Before The Colors Fade: Berlin Airlift Commander

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The division of Germany after World War II into four occupation zones, with Berlin buried deep within the Russian sector, was not a happy one. The Soviets harassed the supply routes to Berlin at every opportunity, and it became painfully obvious that they intended to do everything they could to bring the capital under their full control. By the spring of 1948 the situation had reached the showdown point: on March 20 the Russians stalked out of a meeting of the Allied Control Authority and subsequently demanded the immediate removal of the troops of Britain, France, and the United States from the city. On June 25 it was announced that “the Soviet administration is compelled to halt all passenger and freight traffic to and from Berlin tomorrow at 0600 because of technical difficulties.”

West Berliners watch as a Douglas C-54 Skymaster delivers supplies to Tempelhof Airport. (1948)

There was only one way in or out of the city now, and that was by air. After the war the four powers had agreed to set up six air corridors into Berlin. Three of them went eastward. The other three connected Berlin with Hamburg and Hanover in the British Zone and with Frankfurt in the American Zone. Could the American garrison in Berlin be kept supplied by air? General Lucius D. Clay, the United States military governor, sent for General Curtis LeMay, commander of the air forces in Europe, to find out.

What happened next is told in the words of William H. Tunner, then an Air Force major general and veteran air transport commander, whose men and planes had helped keep nineteen Chinese divisions and the U.S. Fourteenth Air Force fighting in China by flying supplies from India “over the Hump” of the Himalayas during the war. He was interviewed recently at his home in Virginia.

 

Within a few hours General LeMay ordered a number of C-47 cargo planes, the Old Faithfuls of World War II, to Wiesbaden Air Base, near Frankfurt. They were loaded with medical supplies, milk, and flour and sent to Tempelhof Airport in Berlin. On the first day eighty tons were delivered. No one knew what the minimum daily tonnage for the American garrison would be, and no one dreamed at first that the U.S. Air Force would be expected to keep the whole city of two and a half million people alive.

The daily tonnage increased; within the first ten days over one thousand tons of cargo had been carried to Berlin, including the first shipment of coal, loaded in G.I. duffel bags. By then it was understood that the Americans were to supply the needs of all Berliners and not just the American troops there.

About this time General Albert C. Wedemeyer, Director of Plans and Operations of the Army General Staff, had been sent to Germany to observe what was happening. He had commanded the China theatre and knew what it was like to be cut off from sources of supply on the ground and have to depend on airplanes flown over the Hump for the necessities of life. He recommended that the Air Force send me to Europe to take over the operation.

 

By mid-July 1,500 tons a day were being flown into Berlin by American planes, and the British were flying in 500 tons. The free world press was having a field day describing how former desk jockeys were flying around the clock “to keep a city alive” in an effort now known as Operation Vittles.

General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, the Air Force Chief of Staff, called me to the Pentagon and asked when I could leave for Berlin. I told him that all I needed was a clean shirt but asked if I could take some of the professional staff men of the Hump days with me. I was told I could, but to “be reasonable” and not disrupt the organizations these men were assigned to.

The principal airplane used by MATS [the newly organised Military Air Transport Service] in those days was the Douglas C-54, a four-engine transport that had proved as reliable as the venerable C-47. The C-47 had to be replaced on the Berlin run because it would hold only three tons, while the C-54’s could carry ten.

 

I left for Europe, taking along a hand-picked staff of men who had served with me on the Hump operation. They started to function en route, as if they had never been separated. I outlined the basic duties of each man and told them to review the problems we had met and solved on the Hump and to expect most of the same problems in Germany. But there were differences, too. The total tonnage requirement was much greater for Berlin; the “enemy” had freedom of the skies and could shoot our planes down at will if he chose to do so. In addition, there would be many more planes in the sky, which meant that the flying by all crews had to be the most precise ever required of pilots anywhere.

I stepped back and watched this group work. By the time we reached Wiesbaden, we not only had plans and check lists of things to do but even had airlift directives written and neatly typed by my secretary, Miss Katie Gibson, who had volunteered to go with us for the duration.