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Germany

The Berlin Airlift was America's Finest Hour 60 Years Ago

President Bush's visit to Berlin marks 60 years of the Berlin airlift. DW-World.de spoke to a Berliner who lived through the blockade, a US pilot who flew into West Berlin and the author of The Candy Bombers.

Black and white 1948 photo of children on rooftop of West Berlin watching airplane flying above

Allied planes in West Berlin during the Soviet blockade brought chocolate and hopes.

At the end of World War II, a defeated Germany had been divided into the allied occupied zones in the West and the Soviet zone in the East. Berlin had also been similarly carved up into western and eastern sectors with the former capital of the Third Reich geographically inside the Soviet zone.

In June 1948, the Soviets blockaded Berlin, cutting all surface routes into the besieged city. However an earlier air traffic agreement between the allies and the Soviet Union had guaranteed that American and British jets could fly the three corridors from Hamburg, Bueckeburg and Frankfurt into West Berlin. For 15 months, the allies had flown in more than 2.3 million tons of food, coal and other necessities in the most massive humanitarian operation of all time.

DW-World.de spoke to Traute Grier, 76, a native Berliner who had lived near the US Tempelhof air base through the harsh period of the blockade, John Dear, a veteran 90 year old US air force pilot who flew 150 missions into West Berlin, and Andrei Cherny, author of the recently published book The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America's Finest Hour.

DW-WORLD.DE: Frau Grier, what was the immediate post-war period like for you as a kid in Berlin?

Portrait of a 76 year old woman from Berlin with blond hair and reading glasses

"We are so thankful for what they did for us"

Traute Grier: Things started getting bad in April 1945 when the “dear Russians” came. We Berliners were terrified of them. They were savages -- they raped the women and pillaged what was left of our burnt out city.

Once I was so desperate for food that I stole potatoes from the countryside. When the remains of Germany were carved into zones after the war, we used to say the Russians got the agriculture, the British got the heavy industry and the Americans got the scenery. The Russians had the food supplies, the coal, the fuel -- and they took everything away from us.

What did you eat?

Grier: We had potatoes with watery soup, bread with mustard. We pulled weeds from a garden to make spinach. Then the Americans came and gave us brown sugar and cornmeal. Germans never eat the stuff so we didn’t know what to do with it, but we got creative.

The worst was when it was dark. We didn’t have electricity for hours at a time and even candles were rationed. And it was freezing. The Berlin winter was so harsh that we demolished chairs for firewood.

What were the Americans like?

Grier: They were civilized people. I was so lucky to live in the Neukoelln section of Berlin, near Tempelhof Airport in the US zone. We used to watch the planes from the rooftops of buildings around Templehof.

Everyone knew about the candy bomber (Lt. Gail “Hal” Halvorsen, a US army pilot who dropped chocolate, chewing gum and other sweets in little hand-made parachutes from his plane for the children of Berlin). I was one of those rare kids who didn’t have a sweet tooth, but the gesture meant so much to us.

In 1947, we found out in school that the Russians wanted to control all of Berlin. Then in 1948, we had the currency reform and the allies were getting ready to introduce the D-mark. The Russians felt so threatened by it that they cut off all road, rail and canal links into West Berlin a few days later. They even wanted to control the three air corridors leading into Berlin, but General Clay stood up to them. (Gen. Lucius Clay was military governor of the US occupational zone, who had ordered the airlift).

Mr. Dear, you were among the first group of pilots called up in June 1948. What was the airlift like?

Post war map of a divided Germany and divided Berlin illustrating the air corridors from allied occupied zones in West into West Berlin in the middle of the Soviet zone

The Berlin airlift was the most massive humanitarian feat of all time in duration and number of missions flown.

John Dear: The weather was terrible most of the time, so visibility was often bad, especially at night. Our C-54 jets (four-engine aircraft capable of carrying 10 tons of cargo) were too big for the runway at Tempelhof, so we had to come in real low to land. Our wheels even scrapped the rooftops of buildings around Templehof.

One pilot ahead of me was coming in too fast and crashed into an apartment building. I had to land quickly and after 20 minutes, which was barely enough time to get a cup of coffee from the Red Cross, I had to fly back.

