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
It was a British idea. On June 25, 1948, Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin ordered his Chiefs of Staff to put together the largest force of transport aircraft possible to carry food to the civilian population of Berlin. The day before, Soviet occupation authorities had cut the supply of electricity to the Western half of the city and had stopped rail, road, and barge traffic from going in or coming out. Bevin organized an airlift, he told a U.S. diplomat, to boost the morale of the Berliners and show the Soviets what Western air power could do.
The U.S. Army had concluded months earlier that supplying Berlin by air would be impossible. At the end of the war, U.S. forces had been brought home faster than you can say "de-mobilize," and the commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe at the time, Major General Curtis LeMay, had only about a hundred Douglas C-47s to carry men and cargo. In the tense weeks preceding the Soviet blockade, the U.S. military governor in Germany, General Lucius D. Clay, reappraised his situation but reached the same conclusion. "We can maintain our own people indefinitely," he cabled Washington on June 13, "but not the German people if rail transport is severed." Two weeks later as the blockade began, Clay cabled again: "Our people are calm and quiet. Personally, I have little fear of crisis affecting us. What I do fear [is that] such suffering [may be] brought upon Germans in Berlin as to drive us out to relieve their suffering."
Unlike the British Foreign Minister, Clay had witnessed the privations Berlin endured while its supply routes were open, and he understood the city's predicament. Clay knew that Berlin had been importing as much as 12,000 tons of supplies daily--that it needed 2,000 tons of food a day for the most meager subsistence--and he never dreamed of bringing it in by air. Instead, he repeatedly asked for, and was denied, permission "to force the issue" by sending an armed truck convoy across the hundred miles of Soviet-occupied Germany.
As the blockade began, Clay called on LeMay to supply the U.S. garrison, as he had done for a few days in April when the Soviets had interfered with military trains. He asked LeMay to fly 45 tons of food into Berlin. LeMay sent 80. And Clay decided to go for it. With the Royal Air Force already committed to throwing everything they had into an airlift--40 Dakotas (British C-47s), 35 Avro Yorks, and 26 Handley Page Hastings--Clay cabled the War Department on June 27: "it is urgent that we be given approximately 50 additional transport planes to arrive in Germany at the earliest practicable date." LeMay told Clay to get Douglas C-54 Skymasters, the biggest transport the Air Force had in any significant number. They could carry 10 tons each.
On June 28, 21 C-54s from the Panama Canal Zone and Alaska arrived at Rhein-Main Air Base. The following day 22 more flew in from Bergstrom Air Force Base in Texas and Hickam Field in Hawaii. Another 43 reported for duty in July. By October, the newly formed Military Air Transport Service had committed to the operation 300 of the approximately 400 C-54s left in military service; 19 more were sent to Great Falls Air Force Base in Montana to train pilots solely for the lift. The U.S. Navy pitched in with two squadrons and 24 R5Ds, the Navy C-54. No one, not even Bevin, thought airplanes could sustain the city for more than a few weeks; after that, it was hoped that diplomacy would open the land routes once more. No one would have predicted that the operation would see Berlin through the winter, that it would become an aerial conveyor belt in continuous motion from June 1948 to September 1949, delivering 5,500 tons of food, medicine, and coal a day.
Lockheed's C-5 Galaxy, today the biggest airlifter in the U.S. fleet, can carry 130 tons without breaking a sweat. When the Air Force sends a C-5 to an airshow, it goes with a placard noting that it would have taken only 17 C-5s to do the job of the aircraft that flew in the Berlin Airlift. On the other hand, the Air Force also points out, the total tonnage delivered to Sarajevo between 1992 and 1996--179,910 tons--is less than the amount delivered to Berlin in March 1949 alone. Despite the remarkable movements of men and machines that the Air Force accomplished in Vietnam and Desert Storm, after 50 years, Berlin is still the standard by which airlifts are measured.
"It was so constant," says Bill Voigt, who flew to Berlin 116 times between July and November. "If you don't think that sharpened your ability to fly--making all those precision landings." Voigt, a stocky 78-year-old with a gray crewcut, has 11,300 hours in military aircraft, 6,000 of them in C-54s.
Landings were tricky at Tempelhof, the airport in the U.S. zone of Berlin. Seven-story apartment buildings stood not far from the end of a 5,000-foot runway. "You'd come in at a pretty steep angle," says Voigt. "It's not a heck of a lot of space with a fully loaded airplane. And the surface [pierced steel planking] would slide with you. It was pretty hard on the brakes and tires.
