Salvation of a City
I had the honor and privilege to fly on the Berlin Airlift, also known as Operation Vittles which was the greatest humanitarian effort in modern history.
June 26, 2008 was the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the Airlift. While thinking about this humanitarian act, I decided to write this book about the lift and about my involvement in it.
My first assignment after flying combat in Europe, was with the Air Transport Command. I was attached to a Ferry Squadron that ferried anything that had wings around the United states. I was put on temporary duty to Charleston Air Force Base for transition in C‐54s, which were big four‐engine transports. This was the same plane that was called the DC‐4, which was used as a civilian commercial passenger plane. Because I had just returned from flying B‐17s and was also a B‐24 pilot, it did not take me long to check out in the C‐54.
My next assignment was with the Military Transport Command, Washington, DC, where I flew "VIPs" (Very Important Persons) in and out of Washington, DC. I was next assigned to Lackland Air Force Base; one day I was called into the Commander's Office and handed orders for Malstrom Air Force Base to train in C‐54s; the training was for the Berlin Airlift. I knew that the Airlift was going on but never dreamed that I would be put on duty flying on the Airlift. I had a 15‐day travel leave before I was to report to Malstrom. I drove my wife Grace and our children, Connie, Charles and Cara to Portland, Oregon to be close to relatives.
After my final training phase as a replacement pilot in the C‐54 for the Berlin Airlift, I was flown from Malstrom Air Force Base to Rhine‐Main Air Force Base in Frankfort, Germany. I was then bussed to the 60th Troop Carrier Group at Y‐80, Wiesbaden, Germany, where my Berlin Airlift flying began.
I finished my Combat missions, flying against Hitler in April of 1945 and arrived home to be with my wife Grace and daughter Connie. Three years later I was flying missions again, only this time it was for Germany and against the Russians. ___________________________________________________________________
One of the most serious problems that the pilots had to deal with was the constant harassment of the Soviets in the corridors. There were 733 incidents of harassment recorded between August 1948 and August 1949. It was not uncommon for Soviet pilots to fly close, shooting near, but not at, the airlift planes. Balloons were released in the corridors, there was flak, radio interference and searchlights in the pilot's eyes; these were all forms of the Soviet harassment. This did not stop the pilots; the planes kept on flying. One Soviet plane did collide with a commercial plane and 35 people died. Had one of the airlift planes been shot down, that would have started World War III. The Soviets did not want that.
Before I could get out of the cockpit, a crewman would be in the cockpit wanting to buy cigarettes. Since I was not a smoker I would bring a carton along on each mission and sell it to the first taker. A game that the crewmen played was to rub up against the pilots to dirty their clean flying suits with coal dust. I never returned to my base without a dirty flying suit.
After debarking from the plane, we were greeted by a weather jeep for weather briefing, by a maintenance jeep for maintenance problems and a mobile snack bar for refreshments. There were manned by beautiful German Frauleins. As soon as our plane was unloaded we were back in the cockpit, taxiing out for our return trip home.
During the winter we hauled nothing but coal from Wiesbaden as it was badly needed to keep the Berliners warm. The plane would be so full of dust that we would open two back windows to draw out the dust. After the plane had flown 200 hours, it would be flown to Burtonwood, England for major inspection and a thorough cleaning. The soot and grime collected in the planes after around 100 flights to Berlin was so thick that the flying coal trucks seemed beyond revival. The wings were heavily filmed with oil and grease. The interior was black with smudge and the floor was rough, with black coal dust ground into the wood. I was fortunate to get one of those flights. After staying a night in Burtonwood, we brought back a clean aircraft, which was a great feeling.
To feed a city such as Berlin meant butter from Denmark, coffee from Brazil, sugar from Cuba, wheat from Minneapolis, Minnesota, Coal from Ruhr, etc. In fact there were few areas in the world that were not represented for the needs of Berlin. Just 3½ years before the lift, I was bombing the Ruhr coalmines in the Ruhr Valley just 60 miles south of Berlin. Now I was hauling their coal to Berlin. ___________________________________________________________________
I first flew milk and groceries into Tempelhof; then I would fly a load of displaced persons back to Y‐80 in Wiesbaden. These were mostly women and children that were then dispersed to different areas around Europe. In total there were about 161,000 displaced people, mostly Polish and Jewish; those were flown out of Berlin to be transferred to other areas.
When other and I pilots arrived at Y‐80, we were immediately taken to our quarters. What an eye‐opener. We were placed in an old German enlisted men's dormitory on the third floor. It was wide open and the bathroom and showers were open. They placed a screen around our iron cots to give us a little space and privacy. We pilots were flying many missions but were treated as second‐rate citizens. The permanent administrative personnel lived in nice private quarters, each with a private bath. If I had an after mid‐night mission, an orderly would wake me, I would shower, dress in a clean flying suit and walk to the operations building, which was about 5 blocks from the dormitory.
The pilots ate breakfast, lunch and dinner in the Officer's club, which had a German beer room in the basement that was unique; we spent most of our evenings, when we were not flying, in that beer room. I became well acquainted with about 5 other pilots. When we had a day off we would borrow a car and tour the local area, going into completely bombed‐out cities like Mannheim, which was completely destroyed.
Besides food and coal that we flew into Berlin when the weather was good we would parachute chocolate bars and chewing gum to the children waiting below in the cemetery .This was all started by a 1st Lieutenant Gail Halvorsen, who was flying out of Rhine‐Maine. He had walked over to the fence in Templehof and talked to some children gathered there. One boy asked him about the planes and flights. As a good will gesture he handed him 2 sticks of gum, and promised if they did not fight over the gum, the next time he flew over he would drop some more. One child asked him how they would know his plane and he said "I will wiggle my wings." The next day he flew over the cemetery, rocked his wings and the engineer kicked out some chocolate bars attached to handkerchief parachutes to the children waiting below. Every day the children increased and everyday he would drop more.