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In Their Own Words: The Berlin Airlift Revisited


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.

Say, is this a C-54 cargo plane behind me?

Soon after the organization was founded, it raised enough money to achieve 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."

What are these called, Tim?

The airlift, in short, was remarkable. Here's the story:

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.

Shortly thereafter, 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 they believed it was only a matter of time before the US, France and England gave up their claim to Berlin.

But they were dead wrong. The Western powers saw this as a test of their strength against the Soviet's growing empire. Using the only available mode of transportation - air - the Allies started their counter-attack, and the Berlin Airlift began.

Planes would fly from 2 bases in West Germany and fly out of Berlin to Brunswick

For 321 days (that's a little over 10 months!), the US military (with British, French and German help) 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 many people lost their jobs. Berlin's only link to survival was through these Allied planes, which averaged 700 flights and 5,620 tons per day!

Flour, canned goods, cheese, and even vegetables were airlifted into Berlin

On May 12, 1949, at one minute past midnight, the barricades were lifted at last. 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."

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! Another BHAF volunteer, Frank, showed us around too - we needed all the help we could get!

Since the airlift, Tim has 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 enormous costs in both money and resources to America and its allied countries. For Bill, the experience was invaluable: 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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