed through the airlift. We knew we were in the same camp." He adds: "Until the '60s."
The airlift's effect on the Soviets was no less significant. "Oh, it stands head and shoulders above anything else in embarrassing the Russians," Cossaboom says. The Russians were so badly outmaneuvered in terms of world opinion that one has to wonder what they had hoped to gain from blockading Berlin. Until a few years ago all any Western historian could do was wonder. Nearly all cold war interpretations of Russian motives followed the lead of George Kennan, U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1952 and a towering figure in Russian studies. Kennan argued convincingly that expansionism, the inescapable product of Soviet history and ideology, drove the country's foreign policy. Now with increased access to Russian and East German archives, some scholars propose that the Soviets had not hardened their policy of expansionism in Germany by the time of the blockade. Recent studies maintain that the Soviets wanted to negotiate, an opinion held at the time by General Clay, and that the blockade was, as Soviet historians have claimed, a response to the Western introduction of a separate currency in their zones and other moves to cut Germany in half. Whatever the motivation, the Soviet blockade was clumsy, cruel, and, thanks to the airlift, mortifyingly ineffective.
Although four powers--Soviets, Americans, British, and French--occupied four zones of Germany and its capital city, only the Soviets had unlimited access to Berlin. The others relied on a 1945 agreement stipulating that Western aircraft would enter and depart the city through three air corridors, each 20 miles wide. The corridors channeled traffic between Berlin and three urban centers in the Western zones: Hamburg, Hannover, and Frankfurt. During the lift, the Americans flew into Berlin through the southern corridor, while the British--and Americans flying coal from British air bases--used the shorter, northern corridor. All outbound flights used the central corridor. Airplanes took off every three minutes, 24 hours a day. Yak fighters buzzed a few from time to time, but for the most part the Soviets did not interfere with their movement.
"When the weather was good, you could see as many as six airplanes in front of you," says Ken Herman, a past president of the Berlin Airlift Veterans Association. Herman was a 25-year-old pilot testing Boeing C-97s for the Air Force when he was called to Berlin in August 1948. He flew 190 missions, most of them carrying coal from Fassberg, a British base near Hannover where 45 C-54s had been staged.