Daring Young Men: The Heroism and Triumph of the Berlin Airlift, June 1948-May 1949
by Richard Reeves
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Posted on Sun, Feb. 14, 2010
Generosity and heroics of the Berlin airlift
Daring Young Men: The Heroism and Triumph of the Berlin Airlift, June 1948-May 1949
By Richard Reeves
Simon & Schuster, 316 pp. $28
Reviewed by Steve Weinberg
After gigantic sacrifices, the United States was finally able in 1945 to celebrate the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. Only three years later, the United States found itself making even more sacrifices related to Germany, but this time to stave off starvation in West Berlin, a bombed-out city where countless former Nazis lived.
Richard Reeves, a prolific journalist-historian, decided to write a book about what became known as the Berlin airlift because so many Americans today know little or nothing about the seemingly impossible - and highly unlikely - humanitarian mission.
Before starting to write Daring Young Men, Reeves, born in 1937, had been contemplating the changed perception of the United States throughout the world. At the end of World War II, it seemed, citizens of other nations looked upon the United States as bighearted, willingly sharing its disproportionate wealth. But during the first decade of the 21st century, many inhabitants of other lands viewed the United States "as arrogant, self-righteous, brutal, even a monster using our very substantial power to try to enforce a new order, a kind of global neo-imperialism," Reeves writes.
While sorting through those disturbing thoughts, Reeves read a book on the history of Europe since 1945. He expected that the author, respected historian Tony Judt, would devote a plentiful number of pages to the Berlin airlift, a yearlong triumph of technology, geopolitics, and humanitarianism mounted by the United States, England and France to defeat the Soviet Union's land blockade of West Berlin.
(After World War II, the four victorious nations - the United States, England, France, and the Soviet Union - had split the spoils in a bizarre manner, dividing the nation of Germany and its capital city, Berlin, into western and eastern zones. The divided city of Berlin lay within communist East Germany, and the Soviets refused to allow supplies for West Berlin to cross East German territory, apparently in an effort to force the United States, England, and France to withdraw their troops from West Berlin.)
Judt devoted less than a page to the airlift. That caused Reeves to wonder whether the 277,500 high-risk, expensive flights through Soviet airspace to supply food and fuel to the West Berliners had disappeared in the mists of history.
Students questioned by Reeves said they had never heard of the airlift. Reeves' contemporaries generally guessed the effort had occurred during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, not the presidency of Harry S. Truman 13 years earlier.
Unable to restrain his enthusiasm, Reeves told audiences about Truman's heroic decision to supply Berlin by air, in the face of objections from his cabinet and the Joint Chiefs of Staff that it would be impossible to feed a city of more than two million by using cargo planes.
"Then I would babble on about the daring young men (and some women) from the States and Great Britain being pulled away from their new lives, their wives, their schools, their work for the second time in five or six years," Reeves writes. "This time they were supposed to feed the people they had been trying to kill, and who had been trying to kill them, only three years earlier."
Determined to write a book about the airlift, Reeves traveled to Germany, retained a translator, and began conducting interviews. He also read media coverage, visited libraries, and consulted archivists in multiple nations.
The result is a chronological narrative covering two years. As always, Reeves writes clearly and compellingly. His cast of characters is huge, meaning readers sometimes will need to concentrate deeply or lose track of names. A positive side of assembling such a huge cast is that Reeves emphasizes the sagas of the "common people" who supported and opposed the airlift. It is not a book just about powerful personages such as Josef Stalin in the Soviet Union, Truman in the United States, plus elected leaders in England, France, and Germany.
Because the airlift never spawned a shooting war, the number of casualties was to be relatively small, with 32 Americans among the total of 101. But short of death, those involved faced huge risks, especially the pilots of the transport planes, C-47s and C-54s among them. They flew every day, in good weather and bad, using planes not designed to carry coal or foodstuffs, planes that should have been retired after World War II, planes that suffered from lack of maintenance, planes landing on runways not in the best of condition.
Although Reeves never descends into mindless patriotism, he obviously is relating the saga to demonstrate to the community of nations the goodness of the American government and its citizenry, a goodness not always seen - and, if seen, not always appreciated.
Steve Weinberg is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His most recent book is "Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller."
Sunday, January 24, 2010
Book World: Review of Daring Young Men by Richard Reeves
By William Drozdiak
DARING YOUNG MEN: The Heroism and Triumph of the Berlin Airlift, June 1948-May 1949
By Richard Reeves
Simon & Schuster. 316 pp. $28
When Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin tried in 1948 to drive the Western powers out of Berlin by imposing a ground blockade to halt supplies going into the devastated German capital, military and diplomatic advisors urged President Harry Truman to retreat rather than risk another war. With hundreds of thousands of Red Army troops encircling the city, there was no way for a few thousand Allied soldiers to stand up to them.
Rejecting that counsel, Truman adopted a British idea and ordered his military chiefs to mobilize a massive airlift to ferry food, fuel and medicine from Allied air bases in Britain and West Germany to more than 2 million desperate residents in Berlin. At a luncheon meeting on June 28, the president's top cabinet and military officials ticked off sundry reasons why the airlift would fail and then started laying out options for leaving the city. They were cut off by Truman: "We stay in Berlin. Period."
Richard Reeves, a bestselling author of three presidential biographies and several other books, has delved into declassified archives and provided fresh insights into the power clashes between Truman, Stalin and other leading figures, including the famous generals who opposed the airlift (George Marshall and Omar Bradley) and the younger ones who defied enormous odds to make it work, notably Lucius Clay and William Tunner. But the real value of Reeves's book lies in the remarkable human sagas he collected through hundreds of interviews with uncelebrated pilots, mechanics, weathermen and ground controllers who sustained the airlift for almost a year. Many of them had fought the Germans and returned home to start families or begin new jobs. Now, barely three years later, they were going back to Europe to help feed their former enemies.
The Germans' role was similarly impressive. All social classes joined the fight against Soviet intimidation -- women in high heels pushed wheelbarrows, and doctors wielded shovels to transform rubble into new airfields in just three months. Berliners' willingness to set aside animosity toward Western pilots who had annihilated their city amazed the Americans, who were extolled as "angels in uniform."
But the success of "Operation Vittles" was far from assured. In the early stages, the allies could barely cope with the bewildering demands of feeding an entire city from the air. From the day the airlift began on June 26 until the end of the next month, more than 14,000 flights delivered more than 70,000 tons of fuel, food, medicine and other supplies -- yet it was less than half of what had reached the city before the blockade. With planes landing and taking off every three minutes, flight crews and controllers were stretched to the breaking point. Lack of sleep and insufficient maintenance were main causes of crashes that killed a total of 73 Western airmen by the end of the 11-month airlift.