"The regs tell you not to cut power till you're on the deck," Voigt continues. "But there's two ways to cook eggs. Everybody has his own technique. As soon as the apartment buildings disappeared from my peripheral vision, I pulled back to idle. Then I put power on to flare." Pilots flying the same approach two or three times a day, day after day, for three months had a lot of chances to refine their techniques.
Besides all the hours flying military aircraft, Voigt has thousands more restoring them. He works as a volunteer on airplanes rescued by the Air Mobility Command Museum at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware--among them, one of the C-54s he flew in the lift. We are sitting in the museum's 20,000-square-foot exhibition hall, admiring a past project: a grandly restored Douglas C-47--one of the hundred that hauled groceries into Berlin, two and a half tons at a time, until the bigger, four-engine C-54s took over.
In the presence of this icon, Voigt confesses that he wanted to fly fighters. Instead, after basic, he was retained as a flight instructor, "finally wiggled out of it," and was sent to Air Transport Command. "Ended up flying Gooney Birds," says Voigt. "Big deal."
But in 1948, flying transports became a very big deal. The mission facing the new Air Force--to keep Berlin from the clutches of the Russians--couldn't be done with fighters and bombers. Not that the Air Force didn't try. In early July the service experimented with coal delivery by stuffing bags of it in the bomb bays of a couple of B-29s, which released their stores at low level. When the coal hit the ground, it disintegrated. And after the dust settled--everywhere--the Air Force faced the dirty, time-consuming, labor-intensive reality, and coal was instead loaded on C-54s, bag by 100-pound bag. It became the airlift's chief commodity; a million and a half tons were delivered by the time the lift ended.
"I never made a trip to Berlin that I didn't carry coal," says Voigt. "We were dirty. The planes were dirty." When C-54s returned to the States for their 1,000-hour overhauls, they were sometimes hundreds of pounds heavier because of the coal dust that had settled in their innards. In 1989, when curator Jim Leech and volunteers at the Air Mobility Command Museum started working on Voigt's old C-54, they found coal dust still clinging to the bulkheads.
The Military Air Transport Service hadn't planned for a situation in which coal would be its primary cargo and hadn't anticipated the requirements of a strategic airlift in general. MATS C-47 and C-54 transports were derived from passenger aircraft, awkward to load and unload. The first freighter designed as such, Fairchild's twin-engine C-82 Packet, was a boxcar hung between two booms with rear clamshell doors for straight-in loading at ground level, but it had less capacity and less power than the C-54.
The most daunting problem facing MATS, however, was not how to load airplanes or even how to keep them in flying condition, though the maintenance tasks for the operation were Herculean. It was how to get all those airplanes into two--later three--airports. "You had an airplane landing or taking off every 90 seconds," says Michael Leister, the director of the AMC museum.
MATS solved the problem with Ground Controlled Approach, a precision landing aid using a radar operator to tell the pilot his position relative to the approach path. The operator would pick up an aircraft on his scope from about two miles out and talk the pilot down to a landing. "GCA was very reassuring," says Harold Watson, who was called back to the Air Force from his job at TWA and made about 200 flights in the lift. "Berlin is what made it acceptable to civilian pilots. The operator was continuously talking and very calm. He'd say for example: 'You're 50 feet below the glideslope, coming up slow' or 'two degrees left.' If we didn't correct, he'd remind us. It was life-saving to us."
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.
"Once you entered the corridor, there was no turning back. You went to Berlin," says Herman. And if a pilot missed his approach in Berlin, there was no second try. He had to take his cargo back where he came from.
"That was Tunner," says Gail Halvorsen, a retired Air Force colonel who made 126 flights to Berlin. "You couldn't believe the number of lives he saved."
General William Tunner is renowned among airlifters. He had run the Hump, the legendary World War II supply route over the Himalayas into China, and was brought to Wiesbaden, Germany, in August 1948 to direct Operation Vittles, the Air Force designation for the Berlin airlift. The ultimate efficiency expert, Tunner standardized operations and frowned on heroics. "A successful airlift," he wrote in his memoirs, "is about as glamorous as drops of water on a stone." And as steady. Tunner ordered the pilots to maintain the three-minute interval in the corridors, and outlawed stacking over Berlin. Pilots had one shot at delivering cargo.
"We hated like the devil to take it home," says Halvorsen. "We'd sometimes sneak a little bit."
If the minimums for Tempelhof required half-mile visibility and a ceiling of 400 feet, for example, pilots would sometimes descend to 350 or even 300 feet before they broke out of the cloud. But they wouldn't let on to the controllers in the tower that they were exceeding the minimums.
