Fifty years later, the Berlin Airlift remains the triumph of grit without glamour.
The first great battle of the Cold War was won by the pilots of clunky transport planes, not hotshot fighter jocks, by the mechanics who kept the planes flying, by the air traffic controllers who brought them through the Soviet blockade, by the Germans and "displaced persons" who loaded and unloaded the planes, and by the people of the city, who built and repaired airstrips with wartime rubble.
In Berlin this week, Americans, British, French and Germans begin a golden anniversary celebration that will last most of the next year. The Soviet blockade began June 24, 1948, and ended May 12, 1949. Veterans of the airlift will be honored from Tempelhof Airfield to Arlington National Cemetery.
The vets in their youth were ordinary men and women with true grit, not superheroes touched with the right stuff. And they still have the gung-ho work ethic they had when the Soviets clamped down on Berlin. They had a job to do, and they did it.
Instead of the bombs and rockets that had reduced Berlin to rubble in World War II, the airlift planes hauled coal, flour, salt, milk and diapers.
"I flew 116 trips and we never flew anything but coal," says Bill Voigt, 77, a former airlift pilot who grew up in Baltimore and Salisbury. "After we finished two trips we looked like coal miners."
He and the other "peasants" of the air helped feed and light and heat a city of 2,250,000. They won the first round of the Cold War, a victory that foreshadowed the crumbling of the entire Soviet empire four decades later, when once again in Berlin the wall between East and West was breached.
"It's something to be proud of, when you can say you saved people's lives instead of killing them," says Fred "Joe" Hall, 69, of Parkville, program director for the Berlin Airlift Veterans Association. He was 18 when he enlisted in the Air Force, less than 20 when he was a mechanic and flight engineer on the airlift.
"My kids say I tell them more about the airlift than anything else," says Hall, whose accent still echoes from East Baltimore. "That's why," he says. "You kept people free. You saved their lives."
Fred Hall and a dozen other airlift vets returned to Berlin this week in an airlift-type C-54 transport called the Spirit of Freedom to join in the celebration of the lifting of the blockade by the Soviets 49 years ago today.
On Thursday, at Berlin's Tempelhof Airfield, President Clinton and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl will mark the anniversary by christening a modern C-17 airlifter the Spirit of Berlin.
The airlift began when the allied coalition that had conquered the Nazis in World War II fractured on the fulcrum of Berlin. The United States, France, Great Britain and the Soviet Union occupied Germany, each governing a separate zone. Berlin was also split into four sectors. But it was 110 miles inside the Soviet zone, surrounded by Red Army soldiers.
On June 24, 1948, the Soviets cut off all land, water and rail traffic into the western sectors of Berlin. The ostensible reason was currency reform that threatened the East Berlin mark. But the Soviets also were uneasy about Western efforts to create a new Federal Republic of Germany, while the West believed the Soviets were trying to squeeze them out of Berlin.
Gen. Lucius Clay, U.S. commander-in-chief in Europe and military governor of Germany, immediately proclaimed the West would not be intimidated: "They cannot drive us out by any action short of war," he said.
On urgent instructions from the Secretary of the Army, Clay softened his stance. But he had already ordered Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay to marshal all his transport planes for an airlift to Berlin.
On June 25, 1948, eight Royal Air Force planes landed at a small field in the British sector of Berlin. The next day, 32 American C-47s flew 80 tons of supplies to Tempelhof Airfield. On June 27, President Harry Truman told the Cabinet: "We are staying -- period."
What the Berliners called the Luftbrucke, the Air Bridge, was being built. American airmen instantly gave it a less grand title: "Operation Vittles."
Voigt made his first airlift flight on Aug. 1, 1948, in a C-54 bearing coal. For Voigt, an unpretentious man with the nonchalant professionalism of Cary Grant playing a jewel thief, Berlin was no big deal. He flew where he was ordered to.
"I didn't hate the Germans. I didn't love 'em. I was indifferent," Voigt says. "It was a job to be done. They say: 'Fly coal.' I fly coal.
"There was nothing super or thrilling about it," he says. "If you're looking for somebody with thrills and spills, I am not him. Everything we did was routine."
Routine perhaps, but not without danger: 31 Americans, 39 Britons and 9 Germans died during the airlift; an official history records 70 major aircraft accidents.
Even Voigt had a spot of trouble. He lost engine power on two flights out of Berlin. Not that it bothered him.
"You got an engine out there sitting doing nothing. The prop is not turning and it's just ginning along," he recalls. "[But] empty like we were, it didn't make any difference one way or the other if we lost two [engines].
"We lost a little airspeed, but we pushed it up on the other three to keep our airspeed up ... then you land and they fix it."
Isn't this a little unnerving?
"No, come on, guy," he chides, then allows: "Yeah, for somebody not used to it. Yeah."
But he concedes that bringing a Skymaster into Tempelhof Airfield, set amid the buildings of central Berlin, could be tricky.
Fred Hall, who edits the airlift veteran newsletter now, agrees. He flew 21 missions into Berlin as a flight engineer.