But gradually, Western ingenuity mastered the logistical challenges -- as well as the worst fog in half a century -- to prevail in a monumental test of wills. The Soviets suffered a humiliating propaganda defeat as the Americans were perceived by world opinion as selfless heroes who delivered candy to kids and CARE packages to hungry civilians, while the Soviets were exposed as brutal oppressors punishing innocent people. On May 12, 1949, recognizing that the blockade had become counterproductive to their own interests, the Soviets announced that all road and rail deliveries from the West would be restored.
The Berlin airlift became one of history's hinge events, one that firmed up the political and military unity of the West in the face of the Soviet threat. Soon afterward the West German federal republic was created, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded to protect Western democracies against Soviet aggression. But as Reeves makes clear, it was the extraordinary display of personal courage -- by President Truman, the American and British airmen and most of all the Berliners themselves -- that shaped such a favorable outcome to the first major crisis of the Cold War.
William Drozdiak, formerly The Post's foreign editor and chief European correspondent, is president of the American Council on Germany.
Sunday, January 31, 2010
Review by Jules Wagman, Special to the Times
Fading into history is one of the most audacious actions of the Cold War, the Berlin Airlift. In late spring 1948, the Soviet Union was in a snit over Western plans to introduce a new German currency. It blocked road and rail access to the western sectors of Berlin, but it couldn't block airplanes because of prior agreements.
And so, on June 26, 1948, the United States and Britain began supplying Berlin by air. By the end, 2.3 million tons of cargo had been delivered.
In Daring Young Men, presidential biographer and historian Richard Reeves credits President Harry Truman's push-back response with a significant role in his upset election victory. Reeves re-creates with grace and perception the tightrope the West walked in facing down the Soviets. He contrasts this with the quiet heroism of crews on the ground and in the air, where pilots were "lucky if they got seven hours sleep out of 32."
By the time the Soviet Union backed down and the airlift ended, postwar Germany had transformed from an occupied country into two rival nations. It would be 40 years before the Iron Curtain collapsed.
The airlift cost at least 80 people their lives, 32 of them American. Reeves describes each crash and names all the Americans who died to feed, clothe and heat Berlin.
To prevent the collapse of the "cowboy adventure," the military brought in Maj. Gen. William Tunner, who reallocated the three air corridors. Planes flew directly in, but if a plane missed its approach, it had to return, full, to the west. Landings were on instruments and increased from six an hour to 20. Turnaround was cut to an average of 30 minutes. By mid August, the airlift was unloading 7,272 tons from 895 flights in 24 hours.
As 1949 began, Josef Stalin capitulated. Tensions remained high as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created, American troops began arriving, and the Cold War grew colder.
Jules Wagman was among the troops deployed to West Germany in the wake of the Berlin Blockade.
January 10, 2010
Daring Young Men
By Richard Reeves
Simon & Schuster, 316 pages, $28
Even before World War II ended, the Western Allies knew that the peace was going to be tough, with the Soviet Union trying to control as much of Europe as it could—all the way to the Rhine, if possible. The Americans let their conscript army go home; the Russians did not. By June 1948, the U.S. had only 90,000 troops in Germany, facing a million men of the Red Army in the much smaller Soviet zone of occupation.
The clashing visions of postwar Europe led to a crisis over what now seems a trivial dispute: whether the French, British and Americans could introduce a common currency in their West German occupation zones and—this was key—bring the new banknotes to Berlin. The defeated country's capital city was now divided between the Russians and the Western Allies though situated 100 miles inside the Soviet zone.
To prevent the banknotes from arriving—and potentially facilitating the rise of an independent, Western-oriented economy—the Russians halted traffic on the highways and railroads leading into the city. That move put the U.S. on the horns of a dilemma: risk war by ramming a convoy through to Berlin or make a humiliating retreat from the island city, leaving West Berliners to become part of the Soviet bloc.
The actual solution is wonderfully told by Richard Reeves in "Daring Young Men," his account of the Berlin Blockade and the heroic efforts to defeat it. Could Berlin be supplied by air? "Absolutely impossible," said the American military governor, Gen. Lucius Clay. The British were optimistic, though; they would not only feed their own garrison but have a go at supplying the Berliners as well.
But it was the U.S. president who changed the course of history. Like George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11, Harry Truman had a hedgehog mentality when challenged: "We stay in Berlin, come what may," he wrote in his diary. More elegantly, he penned a dispatch to Gen. Clay: "We have ordered our planes all over the world to fly to Europe. You have our full support. God bless Berlin."
Among the Air Force pilots whose lives abruptly changed was Lt. Fred McAfee, who with a two-man crew took off from Hawaii for the five-day, 8,800-mile journey to Frankfurt, where he landed at 5:15 p.m. on July 6, 1948. He was briefed for an hour and at 8 p.m. took off for Berlin with 10 tons of flour. He knew the countryside well enough: He had flown more than 20 bombing raids over Germany during the war.
It was a risky mission, for Lt. McAfee and the thousands of other pilots and crew members—mostly British and American—who managed to supply Berlin for the rest of the year and well into 1949: Flying into the city's two airports was less a matter of landing than of diving, and on a glide path that, at one point, could put a plane's wheels within 17 feet of an apartment building. In the winter, fog settled over Berlin, requiring pilots and air controllers to cope with "zero-zero" conditions—no forward visibility and no sight of the ground until the wheels touched down. Altogether, the airlift would kill at least 80 servicemen and civilians—more British lives than American, along with the lives of several German workers.
A third airport was hurriedly built from the city's rubble, largely by German housewives. Indeed, a majority of West Berliners were women—thanks to the ravages of war—and many had been raped between the time the city fell and the Americans arrived, a period of 62 days. (Mr. Reeves says that there were one million rapes in that time; he gives no source for the number.) The women worked to construct the airport from the rubble of wartime bombing. They dressed sometimes in bathing suits, sometimes in heels and Sunday best— whatever clothes they happened to own.
And then there were the "wheelbarrow people," repairing existing runways at each airport even as the planes were landing. They would run for the sides as a plane was about to touch down. "After the dive to the first few feet of the runway," Mr. Reeves writes, "pilots used full brakes to avoid the real danger of rolling off the far end into grass and mud." Men and women together would then scurry out and fill the runway holes left by such punishing traffic, rushing to complete their task "before the next plane popped out of the low cloud cover typically blanketing Berlin."
American officials, for their part, seized civilian airliners and recalled thousands of World War II pilots from postwar jobs. For training, an airport mock-up was built in Great Falls, Mont., complete with an air corridor mimicking the one the pilots would find in Germany.
