Fifty Years Ago It Happened – Memories of the Berlin Airlift 50th Anniversary Reunion

How many remember events of 50 years past? Younger people may think that’s pre-historic, but for many past that age, vivid memories remain. Since my working life was linked with aircraft, flying activities are stored on my mind’s hard drive.

The entire history of powered flight is less than 100 years old. The Wright brothers made the first flight on Dec. 17, 1903, the same year the US received permission to dig the Panama canal, the same year Spokane boasted of having 7 millionaires. From this beginning to the landing of a man on the moon on July 16th, 1969 many “firsts” have been accomplished. The first international flight was in 1909 when a Frenchman took 30 minutes to fly from France to England. The first time an aircraft dropped bombs on a city was 1914, the city Mazatlan, Mexico. My wife June, and I both had started school before Lindbergh made his famous 1927 flight.  In 1944 Germany developed and flew the first jet aircraft. Other events include the first “round the world” non-stop flight in March 1949. A B-50 bomber named “Lucky Lady 2” accomplished this by refueling in the air four times, flying 94 hours, then landing at Carswell, AFB, Texas.On 9 March 1945, 300 US B-29 bombers destroyed sixteen square miles, or one quarter, of Tokyo Japan inthe war resulting from Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor. As part of our contribution to the war against “Der Fuehrer” (Adolph Hitler) on 18 March 1945, 1250 allied bombers escorted by 670 fighter aircraft pounded Berlin, Germany.

The gigantic 6 engine B-36 bomber which we used to fly at Fairchild made its first test flight. on the 8th of August 1946. When 4 jet engines were added in 1949, it became the world’s first 10-engined aircraft. The first eight-engined all-jet still active B-52 bomber rolled out of Boeing’s hangar in 1954.

But in 1948-1949 it was the Berlin Airlift, our nation’s first military defeat of Russia’s communism, that required my efforts and attention.  All of Germany was divided following WW11, with the four allies each given a portion to oversee and manage.  The capitol city of Berlin, in the Russian sector, was also divided so that each of the allies controlled a sector. In May 1948, Russia decided they did not want the other allies to have free access to the capitol, so they closed all road, rail and canal transportation into the city.  No food, medical supplies, coal or other necessities were allowed in or out.  Other hardships tormented the Berliners, such as no electricity or water for varying periods-at unannounced times.  To combat this action France, England and the US decided to provide humanitarian aid to the Berliners by supplying the 2.5 million people by air. Even though we were bombing them only 3 years earlier during the war now it was up to us to help them survive. This was the activity I was engaged in from Sept 1948 to the end of March 1949, flying every necessity into the city.

We flew in coal, grain, food, fuel, medical supplies, machinery and other needed items.  It was a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week operation. At times a loaded cargo aircraft landed in Berlin every 2-3 minutes, ‘round the clock. From start to finish, there were 277,569 flight into Berlin, delivering 2.4 million tons of necessaries. There were 70 major and 56 minor accidents, with 31 US Airmen, 39 British and 13 Germans losing their lives.

May 1999, was the 50th anniversary of the ending of this project. The German government, both city and national, working through the German Luftbrucke Chapter of the Airlift Tanker Association and the US Berlin Airlift Veterans Association, (BAVA) invited those involved to return and “re-see” the area and relive those days with the German people.  Son Douglas, grandson Travis and I flew to Germany on the 4th of May and spent 13 days seeing the old/new sights.  Our flight was via. Minneapolis, Minn. to Amsterdam, Holland, to Hanover, in northern Germany, then by bus to Celle, my last German duty station.  We spent several days at Celle with about 85 others and saw our old field, now being used by a German Attack Helicopter squadron. We had a driving tour of the base and the old runway, now in disrepair with grass and weeds growing alongside and through the cracks. Many of the old hangers and support buildings are in “caretaker” status, closed but being maintained.

A highlight here was our trip to and our tour of the former concentration camp, Bergen Belsen, one of Hitler’s 1634 concentration camps. It was here Ann Frank and her sister died. When it was liberated by the English in early 1945, there were 25,000 dead bodies, most caused by starvation. Those people still living were in such poor shape they weren’t able to bury the dead.  At the memorial, there are numerous large dirt mounds where mass burials took place with placards reading, “Here lie (200, 500, 1,000 or 2,000) unidentified persons”.

Our next stay was several days in Berlin, where we met another 200 of our tour mates.  Here we had an excellent city tour. The infamous 150KM long (91 mile), 12 ft high wall that divided the city is now gone, except for a couple short sections being kept as memorials. A few of the 300 guard towers used with the wall have been kept. Most are gone.

The Brandenburg gate, a famous landmark, is open again with heavy traffic day and night going through it. While here we had a tour of the nearby city of Potsdam. We saw the villa where the Mr.’s Truman, Churchill and Stalin decided the final fate of the defeated Germany near the end of the war.  Highlights of our Berlin time were the festivities held in our honor at the Olympic Arena, a 70,000 seat arena built by Adolph Hitler for the 1936 Olympics. This occasion was widely advertised with radio and TV spots and posters displayed around the city. 50,000 Berliners were expected to be in attendance.  However this was one of our worst days weather wise with heavy rain showers and cold wind making it very disagreeable, so attendance was between 25 and 30,000.

It was an electrifying moment when I and 250 other Airlift Veterans marched in through the activities gate, wearing blue baseball type caps identifying us and seeing ourselves on three large billboard-sized TV screens.  The cheers and hand clapping were gratifying recognition of what we had done.  We were treated to an excellent band-marching and playing program, with seven bands participating separately and together.  Several drill teams also performed.  The activities started at 8PM and ended after midnight with a terrific 30 minute fireworks display. I’ve always thought our July 4th displays were great, but this was one of the best.

The last several days we spent in Frankfurt, with a side tour to Wiesbaden.  Now “my” field at Wiesbaden is also closed.  Our Army maintains a small detachment of medical evacuation helicopters there, but the runway shows the effect of little use with grass between the cracks etc.  Our tour of the new airport and terminal building in Frankfurt was amazing. T hey boast it is one of the largest and most modern in the world, built to handle many planes at a time. Very up to date.

When visiting these old haunts, I had the feeling several times of living the beginning of the old war time movie “12 O’clock High”, the one starring Gregory Peck depicting the activities at a wartime bomber base. In this a returning officer rides his bicycle to the now deserted field. He closes his eyes and can soon hear the throbbing of aircraft engines.  Soon his vision focuses and aircraft and people appear in his mind taking him back those many years.  For me to see the field standing empty and so quiet, when 50 years ago it was so “hustle-bustle” with aircraft moving, flying, landing, truck loads of coal, flour, dehydrated foods, milk etc. people moving in all directions looking for an empty aircraft to fill. It really dusted off the cob-webs from many memories. What a change.

Our flight home was uneventful. (the way you want them!) The end to a great tour. But I join my grandson in expressing the one disappointment of the entire trip. We did not have time to eat at the LARGEST MCDONALD’S IN THE WORLD, the one in the new airport terminal building at Frankfurt.  It boasts a seating capacity of 550.

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