"In the beginning it was rough, because you had to come in between two apartment buildings," he says. "People would actually wave to the crew as they were going past."
But, he says, after one plane ran into a building and killed the crew "and a bunch of civilians," the approach was moved. The new route was over a cemetery. "To give you extra-added incentive," he quips.
Planes landed at three-minute intervals when the airlift was at its peak. But Hall points out that few histories note the take-offs going on between the landings.
"So mathematically, every 90 seconds an aircraft was taking off or landing," he says.
"We did things over there that the FAA would have a heart attack over today," says James Gamble, 69, of Havre de Grace, who was a control tower operator at Tegel Airfield.
Tegel, until recently Berlin's main international airport, was built for the airlift from the wreckage of bombed-out buildings by Berliners, most of them volunteers, many of them women and a few children.
When the airfield opened, "They were still working on the runway," Gamble says. "We didn't have a tower. We had a little trailer with Plexiglas windows alongside the runway."
The airlift, nonetheless, tested modern radar-directed air traffic control.
"They weren't sure they could control aircraft with radar," says Gamble, who mostly used radio.
"Hey," he says, still showing the simple patriotism of the World War II generation, "I just did it.
"When you place your hand on the Holy Bible and the other on the flag of the United States and swear to uphold the Constitution and all lawful orders, you do."
Airlift planes came into Berlin through two 20-mile corridors over Soviet territory, on a northern leg to Tegel and Gatow, the British airfield, and on the southern leg to Tempelhof. Planes left via a third corridor in the middle.
The Soviets harassed them with intermittent zeal. One history records 733 incidents, from anti-aircraft fire to loose barrage balloons. Bill Voigt never encountered any problems.
"I was never harassed in the corridor," he says, "Never. Ever. Ever."
He saw plenty of Russian planes, he says, often in airfields below him, sometimes in the air, "out there at the edge of the corridor, maybe. Or a little closer. Occasionally I'd see one in front of us ... but they never bothered us."
Voigt joined the airlift just as the four-engine C-54 Skymasters became the workhorse aircraft. The lift started out with twin-engine C-47 "Gooney Birds," the military version of the DC-3. Despite the inelegant nickname, the Gooney Bird was "a )) pure perfect aircraft, economical, efficient and hard to wear out," says Michael D. Leister, the Westminster-born curator of Air Mobility Command Museum at Delaware's Dover Air Force Base. It was just not big enough for the airlift.
Planners figured airlift planes needed to carry 4,500 tons each day to keep Berlin alive. C-47s carried three tons; the four-engine C-54 could haul 10. Later, 25-ton C-74 Globemasters joined the effort.
The 4,500-ton goal was first met on the 49th day of the airlift. Just before the Soviets called off the blockade, airlift flyers set a record of 9,257 tons in 1,019 flights.
The grand total of cargo transported during the airlift's 15 months was 2,325,509.6 tons of food, coal and other supplies. Supplies were stockpiled for four months after the blockade ended. And the airlift set standards and patterns for air mobility that remained until the Gulf War.
The C-54 Bill Voigt flew into Berlin during the airlift is at the Dover museum. There are even original flight orders with his name as commander of the plane on the radioman's desk.
Voigt is retired at Dover, too. After 6,000 hours logged in C-54s, he's volunteered 2,500 hours at the museum. He slips easily into the plane's pilot's seat again.
"This is almost exactly what she looked like when we flew her," he says. "It was a pleasant airplane. It didn't have any bad habits. I never had any problem with it. Never. Ever. Ever."
"Even when I was his engineer he never had no problems," Fred Hall jokes.
But then, Voigt says, he liked all the airplanes he's ever flown. "Like finding a woman I didn't love," he says, "I never found an airplane I didn't love."
He doesn't fly anymore. He has trouble passing the physicals. But he still loves flying as much as he did the day he graduated from flying school.
"On March 25, 1943," he says. "Some of these days live forever. Some things you don't forget.
He misses flying, terribly.
"I really do," he sighs. "It gets into your soul. It got into mine. And I'll never get past that as long as I'm alive."
In a kind of aviator's mantra he offers the summation of his laconic professionalism.
"I never damaged an airplane, had an accident, hurt a passenger or lost a pound of cargo. Never did nothing."
Except help win the Cold War's first Battle of Berlin.
Berlin airlift events
"Berlin and the Cold War," a conference with National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, historian Stephen Ambrose and others, will be held 9 a.m.-5 p.m. June 11 at the National Archives, Washington
The Air Mobility Command Museum, Dover Air Force Base, Del., will mark the first U.S. airlift mission at 10 a.m. June 26 with a demonstration flight by a single modern C-5 Globemaster airlifter, carrying the equivalent of the whole day's cargo in 1948.
Berlin Airlift Veterans Association dedicates a maple tree and stone monument Sept. 29, at Arlington National Cemetery, during its annual reunion marking the official end of the airlift in September 1949.
Pub Date: 5/12/98