It worked. By spring the airlift had delivered 2,325,809 tons of food, clothing, coal and candy, at a cost to the U.S. taxpayer of a bit more than $150 a ton—say, $2,000 in our much-depreciated currency. Whether the airlift would have continued into a second winter is another question and one that Mr. Reeves doesn't address. The health of the Berliners, despite the help they had received, was worse than it had been a year earlier, perhaps as bad as it had been when the war ended four years before. The Russians had succeeded in inflicting real damage even if they had not dislodged the Allies.
In the end, Moscow suffered more, however. Without the blockade, the U.S., Britain and France might never have formed an alliance against Russian expansion. NATO was officially established in the spring of 1949, with West Germany as its most important bulwark on the Continent and Berlin as seeming proof that the alliance would prevail.
"The magnetic pull of the West," the divided city's elected mayor predicted in an interview with a Newsweek reporter, "will someday pull Berlin and the Eastern zone back into a united Germany." (If the reader forgets the mayor's 120 words or so— excerpted from the interview on page 57 of the book—they appear again on pages 204-05.)
Meanwhile, East Berlin and its occupiers found that they needed the Allied zones of the city and the workers and land routes to the west they provided. The Soviet Union, plagued by a bad harvest, was desperate for food from West German farms. To supply the fig leaf for a Soviet retreat, the U.S., Britain and France agreed to identical language in a communiqué, dated May 12, 1949, lifting both the blockade and the West's counter-blockade. The agreement allowed Moscow newspapers to indulge in a classic example of Communist doublespeak: "The Western Allies have issued orders to lift the Berlin Blockade." It was the first major Cold War victory for the West, and Mr. Reeves brings it all to life again, conveying along the way its now-forgotten heroics—in the air and on the ground.
Mr. Ford is the author, most recently, of "Let the Americans Live in the Village," a study of the counter-guerrilla military theories of John Boyd.
San Francisco Chronicle
March 26, 2010
'Daring Young Men,' by Richard Reeves
When we were kids, our aunt told us to "clean our plates, children are starving in Europe." In Europe? Where did she ever get that crazy idea, I wondered.
Halfway through Richard Reeves' excellent "Daring Young Men," I learned that all across America in the late 1940s mothers were saying something similar to their children. Organizations and individuals were preparing care packages with food and toys to send to "those poor little children in Berlin." Remarkably, altruism in America was galvanized by concern for a city that only a few years before American soldiers had helped bomb into smithereens.
By the spring of 1948 tensions had increased dangerously between the Soviets and the other occupying forces of what had been Germany. France, Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union had joint control of Berlin, but the former capital of the Reich was deep inside the sector controlled by the communists. The Allied Forces had an agreement to divide Germany to keep it weak, but this plan was quickly fading in importance before the ramifications of the mutual suspicion between the Soviets and the United States.
The Red Army was spreading Stalin's version of communism, and the dictator thought that with his vast troop superiority in Central Europe, he would eventually be able to control Berlin and much of the rest of what had been Germany. The United States had already demobilized, and few Americans had the stomach for returning to war. If Stalin wanted Berlin, Soviet leaders and most American generals agreed, there was little anyone could do to stop him.
In June 1948 the Soviets announced a blockade of the sectors of Berlin under Western control, and this seemed a prelude to a total Russian takeover. There wasn't nearly enough food, electricity or raw materials in the city, but its citizens were desperate to stay out of communist control. Against all advice, President Harry Truman made the decision not to abandon Berlin. The Americans had to find a way to keep the city fed and sheltered, despite the Soviet advantages on the ground. The solution was a massive airlift of coal, food, industrial materials and even candy - a lifeline extended by overused and underserviced transport planes.
The experts agreed it couldn't be done. There were just over 2 million people in Berlin living under Western control, and they needed everything. Officials pointed out that there weren't enough American pilots, that the British would be sending food when their own people were seriously undernourished, that the airports were in no shape to handle large numbers of heavy aircraft and that Central Europe's "General Winter" would defeat even the most intrepid airmen. Pilots could barely see the runway, and the communications networks initially were rudimentary.
Starting from expectations of landings every 20 minutes, the airlift put in place a system of bringing in planes at three-minute intervals. In the final months, groups of aviators were having contests to see how many tons could be brought in daily. Competition, ingenuity and bravery worked: The airlift delivered more than 2.3 million tons of food and materials, and the Soviets gave up on the blockade.
Reeves, a fine writer of accessible and thoughtful history, brings the relief operation to life. From memorable characterizations of the architects of policy to compelling anecdotes about the men loading and flying the planes, he illuminates what it was like for the U.S. military to embark on a rescue mission to a country with which it had been in brutal warfare a mere three years before.
Noah Thompson, for example, was called up from the family farm to go back to flying military missions. In 1945 he had dropped bombs on the same area he now flew over with coal. His buddy in the war had been shot down, then beaten to death on the ground by local farmers. Now Thompson's plane was likely to be serviced by former Luftwaffe mechanics hired to repair American C-54s.
The turnaround was dizzying, but airmen like Thompson never lost their focus and performed with enthusiasm and courage. It was dangerous work, and more than 70 men lost their lives. Despite the danger and the long odds, the mission had the vigorous support of Americans back home, who saw the Berlin airlift as a heroic refusal to give in to Stalin's tyrannical ambitions. Reeves quotes a young German boy: "Only three years ago they were fighting against my country, and now they were dying for us. The Americans are such strange people."
Reeves' book takes us back to a time when the American commitment to freedom was exemplified by its military in ways that aroused admiration at home and abroad. The "daring young men" were not perfect, but they were heroes, and we acknowledged them as such. Today, when the United States struggles with two wars only grudgingly supported by some of its citizens, Reeves' account is a welcome reminder of the importance of a military willing to take risks to preserve freedom. "Daring Young Men" brings to life a moment when altruism, guts and know-how inspired our country and saved a city.
Michael S. Roth is a historian and president of Wesleyan University. .
LOS ANGELES TIMES
April 21, 2010
By Tim Rutten, Los Angeles Times
Richard Reeves, the author of three notable works of presidential biography, has accomplished an important work of historical recovery in his latest book, "Daring Young Men: The Heroism and Triumph of the Berlin Airlift: June 1948-May 1949."
Even in his most off-handed mode, Reeves is a writer incapable of being less than engrossing, and the rather cumbersome title suggests that his publisher may have been as surprised by the importance of the history that his meticulous research has reconstructed as most readers are sure to be. Though it now has largely faded from memory, the airlift was a seminal event in postwar history. Much of immense consequence flowed from it, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and formal division of Germany into a democratic state and a Red tyranny.
By 1948, the Western Allies had largely demobilized the vast military forces. When the Soviets, which is to say, Josef Stalin attempted to seize all of Berlin, which was deep inside their zone of occupation, through a blockade, the U.S. had just 90,000 troops to oppose a million-man Red Army. President Truman's advisors counseled capitulation. Our British allies advocated an airlift — similar to the one we'd jointly conducted in Burma during the war — to relieve the city. Truman rejected the advice of his inner circle and accepted the British plan. Reeves engagingly reconstructs what followed with particular attention to the young American and British pilots unceremoniously jerked from civilian life and thrown back into crisis and danger.
