The Berlin Airlift: This Is The Year To Remember
Some readers will instantly recognize that name, some will search the mists of their memories and others will draw a blank. Which are you?
In 1948, Gail Halvorsen was a 27-year-old prematurely balding Air Force transport pilot who gained overnight fame as the beloved Candy Bomber during the Berlin Airlift. At 97, Halvorsen is still with us and this year, the 70th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, I suspect you’ll be hearing a lot both about him and the airlift. I’ll use this blog space to get you thinking about it because among the many things the airlift represented, it was inarguably a moment in which the airplane indelibly bent the arc of history.
A lowly first lieutenant, Halvorsen was but a minor cog in a big wheel, but his impact was outsized. Two books I’ve read recently chronicle the big lift: Daring Young Men: The Heroism and Triumph of the Berlin Airlift, by Richard Reeves, and The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America’s Finest Hour, by Andrei Cherny.
The airlift began in late June 1948, ignited by a spat over currency in divided Germany. The Soviets closed road, rail and canal traffic to Berlin from western Germany, hoping the allies, whose tactical situation was hopeless, would collapse and abandon Berlin. A stubborn and occasionally petulant Army engineering officer, Gen. Lucius D. Clay, thought otherwise and pledged to sustain the city via an air bridge. The Soviets believed the very notion was patently absurd. Even the wise men in Washington counseled Clay, who had been assigned as allied governor of Germany, that the plan was untenable during the summer, much less during Germany’s notoriously foggy winter. Gen. Omar Bradley, then Army Chief of Staff, and Gen. George C. Marshall, then Secretary of State, advised President Harry Truman that a withdrawal from Berlin would be inevitable. Truman rejected the advice. “We stay in Berlin. Period,” he said. The record isn’t clear if Truman had the vaguest inkling of how ill-prepared the Air Force was to undertake such an operation. Clay was no better informed.
The airlift was initially a slapdash affair, flown mainly by C-47s, some with faded invasion stripes from their Normandy labors and whose cargo capacity was woefully inadequate. Truman again overruled the staff and ordered C-54s from all over the world—there weren’t that many of them—to Berlin. In the end, the U.S. had 225, each with a capacity of about 20,000 pounds. Enter Lt. Gail Halvorsen, ordered to report to Germany in July of 1948.
Seized by curiosity on his first trip into Berlin, he dragooned a sergeant to give him a tour of the devastated city, which he filmed with an 8 mm camera. When he encountered a gaggle of ragged kids watching the airlift landings from the St. Thomas cemetery hard by Tempelhof’s runway, Halvorson gave them bits of gum and candy he happened to be carrying. On a lark, he promised to drop them more from his airplane, after wagging the wings on approach.
And so he did. The crowd of kids swelled and so did the buzz. When the airlift commander, Gen. William Tunner, got wind of the “candy bomber,” he summoned Halvorsen for a rug dance. Except, shrewdly, Tunner understood that the airlift was not a battle of wits or resources, but of ideas and public image. And he knew golden PR when he saw it. Tunner encouraged Halvorson to expand his candy bombing, christening it “Operation Little Vittles.” Halvorsen made a trip back home and soon became a telegenic star of a new medium: television.
The U.S. public was enthralled and so were the beat-down residents of a shattered Berlin. Against fierce resistance from Berliners, the Soviets were trying mightily to drive the allies out of the city, bribing them with food ration cards and coal, a fuel in critically short supply. (Two-thirds of airlift tonnage was coal.) The airlift itself and especially Halvorsen’s candy bombers were high-profile demonstrations that were instrumental in swaying public opinion, convincing Berliners that the allies would sustain the city. And whether he intended it or not, Truman’s resolve won him a second term in an election that was all but ceded to Thomas Dewey.
As summer turned to fall and the foggiest November ever recorded in Europe, the airlift continued. Tunner was famous for charts and graphs tracking the rising weight of cargo carried into Berlin. Pilots were run ragged flying trips into Berlin’s three airports—Tempelhof, Gatow and, eventually, Tegel—24 hours a day, as much as a flight every three minutes. The airlift’s record on a single day was April 15, 1949: 12,941 tons in 1398 flights. One every minute. That’s more than twice as much tonnage as rail and canal traffic had been carrying before the Russian blockade.
There was a price to pay, not just in treasure, but blood, too. Seventy-four pilots, crew and ground personnel were killed in the 15 months the airlift operated. Under relentless pressure, pilots shaved operational standards to the bone. By winter of 1949, newly arriving pilots were issued a putty knife to chip ice off windshields so they could see to land. GCA approaches were flown in weather so low that follow-me jeeps couldn’t find the aircraft they were supposed to lead.
Maintenance suffered. Reeves writes that one trick to start balky engines was to run down the runway on the ones that would run, spin up the balkers, brake and taxi back to takeoff on all four. When starters failed, ground crews wrapped ropes around the prop hubs and used trucks to start the Pratt R-2000s.
Yet the airlift posted a remarkable safety record. At the time, the Air Force’s overall accident rate was 59/100,000 hours. For the airlift, it was 26.
By May of 1949, the Soviets realized they had lost the gamble and the blockade ended. But the airlift didn’t. The Air Force continued to fly cargo into Berlin until September, building stockpiles of supplies against the Russians closing the city again. Amazingly, writes Cherny, when the Berlin wall came down in 1990, Berliners had squirrelled away 132 million pounds of wheat, 52 million pounds of canned meat and 15 million pounds of butter, among tons of other supplies.
With Germany reunited, they had no need for it, just as Russians in the collapsing Soviet Union were suffering shortages and rationing. Ironically, even though Berlin wished to ship the food to its former tormenters, the breakaway Soviet republics blockaded roads and rail lines. They had no means to deliver the stuff.
Tunner’s achievements during the airlift had ramifications beyond the immediate geopolitical victory. Robert Garrett, an air safety investigator from the CAA who observed the airlift, said this: “The airlift has advanced the art of air traffic control by 10 years … the concept can easily be applied to New York, Chicago and Washington.” And it was. Major Edward Guilbert, a Hump veteran and Tunner’s statistical genius, tracked tonnage and airplanes with a network of strung-together teletype machines, inventing what we now know as electronic data interchange. After the lift, it was used in many industries—and still is.
My favorite quote about the airlift came from Reeves’ book. Wolfgang Samuel, a young German boy living near the end of Tempelhof’s runway, would later write: “One of those C-54s turned over our barracks on a clear December night and then fell like a rock out of the sky. The two pilots were killed. Only three years ago they were fighting against my country and now they are dying for us. The Americans were such strange people. I wondered, as only a boy can wonder, what made these people do the things they did?”
Harry Truman may have known the answer to this, even if he couldn’t have articulated it. Not that I can either. But I do know the world is a far better place for those people having done the things they did.
Click here to find two personal accounts of pilots who flew in the Berlin Airlift. It originally appeared in the June 1998 issue of our sister magazine, IFR.