Daring Young Men: The Heroism and Triumph of the Berlin Airlift, June 1948-May 1949
By Richard Reeves
(Simon & Schuster, 316 pages, $28)
General Lucius Dubignon Clay, West Point '18, descendent of Senator Henry (the Great Pacificator) Clay, commander in chief of U.S. forces in Europe and military governor of the American Zone in Germany, had won his point. The terse message from the Joint Chiefs of Staff on July 24, 1948, to his headquarters in Berlin decisively backed his controversial plan to deal with the Soviet blockade. "We have ordered our planes all over the world to fly to Europe," it said. "You have our full support. God bless Berlin."
Exactly one month before, Soviet authorities had suddenly decreed a halt "for technical reasons" to all road, rail, and water traffic into occupied Berlin's American, British, and French sectors. Its 2.1 million population was cut off from the rest of the world. Faced with Josef Stalin's bald move to annex the city by forcing the Allies out, President Harry Truman's senior national security advisers, including Secretary of State George Marshall and Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, strongly counseled withdrawing Allied troops and leaving the city to the tender mercies of the Red Army.
Force the blockade on the ground? The Allies had only 290,000 troops in all of western Germany, compared with at least 20 Red Army divisions in East Germany, plus another million or so Soviet troops in the rest of Eastern Europe. Supply the city, an urban island 100 miles inside the Soviet Zone, with the needed 15,000 tons a day of food, fuel, and other supplies by an immense, unprecedented -- and highly risky -- airlift? All advisers except Clay dismissed the idea as far-fetched. As America's most influential columnist, Walter Lippmann, pointed out, "To supply the Allied sectors of Berlin is obviously only a spectacular and temporary answer to the ground blockade...in the long run, especially in the fog and rain of a Berlin winter, the cost in lives of the pilots and crews...would be exorbitant."
But at a White House crisis meeting June 28, Undersecretary of State Robert Lovett was outlining options for exiting Berlin when Truman cut him off with an abrupt, "We stay in Berlin. Period." Fine, but how to overcome the logistical nightmares?
That is the subject of Richard Reeves's engrossing new book about one of the Cold War's hottest episodes. Reeves, author of presidential biographies of Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan, among other works, here draws on official archives and hundreds of interviews to tell the story of those who flew, guided, repaired, and loaded the planes that were, for 324 days, the lifeline of a great, embattled city. These daring young men from places like Union City, New Jersey; Corpus Christi, Texas; and Mount Sterling, Kentucky, were another instance of the ordinary Americans of Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation" accomplishing extraordinary things.
It was up to Clay, a 50-year-old chain-smoking workaholic, to create the airlift, officially known as Operation Vittles. He began with virtually nothing. Needed immediately if not sooner were more planes, crews, loaders, and mechanics, as well as more airports and better runways. For help he first called General Curtis LeMay. Ironically it was LeMay, the legendary commander of United States Air Forces Europe (USAFE), who had developed the bombing tactics and formation flying that enabled his mighty 8th Air Force to turn much of Germany into rubble. When Clay asked if he had any planes that could carry coal, LeMay chewed his trademark cigar a moment, then yelled incredulously into the phone, "We must have a bad connection. Sounds as if you're asking whether we have planes for carrying coal." When Clay confirmed, he got his answer: "General, the Air Force can deliver anything, anytime, anywhere."
But LeMay's typical bravado couldn't magically supply the necessary hundreds of planes and the pilots to fly them. The airlift began shakily with whatever old, twin-engine C-47s (known wryly as Gooney Birds) could be scrounged up. The larger, four-engine C-54 could carry three times as much, but of the Air Force's 400 Skymasters, only two were in Germany; the rest were mostly at Pacific bases like Guam, more than 11,000 miles from Europe. The Joint Chiefs' decision on June 24 sent them, their pilots, and ground crews scrambling to Germany.
The Air Force sent telegrams all over America to call up reservists "for 30 days' temporary duty." Reeves's research found examples of many who were just beginning normal postwar lives. One was Noah Thompson, who had flown 21 bombing missions over Germany and had recently passed his airline pilot's exam for a new career. When the TDY notice came he kissed his wife, Betty, and their new son, Glenn, goodbye. Twenty-four hours after arriving at Rhein-Main Air Base near Frankfurt, he was flying 10 tons of coal to Berlin. There was also Arlie Nixon, chief DC-4 pilot at TWA, who was suddenly 1st Lt. Nixon again, making $180 a month instead of $550. As one amazed RAF officer commented, "You'd be talking to some fellow and find out he had been a lawyer in Manhattan a couple of weeks before."
Others still on active duty got the call wherever they were. Lt. Harry Yoder, a former B-24 pilot, was on leave visiting his parents in Pennsylvania when the local police chief knocked on the door at 2:30 a.m.: "I have a cable here from the Air Force..." Lt. Richard A. Campbell got to Wiesbaden from his base in Japan via stopovers in Guam, Hawaii, California, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, Newfoundland, and the Azores. He dropped off his bag at base ops and made five round trips to Berlin's Tempelhof airport before getting back to pick it up and settle in.
