Before The Colors Fade: Berlin Airlift Commander


As soon as we landed, I called on General LeMay, who was comfortably ensconced in the former home of Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister. I had expected that LeMay would be miffed at my being sent over to run the lift and that he might take it as an insult to his competence as an air commander. He didn’t. I had been ordered by higher authority to run the show, and he accepted the order without question.

“I expect you to produce,” he said, cigar firmly clenched in his unsmiling face.

“I intend to, sir,” I replied.

Our headquarters were in a partially bombed apartment house. Debris and wreckage were everywhere. There were no desks, chairs, telephones, or office supplies; but my staff were all expert scroungers, fixers, and arrangers, and it was only a few hours before debris was shovelled and swept out, office furniture began co appear in G.I. trucks, and installers were asking where we wanted our phones placed. I never asked how these things were acquired, but I suspect a few regulations were badly bent and a few of the occupation-force personnel who had chosen to be absent from their offices that day were minus some of their equipment.

While the offices were being set up, my key people and I went on a tour of the Wiesbaden and Rhein-Main air bases. We were genuinely shocked at what we found. Understandably, everything was being done on a temporary basis. Mechanics and flight personnel could not tell us how long they had worked, what their schedules were for the next day, or even when they were supposed to eat. They were sleeping in airplanes, in the mess hall, and anywhere else they could stretch out.

In Berlin the situation was just as bad on the ground, and the air traffic, compounded by the lift, was horrendous; near-misses were an everyday occurrence. The Soviets were deliberately increasing their fighter operations in and near the corridors. They were putting up barrage balloons and towing gunnery targets in front of our planes. I told my pilois 10 “y on. They did, refusing to be intimidated.

After looking the whole situation over, I laid down the concept that had to be the basis for all our planning. “We’ve got to plan our whole operation as if we’re going to be here a long time,” the staff was told. “The sooner we all think that way, the sooner we’ll get the operation going as we know it can and should.”

The first concern was aircraft maintenance. All planes had to be inspected after every twenty-five hours of flight. At two hundred hours they had to be taken out of service and given a thorough check. Every thousand hours a complete overhaul from nose to tail was required. Facilities and schedules had to be set up; minor inspections would be accomplished at Wiesbaden and Rhein Main. The two-hundred-hour checks would be done at Oberpfaffenhofen, near Munich, and when the base could be made ready, at Burtonwood, England. The thousand-hour overhauls could be done only back in the States. Tools, spare parts, and qualified mechanics were in short supply. Arrangements to get such essentials were quickly made.

Those of us who had visited Tempelhof Airport knew that something had to be done about the field itself. It was a sod strip, and landings were made on steel mats that would be unsafe for extensive C-54 usage.

“We’ve not only got to get that runway repaired,” Lieutenant Colonel Kenny Swallwell, the air installations officer, said, “but we’ve got to get two others built to handle the traffic.” He had already set the wheels in motion to get them. In addition, he started us all thinking about the possibility of using the two British corridors, which were shorter; their bases were located at Celle and Fassfaerg. I quickly started negotiations to get them.

It should be emphasized at this point that there was no longer any question about the fact that our job was to keep the people of Berlin alive. The tonnage requirements were at first anyone’s guess but began to get realistic as deep thought was given to what two and a half million people really needed to sustain life. It was found that 1,500 tons of food were needed daily and 3,000 tons of other items including coal, medicines, and emergency supplies.

It was now clear that what was badly needed besides crews, airplanes, maintenance, and organization was timing. Valuable time was wasted as crews landed, parked, shut off engines, and debarked for a snack and then strolled to Operations for their return clearances. Henceforth no crew member was to leave the site of his aircraft while the Germans unloaded it. Each plane would be met by an operations officer who would hand the pilot his return clearance all filled in and a weather officer who would give him the latest conditions at his home base. Mobile snack bars tended by some of the most beautiful girls in Berlin would move to the side of the plane. Turn-around time at Berlin was halved—to thirty minutes.

Although Frankfurt and Wiesbaden were only one and a half hours from Berlin, the weather could be absolutely clear at one end and absolutely miserable at the other. I found out about this the hard way on Black Friday, the thirteenth of August, 1948. The weather wasn’t too bad as we took off from Wiesbaden, but we soon hit heavy, thick clouds.