The flights had to be synchronized with such precision, since planes were landing and taking off ‘round the clock, every 90 seconds, non-stop. If we missed our landing approach the first time, there were no second chances -- we had to turn back and come out again. It would have too dangerous to circle in the clouds, with so many planes up there.

Was there any fear of flying accidently into Soviet airspace?

Dear: We had to fly within a 20 mile (32 kilometer) wide corridor and we made sure we didn’t divert from those limits. The Soviets were sometimes flying alongside us and could have shot us down. I saw one plane being escorted down by them.

Mr. Cherny, was the Berlin airlift the biggest humanitarian effort ever? What was the casualty rate like for the pilots?

Hershey chocolate bars with wrapping

Chocolate bars were dropped from the air in tiny parachutes

Andrei Cherny: Other missions (Tsunami and other disaster relief) might have carried more tonnage, but that’s only because we have more cargo capacity in planes today. The Berlin Airlift was certainly the biggest operation of its kind in duration and the number of missions flown. It was a great feat of organization and the casualty rate was even lower than the entire US air force as a whole at the time, which is very low considering the scale of the operation (277,569 allied missions from June 1948 to September 1949).

What would have happened had the allies acted with less resolve?

Cherny: If the US had withdrawn and West Berlin had fallen to the Soviets, the Germans in the western occupied zones would have concluded that they couldn’t rely on US security. France and Italy were on the brink of a Communist takeover -- they could have fallen, so we would have seen a chain reaction in Western Europe.

In 1948, US President Harry Truman was facing re-election. Was the airlift an act of pure kindness or were there political motives involved?

Cherny: Both. This was a case of a genuine humanitarian mission combined with political objectives for Truman personally and the United States. The airlift represented the struggle between the Soviets and the US. Eastern Europe was falling into the Soviet sphere. The US didn’t want another country to go, particularly one partially under its control. It would have been a huge black mark on Truman’s political standing, had the Americans “lost” Germany.

Was there more to the airlift than just providing food and sustenance to starving West Berliners?

Gail Halvorsen, the Candy Bomber, gives a thumbs up to guests at the closing ceremony for Rhein-Main Airbase in 2005.

Gail "Hal" Halvorsen was known to Berliners as the "Candy Bomber"

Cherny: Yes, the blockade and the airlift response to it were the turning point of when Germans came around to not just accepting democracy, but to embrace its principles. At the end of the war from 1945-1948, polls showed that the majority of Germans preferred economic security and a full stomach over freedom of speech and the right to vote. The Soviets said we’ll give you food as long as you sign a pledge of loyalty to us when you get your ration cards. Then in August 1948 (when the airlift had been in operation for two months), only 4 percent of West Berliners had signed up.

What does this say about the West Berliners?

Cherny: That democracy was no longer just an abstract principle to them, that this was something they valued.

Grier: The Americans, British and French were our enemies during the war, but in peacetime it was incredible what they did for us Germans. They were so steadfast in not letting us starve. There were pilots who sacrificed their lives to make sure we were fed, and we are so thankful for what they did for us.

The allies instilled democracy in Germany. Can the US do this in Iraq?

black and white illustration of people waiting for plane to land at US airbase Tempelhof in Berlin

Tempelhof airport in Berlin will close in October this year

Cherny: That’s hard to see right now, but the lesson to be learned from the airlift, shows that one can bring democracy to a place viewed as being culturally and historically unsuited for it. I read old press accounts after WWII. There were so many commentaries about the Germans being a bunch of Huns, an authoritarian Teutonic people, incapable of accepting democracy.

So what was it that allowed democracy to take root in Germany?

Cherny: It was a sense of faith in humanity -- Germans and allies working together as equals in pursuit of a common endeavour.

What made you write this book?

Cherny: Four or five years ago, world opinion of the US was at such a low point, it made me think: When were we Americans held in the highest esteem? When did people respect us and understand what we stood for? That question led me to look at the Berlin Airlift. I felt there was an untold story -- about the psychological dimension of what happened. The transformative power of what we did back then had not been told.

The Soviets lifted the blockade on May 11, 1949. The Federal Republic of Germany was founded on May 23, 1949 from the three allied zones. The German Democratic Republic was created from the Soviet zone several months later, and was dissolved in 1990 when Germany was reunified.

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