Even with planes taking off and landing every three minutes, flight crews and air -traffic controllers stretched to the breaking point, less than half of the city's needs were supplied during the Airlift's first few weeks. Then LeMay brought in Major General William Tunner, deputy commander for operations of the Air Force's new Military Air Transport Service, to handle logistics. Arrogant, cantankerous, and coldly efficient, Tunner had run The Hump airlift of matériel over the Himalayas from India to China during the war. "Willie the Whip" proceeded to increase daily loads by rationalizing ground operations, reducing turnaround time by 30 minutes per plane. He unified American and British resources, created competitions between squadrons and bases, and, most controversially, hired German mechanics to maintain the planes. Deliveries rose dramatically -- at one feverish point, planes were taking off or landing in Berlin every 30 seconds.
Veteran, battlehardened pilots were hard put to cope with Airlift conditions. Flying into Tempelhof's short runway meant following a glide path that put the plane's landing gear within feet of a nearby six-story apartment building, diving steeply to touchdown on full flaps, then standing on the brakes while skidding over the strip's perforated steel planking toward the mud at the end. Weather was horrendous. In November thick fog blanketed northern Europe and lasted weeks; flying was zero-zero visibility, tractors pulled planes to parking areas because pilots couldn't see runway lights.
Crews often flew with windows and doors open to avoid explosive buildup of coal or flour dust. The dust got into eyes anyway and flight surgeons had to clean it out. With crews lucky to get a few hours' sleep, both pilot and co-pilot occasionally dozed off and woke up when the plane suddenly changed altitude. Punchy air traffic controllers headed for mess halls muttering flight instructions to themselves.
Then there was the Soviet harassment. Yak and MiG-15 fighters tried to force down Airlift planes by buzzing them within a few feet -- one pilot counted 22 Yaks on his tail. Other tactics: East German radio stations flooded the airwaves with loud polka music to make navigation difficult; the Red Army fired random anti-aircraft shells and beamed powerful searchlights to blind pilots (flying on instruments anyway, many just taped newspapers inside windshields). USAFE officially counted 773 incidents, with 96 involving close flying, 54 flak, 14 air-to-air fire, 59 flares, 103 searchlights, 11 barrage balloons. Many others went unreported to avoid paperwork.
Fatigue, worn-out aircraft, and the weather inevitably caused crashes on takeoff or landing, once into a Berlin apartment building. Thirty-two American and 39 British personnel died during the Airlift. (The French did not participate in the Airlift because such military aircraft as they had were being used to combat Communist rebellions in Indochina.) Reeves reports that a German boy living near a runway wrote wonderingly of a C-54 crash, "The two pilots were killed....Only three years ago they were fighting against my country, and now they were dying for us. The Americans were such strange people...what made them do the things they did?"
Not only things like dying for their former enemies, but like becoming the Candy Bomber. That peculiar exercise began when Lt. Gail Halvorsen was stretching his legs around the perimeter fence after landing at Tempelhof. He came across a group of German schoolchildren and tossed them a couple of sticks of chewing gum. Seeing their excitement over the exotic treat, he promised to drop gum and candy next time he passed over them and to waggle his wings so they would know which plane was his. Before long, the Tempelhof ops office began receiving dozens of letters addressed to Uncle Wackelflugel (Wiggly Wings) and Schokoladen Flieger (Chocolate Flyer). Soon other pilots joined in, donating their candy rations. In all, more than 23 tons were dropped on miniature parachutes the pilots made in their spare time.
As the months wore on, the Airlift became ever more efficient, the North Atlantic Treaty creating the NATO mutual defense alliance was signed in April, and West Germany moved closer to political reality. Stalin realized he had lost his gamble to get Berlin without a war. The lights running around the New York Times building on May 5, 1949, said it all: "BERLIN BLOCKADE WILL END MAY 12." The West had won the Cold War's first eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation.
Reeves's highly readable account of the Airlift highlights a largely neglected operation that once again showed American ingenuity and resourcefulness, as well as the selfless, can-do spirit of its citizen soldiers. It was undeniably a heroic undertaking. But was it the best way to handle the crisis? It does not detract from the merit of those courageous, dedicated airmen to question whether the West should not have called Stalin's bluff and broken the blockade instead of circumventing it. After all, who had The Bomb?
As Reeves records, at that same June meeting where Truman decided to make a stand in Berlin, he also ordered no fewer than 60 B-29 Superfortresses to bases in Britain -- carrying the same type of Fat Man atomic bombs dropped on Japan -- under a secret plan code-named Charioteer. And as it happens, an eager Curtis LeMay, never one to back off from a fight, had already prepared a contingency plan in case of a Soviet blockade, insisting that USAFE's fighters and bombers could destroy every Soviet airfield and plane on the ground in a few hours. That was vetoed by the war-weary British and French.
Had we chosen to take off the gloves, we had the punch to put Uncle Joe on the ropes. As LeMay put it, "They had no atomic capability. Hell, they didn't have much of any capability." Of such questions do armchair generals debate after the battle is over.