Sunday, September 17, 2017

Happy 70th Birthday to My USAF!

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Officially, the United States Air Force was born on September 18, 1947, but I'm acknowledging it one day early. To commemorate the Berlin Airlift -- the USAF's first major operation -- I wrote the following which originally appeared at Pajamas Media on June 28, 2008.


Those of us who, while serving in the United States Armed Forces, found ourselves stationed in the American sector of Berlin after World War II and before the demise of the Berlin Wall knew that our mere location was steeped in history and import. One needed only to take a look at the pre-1989 map of Germany to know that our strategic situation was different, typifying the word “unique” — a word which grated our nerves back then due to repetition.

Our presence in that place and at that time has a complex description but a simple meaning. We, along with the British and the French, occupied West Berlin while our Soviet counterparts occupied East Berlin. And, further, the entire city sat smack-dab in the middle of the USSR’s premiere satellite country, the German Democratic Republic, better known as East Germany. 

We all know that this state of affairs ended in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. How the situation came to be is even more complicated; however, the transcendent symbolism wasn’t. We were an entrenched island of freedom encircled by a sea of imposed and enforced communism — a sea of totalitarianism — and our position was a plum one, so plum that, sixty years ago this month, the Soviets tried to drive us out to make their hold on East Germany complete. We, however, were obliged to push back — not by any type of treaty obligation, but by our own values. Thus was the first Cold War battle — the Berlin Airlift of 1948 — engaged and won.

All too few Americans are familiar with the Berlin Airlift, but all USAF basic trainees, officer candidates, and USAFA cadets can count on being required to recount the details of the mission also known as Operation Vittles. This mission is considered the first major successful venture of the infant United States Air Force, which had been in existence only one year.


Upon the defeat of Hitler and his Germany, each of the victorious allies — the UK, the USA, and the USSR — saw fit to take a bit of Germany for itself in accordance with the Potsdam Agreement. Winston Churchill (later Clement Attlee), Harry Truman, and Josef Stalin decided that each participant, along with France, would administer its slab of Germany and, in addition, Germany’s capital city of Berlin would be divided further by the four powers as follows.

The UK, the USA, and France were to occupy the western part of Germany (later the Federal Republic of Germany or West Germany) while the USSR occupied the east. But because Berlin was so far east — Berlin is only 43 miles from the Oder-Neisse line, a.k.a. the Polish border — the city was entirely surrounded by the part of Germany that was occupied by the Soviet Union.
Stalin had plans for the defeated and prostrate Germany and wanted the entire country to pay for its ravaging of the USSR, but the British, French, and American presence interfered with those plans. The three Western powers might not have been all that sympathetic to Germany’s plight, but the state of the German economy was a drag on the rest of Europe and the powers did indeed fear the spread of communism, so something had to be done. Enter the Marshall Plan — aid from the USA to not only rebuild Germany, but potentially all of Europe — and the introduction of the deutschemark.

But this did not, of course, apply to Stalin’s Europe — the countries and areas where the Red Army had gained a foothold (the Warsaw Pact nations) — or at least Stalin would see to it that it wouldn’t apply. If Stalin couldn’t have all of Germany yet, he would have all of East Germany, to include the entirety of Berlin. To that end, he decided to set up the Berlin Blockade, allowing no land traffic to cross from West Germany to West Berlin. He would starve the Western powers out of the city, leaving the natives at the mercy of their new masters.

The Soviet ban of Allied land traffic in East Germany didn’t happen all at once; it started with simple harassment in March 1948 with the demand to inspect every train from the West and was brought into full effect by late June. At that point, the city was left with barely more that a month’s worth of subsistence and since the Western powers had never negotiated access rights to the three land routes to Berlin with the Soviets, there was nothing they could do about the ban. However, access to the three corresponding air lanes had been negotiated, making the West’s choice clear. They would supply the city by air, daring the Russians to break their agreement and shoot them down.

On June 26, 1948, the first two of many USAF cargo aircraft (C-47s and later C-54s and C-82s) made their way from Frankfurt Airport to Tempelhof Airport in West Berlin. The Royal Air Force followed suit the next day landing at RAF Gatow Airport in West Berlin’s British sector.

Eventually, the air forces of the rest of the English-speaking world — Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa — and France would join in the effort. On that first day 80 tons of food and supplies were delivered to Berliners; by September and with the joint effort, 225 C-54s carried more than 5,000 tons of food, milk, and coal per day to sustain the city.

As with every large-scale effort, lives were lost. Eighteen British servicemen, thirty-one of their American counterparts, twenty-one British civilians — passengers on a British aircraft harassed by the Soviet Air Force — and six German civilians lost their lives in accidents related to the airlift. In addition, the Soviets harassed many of the flights, but none of the Red Army’s air forces or air defense forces was able to hinder a single sortie.

The Allied effort to keep its portion of Berlin alive was a daily one and by the time the airlift ended in September 1949 the air forces had delivered more than 2.3 million tons of cargo — milk, meat, medicine, coal, and sundries. (The Soviets had yielded much earlier, lifting the blockade in May of that year.) During the 479-day effort, the deliveries had become so systematic that one aircraft touched down at Tempelhof every three minutes 24/7. Combining the traffic at Gatow and the quickly constructed Tegel Airport, a French endeavor, an Allied aircraft landed in West Berlin roughly every 62 seconds. This record was facilitated, and accidents reduced, by strict rules on instrument landing in all weather.
Twin Berlin Airlift memorials, Plätze der Luftbrücke, stand at Rhein Main Air Base in Frankfurt and at Tempelhof. (Subsequently, located at Tempelhof was Tempelhof Air Base; it is where West Berlin’s USAF contingent was based before the reunification of both city and state.)

