Before The Colors Fade: Berlin Airlift Commander

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With General Clay’s backing I had Personnel find a former Luftwaffe aircraft maintenance officer. They turned up Major General Hans Detlev von Rohden, a German air-transport expert who spoke excellent English. Within a few days he had found top-flight mechanics and had a school going using technical manuals he had translated from English. We got our mechanics, eventually eighty-five to each squadron.

As my staff met and solved the big problems, smaller ones began to nag us. The number of flights per day increased, so that by the beginning of September traffic through the corridors had gotten to the point where our two fields in Berlin were saturated.

Since Gatow Airport, in the British sector, and Tempelhof could not be expanded further, we decided that a third field should be built where none existed. The best site was a tract of land formerly used to train Hermann Goering’s antiaircraft divisions; it was called Tegel and was in the French sector. The first plane actually landed on the Tegel strip on November 5—exactly two months to the day after the first spade of earth was turned.

There was a two-hundred-foot radio tower sticking up off the end of the runway, however. “That thing will have to come down,” I told my staff. But that got no action. The tower was actually owned by the Russians, although it was located in the French sector. General Jean Ganeval, the French commandant, solved the problem very neatly. A “mysterious” explosion occurred and the tower was no more.

 
 
 

General LeMay left Europe in October, 1948. His last official act was to sign a directive together with his British counterpart, Sir Arthur P. M. Sounders, which set up the Combined Airlift Task Force (C.A.L.T.F.). Its primary mission was “to deliver to Berlin, in a safe and efficient manner, the maximum tonnage possible, consistent with the combined resources of equipment and personnel made available.” This placed the whole British-American effort under Tunner.

Tonnage increased as the weather got colder, but the daily requirements increased also. Instead of 4,500 tons a day, it was determined that 5,620 were needed as more coal was added to the total. Loads were boosted to 7,000 tons a day in October and November; then the miserable European December weather set in.

By now we had all the planes we needed—three hundred C-54’s with two hundred of them in daily service and the others in the maintenance pipeline. The only factor we could not beat was the weather.

By February and March, though, it improved, and my concern turned in a new direction. I began to feel that things were going too well, and I decided that the command needed a shaking up. They needed an all-out effort of some kind—a goal that was attainable yet would require the utmost of every man.

We decided that we would shoot for a one-day figure of 10,000 tons—3,000 more than we had ever hauled before. The cargo would be coal, and we would have it stockpiled for the big day. Maintenance schedules were checked carefully; the maximum number of planes would be on hand.

But what date should we choose? We decided on Easter Sunday, 1949—a day that we hoped would go down in aviation history.

I flew back and forth to Berlin several times that day, so that I was able to touch down at all of our bases to see what was going on. The spirit of competition between the bases was running high, but I thought it could go higher. At Fassberg, Colonel Jack Coulter, the commander there, bragged to me that he was ten per cent ahead of his quota.

“That’s nice,” I said, “but the guys at Celle are running twelve per cent over theirs.” Coulter vanished to spread the word to his squadrons.

At dawn on Easter morning we had reached the ten thousand mark. Every squadron was running ahead of its quotas; as the last plane was being unloaded, the statisticians added up their tallies and released them to the press: flights—1,398; tons—12,941.

This was the equivalent of six hundred cars of coal, and we had averaged almost one round trip for each of the 1,440 minutes in the twenty-four-hour period. And the record had been set without a single accident or incident. The worldwide headlines next day made me the happiest commander that ever wore a uniform.

I don’t know what the Russians thought about our Easter parade of airplanes that had hopped over their land blockade. But I will always believe that what my men did that day convinced the Russians that there was no point to be gained by continuing it. Just a month later—on May is, 1949—the barricades were lifted, and land traffic began to flow again.

The Berlin Airlift continued for three more months, stockpiling 300,000 tons of essentials just in case the Russians should start the blockade again. By September 1, 1949, the operation was over. Airlift statisticians showed that over 2,300,000 tons had been hauled into Berlin in 276,926 flights.