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Reader submission: Remembering the Berlin Airlift

This guest post by Carol Arndt Reynolds is a response to the editorial in our weekly German-language electronic newsletter, Deutschland-Nachrichten. To learn more and subscribe, click here.

From 1947 through the end of 1948 my family lived in Berlin, where my father was assigned to the U.S. Office of Military Government.  I was only two years old at that time, so I have no personal recollection of our life in Berlin or of the Airlift in particular.  In later years, however, I have read a number of books on the subject of the Berlin Airlift; it is based on my reading that I offer my response to the Deutschland-Nachrichten editorial regarding the Berlin Airlift.

I think it is important, when considering the impressive amounts of food and fuel delivered during the Berlin Airlift, to remember that the Allies did not do this alone.  The Allies were in one instance influenced by, and in other instances assisted by, German people.

© dpa / picture-alliance

Let me start with the German children who inspired pilot Gail Halvorsen.  As has been recounted, Halvorsen had spent some off-duty time at Tempelhof Airport on July 17, 1948. While recording movies with his hand-held camera, he began to interact with German children who were there to watch the airplanes land.  In later years Halvorsen wrote that he saw in the eyes of these children knowledge they should not have had at their young ages – knowledge of the difficulties and cruelties brought on by war. Halvorsen impulsively took out two sticks of chewing gum that he had in his pocket.  He handed them to two nearby children and watched as the children carefully divided the gum into as many pieces as possible so that other children could share this unexpected treat. There was no disagreement or fighting among the children. It was this behavior and attitude shown by the children that prompted Halvorsen to tell them that he would return during his next flight and drop candy and gum for them.  Halvorsen’s drops to the children eventually came to the attention of General Tunner, who gave his approval and named these candy drops by Halvorsen and other pilots “Operation Little Vittels”.

© dpa / picture-alliance

There are a number of examples of cooperation between Germans and Allies in Berlin at that time; I will list three.

  • At the height of the Airlift’s efficiency, planes loaded with food and fuel were landing every 3 minutes.  The planes were unloaded mostly by German civilians in return for extra rations.
  • As winter approached there was a need to expand the Airlift operation so that additional fuel could be flown in to provide heat.  More aircraft were requested and provided. General Tunner hired ex-Luftwaffe ground crews to provide the needed maintenance and repairs.
  • At first there were only three runways available for landing of the heavy cargo planes – two at Tempelhof Airport and one at Gatow.  It was decided that greater capacity was needed to handle landings. France agreed to build a new, larger airport in its zone near Lake Tegel.  French military engineers were put in charge of German construction crews. Incredibly, the French engineers and the crews of largely female workers who often worked day and night completed the new airport in 90 days.

In her Deutschland-Nachrichten newsletter, Katica Steubl refers to the necessary forgiveness and unprecedented humanity that allowed for the success of the Berlin Airlift.  To those qualities, I would add two others – trust and cooperation. These qualities would not have existed initially, as individual Germans and Americans began to work next to people who had been “the enemy” only months earlier.  Trust and cooperation would have developed over time.

I read this article with tears in my eyes.  The people who worked together to make the Berlin Airlift possible provided us with an example of what mankind – at its best – is capable of.  Truly, their example should never be forgotten.

– Carol Arndt Reynolds

© dpa / picture-alliance

2 Replies to “Reader submission: Remembering the Berlin Airlift”

  1. Dave Kisor

    For those who would like to know more about this incredible event, I highly recommend Andrei Cherney’s book, “The Candy Bombers: the untold story of the Berlin Airlift and America’s finest hour.”

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