The best of this author's history always has been deeply informed by his experience as one of his generation's finest political reporters. This entertaining book is no exception. He's been around enough smoky back rooms in New York and Jersey wards to know that the personalities formed there sometimes go on to make history in paneled cabinet meeting rooms. He has a gifted journalist's eye for the details that comprise a telling portrait and for the way aggregated individual sketches are the building blocks of history's "big picture."
Those portraits are drawn with a particular crispness in "Daring Young Men," and their accumulation gives what's actually a relatively brief history an enjoyable heft and savor. "Daring Young Men" is particularly fascinating in its portraits of men we've mainly forgotten. Take, for example, this description of the logistical and politically farsighted genius who was American commander in Europe when the Soviets imposed their blockade:
"General Lucius Dubignon Clay…was both brilliant and aloof, a courtly but distant man, a descendant of Henry Clay and the son of a U.S. senator from Georgia. He wore few decorations on his uniform and was a chain smoker, rarely photographed without a Camel in his hand. He usually skipped lunch…but was said to drink 30 cups of coffee a day. He sometimes worked 72 hours at a stretch… and was one of the very few Americans ever to become a four-star general without commanding men in combat…
"Clay's British counterpart in Germany, General Sir Brian Robertson, described him as ‘looking like a Roman emperor and sometimes acting like one.' Among the Americans who served him there was a joke that Clay was a real nice guy when he relaxed, but he never relaxed."
He also was a committed democrat who, in the face of much opposition, believed Germany had to be moved as quickly as possible into an economically strong democracy.
Or there's this portrait of Ernest Bevin, an unwed servant girl's son, orphaned at age 6. He grew into a hard-fisted ex-truck driver and British labor leader-turned-cabinet minister and was — rather improbably — Clement Attlee's Foreign Minister at the time of the blockade: "He was the organizer of the huge Transport and General Workers Union and a leader of the great General Strike of 1926. He was a socialist who called most everyone ‘me lad' .... He was famous for mangled metaphors — ‘Don't open that Pandora's box, you never know what Trojan horse will get out' ....He thought a lot of the Americans. When one asked why he kept a life-size painting of George III behind his desk he answered: ‘E's my hero. If he hadn't been so stupid, you wouldn't have been strong enough to come to our rescue in the war.' "
Along with the rest of the Labor government, he stood firmly for the airlift and cajoled the reluctant American military leaders into participation after Harold Macmillan, leader of the Conservative opposition, made this memorable and farsighted declaration to Parliament: "We must, if we are frank with ourselves, for this is a serious and solemn moment in this house, face the risk of war. Grave as that risk is, the alternative policy — to shrink from the issue — involves not merely the risk but almost the certainty of war."
Though a number of American memoirists and military oral histories credit the U.S. with pushing for the airlift, Reeves' research convincingly credits the British with this. Thus, he's able to reconstruct this telephone conversation between Clay and Curtis LeMay (who, predictably, wanted to provoke an incident that would allow him to bomb the Soviets) as the British began flying transports into Germany 24 hours after Macmillan's speech:
"Curt, have you any planes that can carry coal?"
"We must have a bad connection. It sounds as if you're asking whether we have planes for carrying coal."
"Yes, that's what I said."
"General," said LeMay, "The Air Force can deliver anything, anytime, anywhere."
Despite its desperate and improvised beginnings, the Berlin airlift was an extraordinary technical and political success. The U.S Air Force and the Royal Air Forces of Britain, Australia and New Zealand delivered 2,325,809 tons of supplies to the beleaguered city on 277,569 flights. A total of 81,843 tons of goods stamped "Manufactured in Blockaded Berlin" were flown out.
More important, in a gesture of selflessness unmatched in modern combat, young men of the Allied forces who had flown across Europe to bomb Nazi Berlin into rubble now risked their lives to sustain its people. Those people, through their endurance and resistance, recovered some measure of the historic dignity they had forfeited in their enthusiasm for Hitler and his thugs.
The great Western alliance that one day would contain the Soviet Union into collapse and lead to the foundation of a new, prosperous Germany grew out of the Berlin Airlift — and Richard Reeves has done our collective memory a service by reminding us what we owe those brave flyers.
February 9, 2010
Back in the Day • Dateline: Berlin, 1948
Reeves, who is best known as a presidential biographer having written reliable
and useful monographs on John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan (though
my favorite of his oeuvre is his 1982 retracing of Alexis de Tocqueville’s
American visit, American Journey: Traveling with Tocqueville, an
undertaking French celebrity intellectual Bernard Henri Lévy recently refreshed)
has published an account of what is frequently called the first shot in the Cold
War: Daring Young Men: The Heroism and Triumph of The Berlin Airlift—June
Explaining on how he came to write this book, Reeves writes:
I spent the better part of the last 20 years researching and writing a trilogy on the American presidency, doing books on John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. I knew I had said what I had to say on all that. I had to find some new subjects. At the same time, I continued writing a syndicated column for newspapers around the country, an exercise that kept me up on the politics and people of the day and of the 21st century. I was not happy many of those days. My country was becoming, or being—seen as, arrogant, self-righteous, and brutal—a monster using its very substantial power to try to enforce a new order, a kind of neo-imperialism. Of course, we meant well; Americans usually do. After all, didn’t these people want to be like us?
Berlin Airlift is a piece of national history that at the least is a splendid
example of enlightened self-interest. In June 1948, Soviet leader Josef Stalin
ordered the Red Army to blockade the city, a stranglehold that intended to drive
Allied occupational troops out of Berlin, which through some bizarre accident of
history was deep inside the Soviet zone. Despite a National Security staff and
Joint Chiefs who were nearly unanimously opposed, President Truman opted to stay
and additionally ordered the airlift, which was an intricate logistical
operation—planes taking off and landing every 90 seconds delivering food, fuel,
and medical supplies to a demolished Berlin’s two million inhabitants.
By combing service records and conducting hundreds of interviews, Reeves was able to assemble a truly feel-good adventure from the selfless efforts of the 20,000 veteran civilian airmen who flew the 300 beat-up old planes in an improbably altruistic adventure that was also a strategic victory for what came to be the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Daring Young Men is an uplifting, multi-level story—a good story about doing good. Yet, in ruminating about it, two thoughts grab me: what does it say about the United States that Richard Reeves has to go back 70 years for an example of the decent America he grew up in, and, wouldn’t it have been great if there had been some residue of national decency to spur the Bush government to help New Orleans?