"You'd hear the last pilot to let down in front of you answer an inquiry from the tower that the ceiling was at 500 feet," says Bill Voigt. "And you'd glance down at the altimeter--you saw 500 feet and you can't see out to the wingtips. So you drop down another hundred feet or so.
"It wasn't disgraceful to take the load back," he adds, "but you just didn't want to do it."
The Air Force built another runway at Tempelhof in October, but for the first three months there was only one way in regardless of weather. "We could operate our -54s in 35 mph crosswinds," says Voigt. "If you're drifting, you drop a wing into it, land on one wheel. We were good."
At an airlift veterans' reunion last October, old-timers remembered the group of young pilots who had a wild time before Tunner showed up. "You'd take off after your buddies, scream around the circuit [to Berlin and back], and try to be there when they got back so you could ask what took 'em so long," Halvorsen recalled, shaking his head. "Stupid."
"People really did that?" a listener asked.
"Oh, yeah," said Halvorsen, adding sheepishly, "I did that. Once."
Well, he was young. And, as Berliners will tell you, he more than made up for his hijinks. They may not know the name Halvorsen, but every one of them can tell you the story of the Berlin candy bomber.
Halvorsen was a fresh-faced beanpole from Utah when he volunteered for the airlift. One day he spotted a group of kids watching the airplanes land at Tempelhof and, after a brief chat, got the idea to drop them his candy rations. He did it secretly at first, fearing he'd get in trouble, his copilot and flight mechanic adding their chocolate bars and chewing gum to his, tying their handkerchiefs to the small bundles as parachutes, and bombs away! on final approach. Somehow a reporter with the Frankfurter Zeitung got wind of it--almost bonked on the head with a candy bar, the story goes--and Halvorsen came back to his bunk one night to find it piled high with handkerchiefs and chocolate bars. The other airmen on the base had read the paper. The Air Force loved it, and sent him home for a weekend to do a couple of national TV shows. The candy drops became Operation Little Vittles, complete with corporate backing and its own statistics. Chocolate and handkerchiefs came into Rhein-Main from all over the United States. The town of Chicopee, Massachusetts, which set itself up as the U.S. headquarters for candy bombing, alone shipped to Germany 2,000 sheets for parachutes, 3,000 handkerchiefs, and 18 tons of candy.
This year Halvorsen, 78, is returning to Berlin to drop candy from The Spirit of Freedom, a C-54, restored by the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation, that carries airlift memorabilia and photographs instead of coal or flour. One of Berlin's favorite heroes, Halvorsen will be a popular figure at the events commemorating the airlift's 50th anniversary. At the 40th celebration in Berlin, he signed autographs for hours from the cockpit of a parked C-54, frequently on tattered pieces of cloth handed him by middle-aged Berliners who had been lucky enough to catch them many years before.
In Halvorsen's estimation, the real heroes of the airlift were the mechanics. "They weren't in covered facilities," he says. "The airplanes were out in the weather. Sometimes it got so cold, they were freezing their fingers to the head bolts of the cylinders."
"We had an hour and forty minutes for everything--refueling, reloading, preflight inspection, reservice, and any maintenance that had to be done." says James Spatafora, 69, who left his job in a Brooklyn necktie factory when he was 17 to join the Air Force. Spatafora had been trained as a hydraulics specialist on P-51 fighters and says he "really had to crack the books" when he got to Rhein-Main and started working on C-54s. "But there was no such thing as staying in your specialty," he recalls. "I helped props people change props, instruments people, electricians, towed airplanes. I loved every minute of it. Nothing heroic about it. Just ordinary people living in extraordinary times."
Katharin Brandt lived in Friedenau during the blockade, in what was once the American zone. She lives in the same district today and recalls that in the first weeks of the blockade, her greatest fear was that the Americans would abandon the city to the Russians. "I remember that in the night when I heard trucks moving in the streets, I thought--we all thought--Oh, now maybe the Western allies are moving out of Berlin," she says. Brandt was a secretary in the U.S. liaison office of the Kommandatura, the four-power military administration that governed the city. The liaison offices were located in the Russian sector--in the same building as the city's elected government--and Brandt remembers the violence that terrorized Berliners as the city divided.
"There were riots in the streets," she says. "When Parliament was in session, the Russians mobilized workers to go out in the streets, brought in by trucks. They tried to get into the Stadthaus and disturb the session of the Parliament--they have done that several times before the blockade started."
