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Berlin Airlift



In Their Own Words: The Berlin Airlift Revisited

Say, is this a C-54 cargo plane behind me?
The clock was ticking. I was supposed to meet Tim at 11:30 in south Brooklyn, but I knew I was going to be late. It was after 11 and I was stuck in stop-and-go traffic along Flatbush Ave, miles away from Floyd Bennett Airfield (my ultimate destination), and cab drivers kept cutting me off! To top it all off, Neda was missing in action. She was supposedly catching the subway from Manhattan to Brooklyn, but I hadn't heard from her in a while and was starting to worry. I kept my fingers crossed and hoped she knew where she was going.

When I finally spotted a sign for the Airfield, my spirits were lifted. At last! Grabbing a camera, notebook, pen and backpack, I caught my breath and made my way inside Hangar B. My mission? To uncover the story of the Berlin Airlift from the experts.

Tim Chopp may not have participated in the Airlift, but he's certainly working hard to keep its history alive. As President and Founder of the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation (BAHF), he has done little else in the past 12 years. "I always wanted to do something for it," he tells me. At age seven, he developed an interest in the C-54 plane, the kind used in the Airlift, and kept up it up for many years. "But it wasn't until '88 when my mother died suddenly that I got a wake-up call to get going. I realized the clock was ticking." Two months later, the BAHF was founded.


Help! Burberry Scarves Are Taking Over!

After a great deal of fundraising and networking, the BAHF achieved its first major goal - it purchased a C-54 plane for $125,000! And not just any old C-54 -- this was one of over 300 that participated in the Airlift. Tim and other BAHF volunteers restored and converted it into a flying museum, complete with displays and photographs of the Airlift. So when they're not flying all over the country, they're busy maintaining and preserving this magnificent plane, which they named "Spirit of Freedom."

Why does Tim care? What's his fascination with the Airlift? "Many things," he explains. "From a patriotic side, here we are helping a country that we were bombing a few years earlier so that we could keep a city [Berlin] alive and free. Also, the massive statistics of the operation fascinate me."

'What are these called, Tim?'  'Er…propellers, Daph.'  'Oh, I knew that.'
That operation, dubbed "Vittles" by the US military, was indeed remarkable. For 321 days, the US military (with British, French and German support) kept two million Berliners alive by flying in 2,323,738 tons of food, fuel, machinery and other supplies. The city had no electricity, gas, light, heat or radio. Its sewers were cut off, factories were closed and unemployment rose drastically. Berlin's only link to survival was through the Allied planes, which averaged 700 flights and 5,620 tons per day!

Planes would fly from 2 bases in West Germany and fly out of Berlin to Brunswick
The obvious questions remain: Who cut Berlin off from the rest of the world? And why? Well, the Soviets did, simply because they thought they could. When World War II ended, the Allied powers (US, Britain, France and the Soviet Union) divided Germany into four sections that each one controlled. The Soviet's section was in the eastern part of the country and it included Berlin. But because Berlin was a city of utmost importance, it was also divided into four sections.

Things would have worked out well had the Allied powers been able to work together. But even as the war was coming to an end, the Soviet Union and the other three countries began parting ways. The reason? Communism. During that time, the Allies had all agreed upon free military traffic to the occupied zones of Berlin. But by 1948, when the Airlift started, the Soviets decided that they wanted to get rid of the British, American and French influence in the city. Using the excuse that they needed to halt train traffic into West Berlin because of "technical difficulties," the Soviets began the blockade. At 6 a.m. on June 26, 1948, all rail, road and water traffic was cut off and the communists believed it was only a matter of time before the US, France and England gave up their claim to Berlin.

They were dead wrong. The Western powers saw this as a test of their strength against the Soviet's rapidly expanding empire. Giving up claims to Berlin, they thought, would mean the beginning of communist take-over in Europe. Using the only available mode of transportation - air - the Berlin Airlift began.

Flour, canned goods, cheese and even vegetables were airlifted into Berlin
For Tim, acquiring the "Spirit of Freedom" was the best way to retell the story. After all, what better symbolizes the Airlift than a C-54 cargo plane? With Neda safely by my side (she made it!), the three of us toured the inside, took photos and found out more than I'll ever need to know about spark plugs, brake pads and tires!

