June 26, 2008

Berlin Airlift Inspired a Generation

At 6 a.m. on June 24, 1948, the Soviet Military Administration closed all road, rail and water access to and from West Berlin, in violation of agreements between the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union. West Berlin, totally surrounded by the Russian occupation zone, was blockaded.

The blockade wasn’t totally unexpected. Since late March, the Russians had been making threats about limiting access to Berlin. In Washington, there were concerns about another war, something that wiser heads in Europe believed would not happen.

Fortunately, the man in charge in Germany was one of the U.S. Army’s best and brightest generals — Lucius D. Clay. He warned Washington that anything less than a firm reaction would open all of Europe to the Russians, starting with Germany. Washington agreed.

Clay called on the U.S. Air Force to launch a massive airlift to supply the civilian population of Berlin, starting with the 100 or so C-47s available. The C-47 was a twin-engine propeller plane, with a cargo capacity of about 2.5 tons. Many of the planes had seen service during World War II, often as troop carriers. The British and French joined in with limited planes plus ground support, but most of the planes were American, with U.S. pilots at the controls. The United States soon added larger four-engine C-54s to the airlift fleet.

The airlift started on June 26, 1948, and was a sight to behold. Planes took off or landed every 90 seconds, with split-second timing, between three airports in West Berlin and five in West Germany. The German population turned out in force to watch a steady stream of planes fly in narrow air corridors, bringing food, clothes and coal to 2.5 million Berliners.

Clay later referred to the Russian action as "one of the most ruthless efforts in modern times to use mass starvation for political coercion." But that effort failed, and the airlift won. The Russians ended the blockade on May 12, 1949.

Sixty years later, Klaus Scharioth, German ambassador to the United States, recalled that "the men and women of the airlift, their helping hands and their humane hearts, inspired my generation. For us, the United States of America not only stood for freedom and democracy, but also for forgiveness and generosity."

The story of the Berlin Airlift, along with eight concrete sections of the Berlin Wall — the largest display of original Berlin Wall pieces outside of Germany — can be found in the Newseum’s Berlin Wall Gallery.

Gene Mater was a journalist in West Germany the day the blockade began.

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