But so it goes.
Book review: Daring Young Men
Daring Young Men
The Heroism and Triumph of the Berlin Airlift, June 1948-May 1949
Simon & Schuster, 2010
I was six years-old when the Berlin airlift began, seven when it ended. I knew about it, but it didn't mean much to me then. Ten years or so later, I had heard a lot about it. The Soviets blockaded Berlin, blocking all train, canal and highway traffic between Berlin and the rest of Germany, trying to force the Allies (the U. S., Great Britain and France) to give up territory the Soviets had agreed would be shared.
The Allied response, really President Harry Truman's response, was to try to supply everything the two million residents of Berlin needed from food to coal, by air, during what turned out to be the worst European winter on record.
Author Richard Reeves was eleven when the airlift began, and 50 years on was surprised that his generation wasn't really familiar with what he noted Tom Brokaw might have called, "the last act of the Greatest Generation." Instead, those he talked to about it thought it happened in the 1960s and had something to do with John F. Kennedy and the Berlin wall.
Instead, the airlift was one of Truman's best calls. Though it seemed an impossible task at the time, it led not only to the Soviets abandoning their attempt to steal Berlin and half of Germany, but to advances in the way aircraft could be used and moved. Ultimately, it led to the reunification of Germany. By the end, an almost endless stream of transport aircraft was landing or taking off every minute, pausing to disgorge cargo and then taking to the air again.
One thing might touch a chord with the newer generations is the contribution of a brilliant Air Force mathematician named George Danzig, who developed "linear programming," which he used to create a giant flight plan that maximized supply while minimizing the number of planes and people needed.
Reeves adds in a footnote, "As a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, Danzig saw two statistical problems on a blackboard and solved both, thinking they were a homework assignment. In fact, they were examples of unproved theorems. That 1939 incident was the basis for the 1997 film Good Will Hunting."
That the Allies would even go to the lengths they did just three years after the end of World War II is surprising. That they succeeded is miraculous, and began with a scramble to move enough suitable transport planes to Europe. The U. S. had 400 C-54s, the military version of the DC-4, but only two were in Europe in the spring of 1948. Most were in the Pacific.
Not enough mechanics? Hire Germans. But what about sabotage? During the entire airlift, there were only 27 cases of suspected sabotage, and only four were proved.
Out of it came the friendship of the German people and a trained cadre of pilots who had flown in some of the worst weather imaginable. They pioneered new ways of loading and unloading airplanes as well as new methods of handling instrument approaches in bad weather.
And they fed, sheltered and warmed two million people for eleven months… those who don't know the story need to read this.
THE WENATCHEE WORLD
Saturday, January 16, 2010
Talking It Over: New book heralds the Berlin airlift’s heroism and triumph
A new book on the Berlin airlift of 1948-49 written by Richard Reeves, “Daring Young Men,” outlines the “heroism and triumph” of that memorable event.
The blockade of Berlin by land came about when the three Allied powers — the U.S. Britain, and France — brought in new currency to Berlin. The Russians were determined to make all of Berlin part of their eastern German Communist state. It set off a concern that this would be the start of another war if, as some of our military advised, the Allies forced a way open by land.
It left the military planners in a real dilemma. The heads of our military, the Joint Chiefs of Staff as well our Secretary of State George Marshall, did not believe that Berlin could survive by being supplied by air.
President Truman told them that we would not be pushed out of Berlin, and immediately a quick call-up of airmen and planes began to haul supplies to that city in June 1948.
The British joined us in furnishing planes flying to the two Berlin airports available, Tempelhof and Gatow. Twin-engine Douglas C-47s were the primary planes available, plus British planes.
The first month of the airlift was not very productive. At the end of July 1948, a new team took over management of the airlift, headed by a veteran of MATS, the Military Air Transport Service, William Tunner. When he took over, the Americans hauled 1,800 tons and the British 750 tons as of July 29, far less than required to keep Berlin supplied.
Tunner did his job. He replaced the old C-47s with a fleet of C-54s, the four-engine Douglas workhorse. He also had a third airport built in the French sector at Tegel. The airports in the British and French zones were only half the distance to Berlin, so he used those airports heavily.
I remember the airlift well, for I rode into Berlin on an airplane loaded with coal on May l, 1949, a day when the airlift hauled 12,000 tons.
I had been using my GI Bill to attend school in Paris, and got accreditation as a journalist to travel Europe that spring. The day I rode in, airplanes were landing at Tempelhof every 3 minutes! Germany was a mess, and Berlin even worse.
Stalin finally gave in, allowed land transport in mid-May, and the blockade failed.
It was the airlift that convinced the West Germans that we were going to stay. And the West German government was organized shortly thereafter, along with belonging to the new NATO. The Berlin Wall went up, of course, as the Soviets tried to keep their East Germans isolated.
Among those who escaped is East Wenatchee resident Rolf Wagner, who made it out, trained as a printer, came to this country and joined The Wenatchee World staff as a printer, now retired.
4 March 2010
Daring Young Men: The Heroism and Triumph of The Berlin Airlift-June 1948-May 1949
by Richard Reeves
Simon & Schuster
Hardcover, 336 pages, 28.00
The media has been all over World War Two. Academic and historical research as well as popular media such as film, books and television have generated a mountain of material covering every aspect of that war. The Cold War too has been a popular target of attention.
The period in between those two wars, however, has been neglected. Those were the few ambiguous years when for America and the West, the Soviet Union turned from wartime ally to communist enemy. The same interlude saw Germany turn from a being a dangerous Nazi state into, for America, at least, a friendly country. It was an amazingly brief turn around and one with momentous consequences for the decades that followed.
Richard Reeves turns our attention to that period by telling the story of the Berlin airlift, a massive undertaking in 1948 and 1949 to feed West Berlin when the Soviets attempted to blockade the western sectors of the city. It’s a story that has been easy to forget. Of relatively short length and boasting no direct combat, the airlift seems to have no hook. It lacks the blood and guts of the World War and the intrigue and nuclear drama of the Cold War. Reeves does a fine job in resurrecting the airlift and pinpointing its particular appeal.
He first details the factors that led to the airlift and which need a bit of explaining in today’s post Cold War, united Germany world. After the defeat of the Nazis, Germany was divided into four provisional occupation zones and the capital city itself, Berlin, located 100 miles inside the Soviet zone was also divided into four zones. The American and the Soviets both wanted to control Berlin but the Soviets had the upper hand. Their area of control produced much of the food for all of Germany. West depended on East.
In Berlin this situation was even more critical since the city itself was surrounded by Soviet territory. These circumstances were perfectly suited for a blockade and the Soviets, hoping to starve the Americans and British and French out of Berlin, eventually put one into place.