Waltraud Kuck doesn't remember fear, only hunger. She was an 18-year-old girl in the "working brigade" that built Tegel Airport in the French zone. She earned 15 marks a week and one hot meal a day, which was her only meal. The only time she could forget her hunger, she says, was when she was dancing, and she went out nearly every night. "Even today, I'm not able to throw a bit of bread away," says Kuck.
"The majority of the people there were clearing the ground with shovels. And I was lucky. I was responsible for preparation work, for measurements and things like that," Kuck says through a translator. "The other young girls who really had to work hard--they had blisters on their hands.
"On the working brigade, the atmosphere was great," she continues. "Much better than today. Everybody was helping each other. We had the feeling that things would improve." She also remembers that her father quit smoking because on the black market "with cigarettes you could pay for everything," that some of the young boys who unloaded the aircraft carried sacks of flour that weighed more than they did, and that whenever she and her friends heard an airplane overhead, they would call to it, "Airplane! Please drop some chocolate!"
"Those who lived in this time have a knowledge about it and they will never forget. But it's up to people like me to bring this subject into the city," says Heinz-Gerd Reese, a large, friendly administrator in the city government.
Reese is also the director of Berlin's Airlift Foundation, which the city founded in 1959 to give assistance to the families of the 78 British and American men who died in the airlift. Part of his job as director has been to oversee the stipends and scholarships that are still paid to some of the widows and children. But Reese, who has a zest for public relations, has also been working since 1992 in anticipation of this year's million-dollar celebration. In the elegant Berlin Rathaus, Reese describes his plans.
"I want to shake this city," he says. Berliners who buy tickets to an open air concert in the city this month are making a donation to CARE Germany. The ticket itself is a return address label--to be filled out like a raffle ticket--that will be affixed to a package from CARE (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere). "All the CARE parcels will be flown out of Berlin into somewhere where people need it," explains Reese. "Every parcel gets a name so the receiver knows from whom it comes. We want to show that the Berliners have not forgotten what was done for them, and we reverse the airlift to other parts of the world."
This June 27 and 28, the foundation will sponsor an open house at Tempelhof Airport, which will coincide with the opening of the Allied Museum located near the former U.S. military headquarters, and will donate 30 flights around Berlin in a C-54--"a candy bomber," says Reese.
Reese has asked all the Berlin hotels to place on their guests' pillows little chocolate airplanes. He has arranged a parade of flying boats on the Havel River, where British Sunderlands delivered salt, an international conference of scholars and airlift contemporaries, airshows, high school band competitions, and fireworks displays. For 11 months, "we'll cook it," says Reese, "until the last event on the 12th of May 1999, we'll have a military concert in the Olympic Stadium to honor the veterans. They will march in at the gate and then to their seats. And I hope there will be 60,000 Berliners in the Olympic Stadium."
Katharin Brandt and Waltraud Kuck say they will attend. And Werner Hauer is planning to fly in from New Jersey. Because Berliners are proud of living in what was the capital of the cold war and memorialize the airlift as a defining moment--they quote political speeches from the time in the same way Americans remember "Give me liberty or give me death"--Reese may just fill the stadium. Will the younger generation be represented? A translator in her 20s said yes, she thought she'd go; the people of her generation want to remember the airlift because it is something good. "They are tired of feeling the need to explain Germany's history in the second world war," she said. "It's nice to have something for a change that is positive and can make them feel some pride in being German."
In a small green park near Tempelhof Airport is a concrete sculpture, a heavy 1950s design intended to represent the flight paths of three aircraft--symbolic of the British, French, and American allies--in a steep climb. The paths emerge from a concrete slab and form three prongs; Berliners call the sculpture "the hunger claw." The memorial is dedicated to those who died during the airlift. Their names are inscribed on its base.
On an afternoon last September, a friend and I visited the memorial. Three boys lounged on the lawn in front of it, backpacks and a soccer ball in the grass nearby. My friend asked them in German what the memorial was and they all answered "Die Luftbrfcke," the air bridge. Yes, but what was it, my friend went on, what did it mean? Airplanes were flown into Berlin, the three spoke at once. And who was flying the airplanes? we asked. The Americans, the French, and the Russians, one said after a brief consultation, and another directed us to the sign that had been placed there for pesky tourists like us.
Poor old Bevin probably rolled over in his grave and the history teachers in Berlin wouldn't be overjoyed either. I wonder if the veterans who will fly to Berlin again this year would mind the confusion over who exactly the good guys were. There are some who would set those youngsters straight. But there are more who would, after all these years, welcome the Russians aboard. At least three Berliners already have.