We met another BAHF volunteer, Frank, who told us that "I saw the plane at the airport a number of times, and curiosity got the better of me, so I knocked on the door and asked if they needed any help." Tim handed him some tools and put him to work.

Matthew, Tim's son, also volunteers. He said he learned about the Airlift in school, but never grasped its full meaning until he went to Europe with BAHF to participate in the 50th anniversary of the Airlift. "To actually be there, to hear the veterans' first-hand stories, to imagine what it was like. It came alive to me when I went to Europe."

He's right of course. History comes alive when you can hear stories, see pictures and meet the right people. With that in mind - and with Tim's help - we set off to Dover, Delaware, where a member of BAVA (Berlin Airlift Veterans' Association) lived.

A few days later, we met Bill Voigt at - where else? - another airfield, the Dover Air Force Base. But this wasn't your run-of-the-mill Air Force Base, for it housed the Air Mobility Command Museum, which in turn contained a C-54 from the Berlin Airlift. And - get this - the C-54 on display was the exact same plane Bill used to fly during the Airlift! "It was an accident that the plane ended up here," Bill explains. "It was used by the FBI Academy for a few years. After it came here, I saw the tail number and checked my records and I knew it was my plane."

Like Tim, Bill works to keep history alive by volunteering at the museum. When his plane arrived, it was in bad shape and needed to be restored before it could be displayed. "It took us five years to restore it, including two years scraping off paint with razorblades." What?! Razorblades? "It was a labor of love. You couldn't pay anyone enough money to scrape paint off a plane."

He's probably right. His dedication speaks volumes about how he feels towards the Airlift. As a pilot, he flew bags of coal into Berlin between August 1948 and January 1949. "When we first started flying, it was a rodeo, with every man for himself. Everybody was trying to land, then take-off again." Crews landed in Berlin, then parked, shut-off engines, went to the snack bar and then walked to Operations to fill out their return clearances.

Operation 'Little Vittles' dropped chocolates over Berlin for kids. Hershey's anyone?
But after Maj. Gen. William Tunner took over command, he restructured the operation by ordering that no crewmember could leave the side of his aircraft while workers unloaded the cargo. Bill remembers that well. "Rule was, you never got further away from your plane than the wingtips. Everything you needed - weather report, return clearance, even a mobile snack bar - came to your plane." According to official reports, turn-around time was cut to thirty minutes.

That, in essence, explains the success of the airlift. As it peaked in efficiency, planes flew around the clock, dropping off 6,000 tons (or more) of supplies everyday into Berlin. They took off and landed every few minutes and a whole workforce designed to support their efforts was created.

Impressive as this all sounds, they don't come close to the record numbers attained on April 16, 1949. On that date, Maj. Gen. Tunner decided to set an all-out goal. Dubbed "Easter Parade," the US and British forces flew 1,398 missions and carried 12,941 tons of supplies. This means that one aircraft landed in Berlin every 63 seconds! Some historians consider this to be the turning point, because it destroyed any remaining Soviet resolve to continue the blockade. US and Britain, it seemed, would keep up the airlift forever.

On May 12, 1949, at one minute past midnight, the barricades were lifted. The Airlift, however, continued until September 30, just in case. Bill had returned home by then, but he watched the events unfold. For him, the Airlift was about survival. "We kept two million people eating and half-way warm. The Berliners were miserable. They survived. It was bitterly cold that winter."

Since then, he's been back to Berlin a few times. "I've been back for the 40th and 50th anniversaries. The Berliners were really nice. They loved us, and they even pass it onto the kids. They remember us."

It would be a hard mission to forget. For ten months, Berliners were kept alive at extraordinary costs and resources to America and its allies. But many cynics dismiss the Airlift as part of the US's larger agenda to contain communism. They argue that the US didn't care for the people as much as it wanted to "beat" the Soviet Union and show the world it was bigger, better, stronger. For Bill, though, the lessons of the Berlin Airlift are much less about world politics. It taught him "to look out for people, to help those who can't help themselves."

It's a lesson still worth remembering.


Please email me at: daphne@ustrek.org


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