Reeves ably tells the technical story of what happened next: a huge, unprecedented airlift that mobilized thousands of planes, pilots and support personnel from Britain and the United States to ferry incredible amounts of food and fuel and materials into West Berlin. Reeves details the logistical headaches that had to be overcome and the political opposition to the effort back home. There was much daring and hard work by commanders and managers and especially pilots to keep the endeavor aloft. Reeves reports well on the statistics of the airlift: the tonnage and the number of flights and people involved.
If that were all there was to this book, it would be a nice, somewhat dry, historical survey. Reeves, however, has done something a little deeper. As his title suggests, he has focused on the “daring young men” who pulled this thing off. He has not simply done the now very familiar trick of personalizing a particular era of history or some particular grand event by concentrating on the individual’s role, the sacrifices and heroism that the ‘little people” displayed; he has found the ambiguity and moral uncertainties of the people who were involved in this mission.
That moral ambiguity, the emotional challenges faced by individual pilots, soldiers and workers is bound up in the larger turn of history. The American and British pilots who were called upon to heroically feed the German people had just finished, only three years ago, catastrophically firebombing the cities these Germans lived in. All these pilots had been fed a steady diet of anti-Nazi propaganda and, if that weren’t enough, the British had lived through the bombing of their own country by the Germans.
Real German atrocities were fresh in the news and on their minds. Now these men and women were called upon to feed and save what had just been the greatest enemy humankind had ever known. Mistrust, confusion and moral whiplash were common among Germans, too. Many hated the Americans still and were convinced that the whole affair had some nefarious ulterior motive.
Amazingly, this is a story where goodness won out. Whatever the larger geo-political aims Americans did risk and give their lives for those who had lately had been their mortal enemies. They hastily abandoned families for the sake of the mission. They disobeyed rules and gave candy to kids, hid food for strangers, went out of their way to do good. Many recognized the strange twist of events. As one said, “I felt a lot better feeding people than killing them.”
The Berlin airlift deserves to be remembered. The people who pulled it off deserve to be remembered. That strange period of time between a world war and a cold war deserves attention. Reeves helps us remember and see the strange way history turns and the strange, twisting roles individuals sometimes have to play.
March 7, 2010
Let them come to Berlin: Book draws pictures of famed airlift
By RICK MALWITZ
It was a
simple declaration by President Harry Truman, spoken when the United States
refused to abandon Berlin after it had been turned into a political island by
“We stay in Berlin. Period,” said Truman, rejecting advice to end the Berlin Airlift, considered by some the first battle of the Cold War.
“Daring Young Men: The Heroism and Triumph of the Berlin Airlift, June 1948-May 1949” by Richard Reeves tells the story of how the United States, still weary from World War II, committed itself to thwarting the Russians, who had blocked access to Berlin by the West, threatening that quarter of the city with starvation.
The victors in World War II had divided the city of Berlin into four sections, giving parts to the French, the British, the Americans and Russia. Berlin was in the middle of the Russia’s East Germany, 117 miles from the West German border.
Russians wanted the city to themselves, and in June of 1948, they blocked roads
and rails from the West and cut the power.
The 2.1 million residents of Berlin were already weakened by the war. “They were very old and very young, mostly women, hungry, sick, most of them burrowed into the rubble of their old neighborhoods,” Reeves writes.
The people were desperate. When school officials questioned 34 schoolgirls between 15 and 18, seven had a venereal disease and 14 had slept with men to get food.
The only route to Berliners was by air. What emerged was a Rube Goldberg air force, described by a British publication as, “a collection of parts flying in loose formation.”
They were flown by the daring young men.
Military planes were designed to descend one foot for every 40 feet of flight. Because of the nearness of apartments to one airstrip in Berlin, the ratio was reduced to 16-to-1 on the primary runway and 10-to-1 on a secondary strip.
Weary engines balked at operating in cold and wet weather. If only two or three of the four engines would start, planes motored down the runway with the flow of air starting the spinning of propellers on dead engines, much like rolling a car downhill and popping the clutch to get it started.
American fliers would not have accomplished as much as they had without the help
of their former enemies, allowing West German mechanics to nurse the aircraft.
One 19-year-old private found himself working with a crew of 10 German loaders. “One of my guys was a Messerschmidt pilot with 26 kills — of American planes!” he wrote home. “It wasn’t long before we totally trusted them.”
The Russians lost the public relations war. “There was no doubt Moscow realized that the blockade was not only failing but had been a major factor in Allied determination to transform West Germany from an occupied territory into a separate state,” writes Reeves.
The Americans made a total of 189,963 flights to and from Berlin, delivering more than 1.7 million tons of supplies. Seventy-seven men died from crashes and enemy fire when they ventured from narrow air corridors between West Germany and Berlin.
In 1961, the Soviets erected a wall. Instead of blocking food and fuel from West Berlin, their aim was to keep East Berliners from escaping to the freedom of the West.
President Ronald Reagan famously said to the secretary general of the Communist Party and president of the Soviet Union, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Without President Truman, however, there would have been no wall, because there would have been no West Berlin.
On the final flight of the Berlin Airlift a message was painted on a British plane. “Positively the Last Flight .¤.¤. Psalm 21, Verse 11.
The verse reads: “If they plan evil against you, if they devise mischief, they will not succeed.”
June 20, 1948
The Newsweek headline was "dateline Germany, 1948: the Big Retreat."
The dispatch below was from James O'Donnell, the magazine's Berlin bureau chief, reporting on the exodus of American and British officials and soldiers from the city as the Soviet Union took complete control of the old German capital.
After the Russians claimed control, O'Donnell reported, General Lucius Clay, the American military governor of Germany, had cabled Washington that he intended to order B29 Superfortresses to begin attacking Soviet installations across Germany -- and beyond. Washington responded, "Withdraw to Frankfurt."
Then, the Newsweek story continued, "At 1000 hours Saturday, the American cavalcade rendezvoused with the British...The bedraggled and demoralized caravan proceeded along the 117 miles of Autobahn to Helmstedt in the British zone..."
At the bottom of the two-column account, published on August 8, 1947, Newsweek added that the story was a fantasy, but still a plausible scenario:
This fantasy does not sound so fantastic in Berlin as it does in the United States. For the German capital has been buzzing with rumors that the Western Allies would this winter recognize the irrevocable division of Germany and pull out of Berlin. The Germans probably envision some dramatic exodus. Actually, policy makers in Washington have seriously considered quietly leaving Berlin for the Russians to rule -- and feed.
