US transport planes loading cargo for Berlin

June 26th Marks the 50th Anniversary of the Berlin Airlift

Fifty years ago, on June 26, 1948, the United States, Britain, and France launched an emergency airlift to provide food and fuel to over 2.5 million German citizens living in the Western Zones of Berlin. The city, partitioned at the end of the war, was entirely within the former East Germany, a Russian proxy.

As the Cold War heated up, Stalin made a determined effort to drive the West out of Berlin with a complete blockade of the city. All land routes were shut down, including the all-important railroad line into the now besieged city. The blockade was just one step short of entering into full battle with the United States, at that time the world's only nuclear state.

The US Air Force vowed to break the blockade and began an unending air bridge into the city. Under the command of Combined Airlift Task Force Commander Gen. William Tunner, 278,228 missions were flown. Aircraft participating from the United States included 330 C-54 Skymasters, hundreds of C-47s, five C-82s, one C-74, and one C-97. The airlift, called "Operation Vittles" by the Americans and "Plain Fare" by the British, delivered more than 2.3 million tons of food, coal, and supplies over the following 15 months. British planes included Dakotas, Yorks, and later on Hastings. Australian, New Zealand, and South African flight crews flew British Royal Air Force planes during the operation as well.

The flights were directed into Tempelhof (in the US zone) and Gatow (in British control). Congestion caused the allies to build a third airfield in the midst of the blockade, literally flying in equipment, supplies, and people needed to construct it. This new airport was named Tegel (in the French sector) and today it serves as Berlin's main airport.

The high point of the airlift came on April 6, 1949 when the participating countries mounted what was known as the "Easter Parade." Throughout the "parade," an average of one plane a minute landed in Berlin. In all, 12,940 short tons were delivered in this period alone. It was enough, however, to demonstrate to Stalin that the continued siege was fruitless. Just a month later, the blockade ended. Stalin had conceded defeat. The airlift would continue until September 30, 1949, until stability and a full understanding had been reached with the Russians.

One Berlin Airlift pilot, retired Col. Gail Halvorsen, was nicknamed the "Candy Bomber" for coming up with the idea of dropping chewing gum and chocolate to Berlin's children as the planes came in for a landing. Halvorsen, then a First Lieutenant, one day came up with the idea when he saw the kids along the airport perimeter road watching the planes come in. He fashioned a few candy bags to tiny parachutes for the next flight. Word spread fast and his small gesture soon came to characterize the Americans in the hearts of Berliners. Made official as Operation "Little Vittles," it remains one of the highpoints of the mission for many of those involved.

Before it was over, 84 military servicemen and civilian employees from Germany, England, France and the United States perished. Among them were 31 Americans who died, the cost of flying day and night in all weather during the Berlin Airlift.

The names of those who lost their life during the Berlin Airlift follow:
  • 1st Lt George B. Smith, Tuscaloosa, Alabama
  • 1st Lt Leland V. Williams, Abilene, Texas
  • Mr Karl V. Hagen, New York, New York
  • 1st Lt Charles H. King, Britton, South Dakota
  • 1st Lt Robert W. Stuber, Arlington, California
  • Major Edwin C. Diltz, Fayetteville, Texas
  • Captain Willian R. Howard, Gunnison, Mississippi
  • Captain Joel M. deVolentine, Miami, Florida
  • 1st Lt William T. Lucas, Wilson, North Carolina
  • PFC Johnny T. Orms, Rhein-Main Air Base
  • Captain James A. Vaughan, New Haven, Connecticut
  • 1st Lt Eugene S. Erickson, Collinsville, Illinois
  • Sgt Richard Winter, Seattle, Washington
  • Captain Billy E. Phelps, Long Beach, California
  • 1st Lt Willis F. Hargis, Nacogdoches, Texas
  • TSgt Lloyd C. Wells, San Antonio, Texas
  • AD/3 Harry R. Crites, Jr., Lafayette, Indiana
  • 1st Lt Richard M. Wurgel, Union City, New Jersey
  • 1st Lt Lowell A. Wheaton, Jr., Corpus Christi, Texas
  • Captain William A. Rathgeber, Portland, Oregon
  • Sgt Bernard J. Watkins, Lafayette, Indiana
  • Cpl Norbert H. Theis, Cunningham, Kansas
  • PFC Ronald E. Stone, Mt. Sterling, Kentucky
  • 1st Lt Ralph H. Boyd, Fort Worth, Texas
  • 1st Lt Craig B. Ladd, Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • TSgt Charles L. Putnam, Colorado Springs, Colorado
  • 1st Lt Robert P. Weaver, Fort Wayne, Indiana
  • 1st Lt Royce C. Stephens, San Antonio, Texas
  • 1st Lt Robert C. von Luehrte, Covington, Kentucky
  • 2nd Lt Donald J. Leemon, Green Bay, Wisconsin
  • TSgt Herbert F. Heinig, Fort Wayne, Indiana