The Berlin Airlift
Berlin was the center of a showdown between Russia and the Western powers. Both the city and the German nation had been divided into four “zones” with a military government from the U.S., Britain, France and Russia in each zone. These were intended to be temporary institutions until a new national government could be built. Berlin was 400 miles inside the Soviet occupied part of Germany.
But soon after the war ended, it was apparent that Russia wanted a buffer between itself and the rest of Europe. It annexed massive territories, swallowing formerly independent nations into the new Soviet Union. Then it set up puppet Communist governments in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary. Russian leader Joseph Stalin wanted to force his former allies out of all of Germany and set up a Communist government there, too.
The key to the plan was Berlin and its two million hungry people. Most of West Berlin’s food and fuel supplies were imported from the west by trucks, barges and trains. In June 1948, Stalin effectively shut off all three land-based routes. President Harry S. Truman was determined that the Allies would never leave Berlin. Stalin had to be stopped. U.S. and allied military commanders started making plans to send troops to open the blockade. But a limited number of allied troops faced 300,000 to 400,000 Soviet soldiers in Germany. The U.S. sent B-29 Superfortress bombers to bases in Great Britain. Russia didn’t know whether or not they had atomic bombs on board.
Historians now say that at no time in post-World War II history – with the exception of the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962 – has the world been closer to World War III than it was during the period from June 25 through late July, 1948.
Truman ruled out using ground troops for fear of another world war. So, the American military governor in Germany, Gen. Lucius Clay, was left with only one option – airlifting supplies to Berlin through three air corridors that had been set up after the war. “I may be the craziest man in the world,” he told the German mayor Berlin, “but I am going to try the experiment of feeding this city by air.”
In the American sector of Germany, the Air Force began organizing under Gen. Curtis LeMay. Berlin officials estimated that the city could get by with 4,500 tons of supplies a day – 646 tons of flour and wheat, 125 tons of cereal, 64 tons of fat, 109 tons of meat and fish, 180 tons of dehydrated potatoes, 180 tons of sugar, 11 tons of coffee, 19 tons of powdered milk, 5 tons of whole milk for children, 3 tons of fresh yeast for baking, 144 tons of dehydrated vegetables, 38 tons of salt, and 10 tons of cheese. Then there were coal and liquid fuel needs.
Jim Chenault was one of the pilots who flew the C-47 and C-54 cargo planes that were the main airplanes used in the Berlin Airlift. He says that eventually the operation became very sophisticated. “It might be 18 hours that you’re on duty before you got to go back to bed,” Jim says. “Which was about all we did, was sleep, and eat, and fly. For three months I never had a day off. It was a hard job, but I was flying and I enjoyed it.”
Food was the main priority followed by coal. Quartermaster units were directed to buy supplies from wherever they could. Some of the food and fuel came from local European sources. But the economies of western Europe were still struggling. So, much of the food and other material came from relief supplies steaming across the Atlantic from American farmers and factories.
Ships were unloaded and supplies were put on Army trucks that usually traveled directly to the airbases in the western zones in Germany. Controllers made sure there was always a steady stream of trucks ready to load the planes. Once they were loaded, planes were coordinated so that a new plane landed in Berlin every three minutes. They taxied to unloading docks. Local Germans loaded and unloaded the planes by hand. Each worker was expected to load one ton per hour. The food was distributed to warehouses across the city. Meanwhile, the pilots and crew took a break at a snack wagon that pulled up to them, got the latest weather report and got back on the plane when it was reloaded.
The Airlift worked. After a slow buildup, the Air Force was delivering over 6,000 tons of supplies every day by the spring of 1949. The effort had gone on longer than anyone had expected, 16 months. In that time, the German people in the western zones had organized their own governments, rejecting Communist party influences.
Stalin gave up.
In May 1949, the USSR announced they were lifting the land blockades. The ability of the American farmer to produce abundant food, and the ability of the U.S. military to deliver it to Berlin had won the first battle in the Cold War.