The magazine had found a way, an anonymous source, to tap into the cable traffic between Berlin and Washington that spring, as memos flew back and forth predicting Soviet pressure on the small occupation governments of the United States, Great Britain and France. Robert Murphy, the State Department's man in Berlin, Clay's political advisor, cabled back to Washington: "The next step may be Soviet...demand for the withdrawal from Berlin of the Western powers. In view of the prospect that such an ultimatum would be rejected, the Soviets may move obliquely, endeavoring to make it increasingly impossible or unprofitable for the Western powers to remain on; for example by interfering with the slender communications between Berlin and the Western Zone, taking further actions towards splitting up the city...Our Berlin position is delicate and difficult. Our withdrawal, either voluntary or non-voluntary, would have severe psychological repercussions which would, at this critical stage in the European situation, extend far beyond the boundaries of Berlin and even Germany. The Soviets realize this full well."
It was not fantasy anymore on June 24, 1948. That day, the final edition of the Times of London reported:
NEW RUSSIAN RESTRICTIONS IN BERLIN
Berlin -- Shortly after 1 o'clock this morning the Soviet military administration for Germany announced that all railway traffic on the line between Berlin and Helmstedt had been stopped in both directions. The Soviet authorities have also given instructions to the Berlin electricity company that deliveries of current from the eastern to the western sectors of Berlin are to be stopped immediately. These measures followed the announcement yesterday that the three Western powers intend to introduce the new West German currency into their sectors in Berlin.
The instructions for the stoppage of this important railway traffic which, air traffic apart, is the only means by which Allied and German supplies can now be brought from the Western zones into Berlin means that Allied zones of the city are essentially isolated.
So, the rumors were true -- about half of them. Talk of the introduction of new currency by the Western Allies to replace worthless Nazi Reichsmarks, and of a Soviet blockade, had been both boiling and freezing life in Berlin for weeks. The people of the broken city, with its four occupation sectors -- Soviets in the eastern sector and Americans, British and French in western neighborhoods -- had been trading information and rumors of devalued currency, or the withdrawal of American, British and French troops, or even another war.
There were hundreds of thousands Red Army troops (at least twenty divisions in various states of combat readiness) in and near East Germany. The Soviets also had more than 2,500 combat aircraft, fighters and light bombers in East Germany and another 1,500 or so in Eastern European countries. That compared with 16,000 Allied troops, most of them military police and engineers, fewer than 300 American combat aircraft and perhaps 100 British fighters and bombers. There were another million or so Soviet troops in the rest of Eastern Europe, surrounding East Germany. Allied troop strength in all of western Germany was 290,000 men but only one or two combat-ready brigades.
The military imbalance was a regular feature of secret reports submitted by a Berlin representative of the West German Social Democratic Party,* which was headquartered in Hannover, in western Germany. He signed each message "WB." Willy Brandt was a thirty-five-year-old journalist who had fled Hitler's Germany and become a Norwegian citizen. He returned to Berlin in 1945 as the press attaché at the Norwegian mission. Then, in 1947, becoming a German citizen again, he began reporting weekly to West German SPD leaders on the situation in Berlin. In a secret dispatch labeled number 59, on June 14, 1948, he wrote:
The English political officers are very nervous internally because of the new and possible Russian strangulation measures. An informant from SED [the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, controlled by the German communist party, which was in turn controlled by Soviet occupation authorities], might be interesting in this context: Walter Ulbricht, an important SED official, has said (privately) that the western powers will be forced to leave Berlin before July 15. These circles obviously believe that preventing supply will make the population prefer a withdrawal of the western allies to anything else. Personally, I am inclined to believe that the Russians will not carry it to the extremes. Talking to the English and Americans I gained the impression that they by now have realized the disastrous consequences of a possible withdrawal and are therefore serious in declaring their unwillingness to withdraw. Two days ago a well-informed American again explained to me that their highest offices recognize the political necessity to keep Berlin...The aforementioned source confirmed that the Russians had tested the waters in the past two weeks and that high American and Russian representatives talked about the currency reform...
Now, ten days after Brandt's memo, which was wrong about American intentions, truck and automobile traffic from the western zones was indeed strangled. The Soviets announced that the Autobahn from Helmstedt in the British Zone, running through East Germany to Berlin, was being closed for "technical reasons." The stated technical reason was to make repairs on the dozens of bridges between Helmstedt and Berlin. With Soviets preventing rail travel through East Germany by blocking or ripping up track, and using patrol boats to blockade rivers and canals, the 2.1 million people of western Berlin were effectively cut off from the world. The lifeline to western Berlin, bringing in its food and fuel, more than 15,000 tons each day, was cut. Allied statisticians estimated that the western sectors of the city had enough food to last about thirty-five days, and enough fuel to last forty-eight days.
There were, however, six months of medical supplies stockpiled in western Berlin. Dr. Eugene Schwarz, Chief Public Health Officer in the American Sector, had been told in January by a friend, Ada Tschechowa, that when her husband had delivered a Soviet general's baby, the new father and his friends had drunkenly toasted both the infant and the day they would blockade the city and drive out "the swine" -- the British and the Americans. Dr. Schwarz had passed the story up the line to General Clay, who dismissed it as drunken gossip. On his own, Dr. Schwarz had begun secretly filling warehouses with emergency supplies.
The first public reaction from the Allies came from one of Clay's subordinates, the commander of civil government in the American Sector of Berlin, Colonel Frank Howley, a former Philadelphia advertising executive. He was, in effect, the city manager of one-quarter of Berlin. An Irishman, and a volatile one, he was called "Howling Howley" for a reason. Hearing of the blockade, he rushed to the studio of RIAS, "Radio in the American Sector," on his own and announced: "We are not getting out of Berlin. We are going to stay. I don't know the answer to the current problem -- not yet -- but this much I do know: The American people will not allow the German people to starve."
General Clay, also the commander of all American troops in Europe, had been in meetings in Heidelberg, the U.S. military headquarters, and flew back to western Berlin, where he lived. He told his counterparts, the British and French commanders, that he was sure the Russians were bluffing, and he proposed sending an armored convoy of 6,000 men to race down the Autobahn from Helmstedt to Berlin, using American engineers to repair the bridges -- if there was anything actually wrong with them.
Lucius DuBignon Clay, fifty years old, a 1918 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, was both brilliant and aloof, a courtly but distant man, a descendant of Henry Clay and the son of a U.S. senator from Georgia. He wore few decorations on his uniform and was a chain-smoker, rarely photographed without a Camel in his hand. He usually skipped lunch -- he lost thirty pounds in Germany -- but was said to drink thirty cups of coffee a day. He sometimes worked seventy-two hours at a stretch, with his Scottie, George, at his feet, and was one of the very few Americans ever to become a four-star general without commanding men in combat. An engineer and administrator, he was always needed more urgently at home than on fields of battle. In World War II, he served as what amounted to a national czar of military production and procurement. He came to Europe only once during the war, at the personal request of the supreme Allied commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, to figure out how to move men and equipment inland from the beaches after the invasion of France on DDay, June 6, 1944.