“Service before self”

Emblematic of what the Berlin Airlift meant to the city is the legend of Gail Halvorsen, the Candy Bomber.

Halvorsen, then a lieutenant and a C-47/54 pilot, would make his round-trip sortie from Rhein-Main Air Base to Tempelhof. At Tempelhof, the 27-year-old would notice the bedraggled and thin children loitering outside of the airport. He got the idea to give them a special treat, using a handkerchief to wrap candy rations, fitting the bundle with a parachute and instructing his loadmaster to drop the treasure from his aircraft on his way into the city. He told the children to look for him to deliver his cargo; they would know his aircraft because he would wiggle his wings.

Soon his cohorts joined him in the practice and the unofficial act of kindness and diplomacy — later supplied by private U.S. organizations like the National Confectioners Association — became known as Operation Little Vittles.

Halvorsen, who retired from the USAF at the rank of colonel, is now 87 and a revered figure in Germany.

Goodbye, Tempelhof

As a result of the reunification, Berlin found itself with an excess of airports, with Schönefeld (which served East Berlin), Gatow, Tegel (which was built during the airlift), and Tempelhof. Gatow is now being utilized by the Bundeswehr but is closed to air traffic and Tegel is scheduled to be closed in 2012. With all civil air traffic scheduled to take off and land at Schönefeld — set to be renamed Berlin-Brandenburg International Airport — this left Berliners in a quandary about Tempelhof. Should it be preserved for its historical and sentimental significance? Or should the obsolescent reminder of Germany’s dark past and Western magnanimity which costs the financially ailing city 15 million dollars per year be closed and dismantled? Legally, 25% of registered voters must vote in the affirmative for the non-binding referendum to pass. Only 21% of that number voted to save the airport, probably dooming the airport to closure before the end of the year. (There’s still a sliver of hope.)

For me it’s like reading about a plebiscite on whether an old friend should be euthanized; for four years I was a part of that USAF contingent stationed and housed at Tempelhof. John Rosenthal sees the partially eagle-shaped building as a monument to “the darkest period in Germany’s and Europe’s history.” Perhaps. However, it became a place in which a fully racially and ethnically integrated uniformed service of the freest nation on Earth set itself down to defend Europe from further and equally lethal tyranny. More personally, it is the site of a lot of good memories. Simply put, it was my home.

World opinion and Halvorsen’s 21st-century legacy

Could the U.S. and its allies mount a similar rescue in this century? Certainly, though the reaction of recipients and the rest of the world might be starkly different in this different generation.

Of late the world has been beset by natural disasters which have yielded casualties in staggering numbers. The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in the Indian Ocean (225,000+ deaths in eleven countries) and the 2008 Myanmar cyclone (133,000 dead/missing so far) required the type of emergency aid which only the United States military has the training and the resources to dispense.

These recipient governments, however, have seemed reticent about the nearness of the United States military since the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Myanmar’s military junta has seemed more willing to risk the deaths of potential millions of the country’s citizens — due to the scourges that logically follow a cyclone in a developing country saddled with a dictatorship — rather than risk invasion and overthrow by the U.S., no matter how unlikely and illogical such an invasion might seem to Americans. Additionally, the junta understands the quite logical idea that appearing weak might lead to a citizen-led overthrow. That weakness would be revealed by the Americans, who can provide what the junta cannot.

And tangential to the perception that the proximity to the U.S. military will get a dictator overthrown, the U.S. military has followed the Berlin Airlift example and spirit in Iraq, building schools, hospitals, and clinics and handing out candy and toys to youngsters in places like Kirkuk, while American civilian organizations provide much of the toy/candy inventory.

As proof that the U.S. will still help a country out without overthrowing that country’s leader, the USAF’s older sibling, the U.S. Navy, in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami, dispatched aircraft carrier groups — with each vessel capable of producing “100,000 gallons of potable water per day and pumping it to shore from up to two miles away — disaster relief assessment teams, medical units, and sealift units to the affected countries including Indonesia, even as Indonesia’s vice president voiced his ingratitude and his wish for the U.S. military to be gone as soon as possible.

Gail Halvorsen in 2005

However, it is Colonel Halvorsen who gives the definitive answer to whether anything resembling the scale and effort of the Berlin Airlift could be achieved today. When it was pointed out that his unauthorized act of kindness toward the children of his country’s former enemy could have earned him a reprimand from his superiors, he shrugged the notion off and repeated part of the core values of the USAF: “Service before self.” Apparently the colonel’s superiors recognized that his impromptu kindness was emblematic of that motto.

America’s present-day Armed Forces and its leadership would indeed, like Colonel Halvorsen, do what is morally right. However, such an effort would not garner the “good opinion” and goodwill of the world the way the Berlin Airlift did. But America’s inclination to help doesn’t stem from a desire for the world’s good opinion in the first place.


  1. The Cajun Navy carries the spirit of the Berlin Airlift.
  2. Tempelhof is now a refugee camp.
  3. Colonel Halvorsen is still kicking at 96.

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