Heroes Welcome

Fifty years ago, they worked around the clock to keep Berlin from starving. Now, in a year-long celebration, Berlin invites them back.

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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.

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