Clay's British counterpart in Germany, General Sir Brian Robertson, described him as "looking like a Roman emperor and sometimes acting like one." Among the Americans who served him there was a joke that Clay was a real nice guy when he relaxed, but he never relaxed. He had what amounted to dictatorial powers in the American Zone of Germany and Sector of Berlin. Believing the Russians would back down in the face of force, he wanted his troops in motion before any of his superiors in Washington -- the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Omar Bradley, Secretary of the Army Kenneth Royall, Secretary of Defense James Forrestal and President Harry S. Truman -- could order him to stop.
Clay had already discussed the convoy idea with General Curtis LeMay, commander of USAFE (United States Air Force Europe). LeMay was a bombing legend before he was forty for developing the block formation of B17s and B24s, Flying Fortresses and Liberators -- bombers that destroyed much of Germany -- and the use of incendiary bombing that destroyed Japan's cities. Characteristically, he had already prepared a contingency bombing plan to begin if a convoy was blocked by the Red Army: LeMay believed American planes could destroy every Soviet airfield and every airplane on the ground in Germany in a few hours, because the Russians routinely and irrationally made their own planes perfect targets by lining them up in orderly rows. "They vetoed the plan," said LeMay in disgust. In his lexicon "They" usually meant liberal politicians in Washington. "The Berlin crisis," he said, "is a logical outgrowth of the God-bless-our-buddy-buddy-Russians-we-sure-can-trust-them-forever-and-ever philosophy that flowered way back in the Roosevelt Administration." And, as far as the Soviets were concerned, he said, "We could have done a pretty good job of cleaning out the Russian air force in one blow. They had no atomic capability. Hell, they didn't have much of any capability."
But before Washington knew any of this had happened, Clay and LeMay's plans were stopped by the British military governor, General Robertson. "If you do that, it'll be war, it's as simple as that," Robertson told Clay. "If you do that, I'm afraid my government could offer you no support -- and I'm sure the French will feel the same."
The early hours of the next morning brought the daily American "teleconference" -- Clay and officials in Washington held coded teletyped conferences most days, with the decoded words slowly tapping out on huge lighted screens in the Pentagon and the bunker under American military headquarters in Berlin. By the time he left the bunker, the American commander had received his orders: Clay was told to take no action that risked war with the Soviet Union. It was a frustrating setback for Clay. He was sure that the Soviets did not want war. He was equally sure that a stable, free Europe depended on an economically strong and democratic Germany, with an elected parliament, an executive and an independent judiciary. Clay was a hard man, but, above all, he was a true democrat. His views of Germany's future were often quite different from those in Washington -- and in London and Paris -- where many high officials preferred a Germany forcibly kept too weakened to begin another war. Usually he got his way by acting preemptively or threatening to quit in letters and during teleconferences. He was a man with many antagonists, beginning with Secretary of State George Marshall and his celebrated assistants, Robert Lovett and George Kennan, who usually believed Clay was trying to move too fast toward a self-governed Germany rebuilding its industrial power. All admired his talent, but few found it easy to work with him.* One of his adversaries was his superior, General Bradley, who had said secretly, back in April, "Shouldn't we announce the withdrawal from Berlin ourselves to minimize the loss of prestige?"
Clay's answer, via teleconference, was:
I do not believe we should plan on leaving Berlin short of a Soviet ultimatum to drive us out by force if we do not leave. At the time we must resolve the question as to our reply to such an ultimatum. The exception which could force us out would be the Soviet stoppage of all food supplies to German population in Western sectors. I doubt that Soviets will make such a move because it would alienate the Germans almost completely, unless they were prepared to supply food for more than two million people.
The official population of the western sectors was just over 2.1 million. The number for the whole city of 355 square miles, a bit more than the area of the five boroughs of New York City, was about 3.1 million, compared with 4.3 million in 1938. There were only 1,285,376 male Berliners after the war.
In that teleconference, Clay ended angrily. "Why are we in Europe? We have lost Czechoslovakia. We have lost Finland. Norway is threatened...If we mean we are to hold Europe against communism, we must not budge...If America does not know this, does not believe the issue is cast now, then it never will and communism will run rampant. Once again, I ask, do we have a German policy?"
Hearing of the latest temporizing in Washington from Clay, Robertson then suggested that perhaps the Allies could expand the daily flights that brought provisions into the city for their own troops. They had done that in March, three months earlier, when the Soviets briefly stopped trains from Helmstedt, using three twenty-mile-wide air corridors that had been agreed upon in a written air safety plan between the Soviets, Americans and British at Potsdam in November of 1945. The three air corridors coverged over Berlin from Frankfurt, Hamburg and Hannover, looking on a map like a hand-drawn arrowhead pointing into the city. Robertson's bold talk was backed up by a bold British Foreign Minister, Ernest Bevin, who had once been Britain's most important and outspoken labor leader. Those flights in C47s, the military version of the Douglas DC3 airliners with a cargo capacity of three tons, were being used to help supply food and other essentials to just over 25,000 healthy young soldiers and some middle-aged diplomats and their families living comfortably among the West Berliners.
The Berliners themselves were a totally defeated people in every sense of the word. They were very old and very young, mostly women, hungry, sick, most of them burrowed into the rubble of their old neighborhoods in basements and damaged apartments assigned as shelter for four or five families. In Charlottenberg, a central neighborhood, only 604 of 11,075 buildings were still standing.
William Heimlich was a thirty-three-year-old lieutenant colonel in military intelligence from Columbus, Ohio. He arrived in Berlin in the summer of 1945, after Soviet troops had ravaged the city -- just as the Nazis had ravaged the Soviet cities -- and saw this:
Berlin at that point was a city of women. The men were dead or in prisoner of war camps. There were only the aged and the very young males available. They moved about the city like zombies. They were starving, that was clear. We saw such things as a horse dropping dead in the street and the women rushing out with pans and knives to butcher the horse on the spot to get some food. There was no food. There were no lights, there was no power.
Henry Ries, a Jewish Berliner who had escaped Germany in 1938 at the age of twenty-one, returned in September 1945 as a photographer on assignment for the New York Times. He wrote home to the United States that he thought the Berliners, who were forced to step into the gutters and tip their hats when their conquerors passed, still retained a secret attitude of superiority toward their conquerors. But a couple of months later, he wrote: "Of course they deserve [to suffer] at least a good part of them. But that doesn't prevent me from feeling pain at seeing these hungry people, crippled people, diseased people, all smelling of filth...I saw a man with one eye and one leg moving along in a 3-wheel cart. Why him? Why not me? Of course they deserved it, but that doesn't mean I want to see it."
General Clay was more blunt, calling Berlin "a city of the dead." LeMay used the same words as Heimlich, "a city of zombies."