A superhuman effort to supply Berlin

Herald Union file

American and British militaries sprang into action following the Soviet blockade of West Berlin by road, rail and barge in June 1948 to supply 2 million Berliners with essential supplies, such as food and coal.

The U.S. Army had concluded months earlier that supplying Berlin solely by air would be impossible, according to Herald Union archive reports. U.S. forces had been brought home and only about 100 Douglas C-47s remained in Europe. In the weeks leading up to the blockade, the U.S. military governor in Germany, Gen. Lucius D. Clay, reevaluated the situation and came to the same conclusion, according to the report. “We can maintain our own people indefinitely,” he cabled Washington on June 13, “but not the German people if rail transport is severed.”

The blockade began just two weeks later. Clay repeatedly requested permission to force the issue by sending an armed convoy across the hundred miles of Soviet-occupied Germany, the report said. But he was denied. British Commander Sir Brian Robertson proposed an alternative, according to reports; supply the city by air.

U.S. and British forces immediately moved more aircraft into Germany from overseas, including dozens of C-54 Skymasters, which could carry 10 tons each, by the summer and 300 by October. The effort was dubbed “Operation Vittles” by the U.S. military and “Operation Plainfare” by the British.
No one believed airplanes could sustain the city for more than a few weeks, the report said. Officials involved hoped that a diplomatic agreement would be reached quickly that would restore use of land routes. No one could have predicted the operation would go on through the winter and well into the following year.

The operation was compared in news reports to a conveyor belt, with constant movement going to and from Berlin through three air corridors, one of them connecting to Wiesbaden. Americans flew into Berlin via the southern corridor, while British and Americans flying coal from British air bases used the shorter northern corridor. Outbound flights used the central corridor. The coordination of routes was so important because planes were taking off every three minutes, 24 hours a day. The nonstop flying effort delivered thousands of tons of food, medicine and coal every day. By the end, more than 2.3 million tons were airlifted by the allies, 326,137 of that from Wiesbaden.

One pilot, Ken Herman, who flew 190 missions, reported in a news report that if the weather was good, “you could see as many as six airplanes in front of you. Once you entered the corridor, there was no turning back. You went to Berlin.” And if a pilot missed his approach in Berlin, he had to take his cargo back to where he came from.

Retired Air Force Col. Gail Halvorsen, who was stationed in Wiesbaden and came to be known as the Candy Bomber, credited Gen. William Tunner with saving lives by keeping the constant flow of aircraft spaced out enough to allow for ultimate efficiency and safety, given the sheer magnitude of the airlift.

The European Air Transport Service, based in Wiesbaden, served as a hub in support of the Berlin Airlift with round-the-clock flights to Tempelhof Airport in West Berlin. The streets on Clay Kaserne, formerly known as Wiesbaden Air Base, were later named after the 31 American aircrew members who gave their lives during the airlift. A memorial was erected in June of this year in honor of the 70th anniversary of their deaths. It stands at the roundabout at the edge of Newman Village.