Freedom's Wings With fanfare not afforded the brave fliers, allies and local pilots celebrate the golden anniversary of the Berlin Airlift.

May 12, 1998|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Fifty years later, the Berlin Airlift remains the triumph of grit without glamour.

The first great battle of the Cold War was won by the pilots of clunky transport planes, not hotshot fighter jocks, by the mechanics who kept the planes flying, by the air traffic controllers who brought them through the Soviet blockade, by the Germans and "displaced persons" who loaded and unloaded the planes, and by the people of the city, who built and repaired airstrips with wartime rubble.

In Berlin this week, Americans, British, French and Germans begin a golden anniversary celebration that will last most of the next year. The Soviet blockade began June 24, 1948, and ended May 12, 1949. Veterans of the airlift will be honored from Tempelhof Airfield to Arlington National Cemetery.

The vets in their youth were ordinary men and women with true grit, not superheroes touched with the right stuff. And they still have the gung-ho work ethic they had when the Soviets clamped down on Berlin. They had a job to do, and they did it.

Instead of the bombs and rockets that had reduced Berlin to rubble in World War II, the airlift planes hauled coal, flour, salt, milk and diapers.

"I flew 116 trips and we never flew anything but coal," says Bill Voigt, 77, a former airlift pilot who grew up in Baltimore and Salisbury. "After we finished two trips we looked like coal miners."

He and the other "peasants" of the air helped feed and light and heat a city of 2,250,000. They won the first round of the Cold War, a victory that foreshadowed the crumbling of the entire Soviet empire four decades later, when once again in Berlin the wall between East and West was breached.

"It's something to be proud of, when you can say you saved people's lives instead of killing them," says Fred "Joe" Hall, 69, of Parkville, program director for the Berlin Airlift Veterans Association. He was 18 when he enlisted in the Air Force, less than 20 when he was a mechanic and flight engineer on the airlift.

"My kids say I tell them more about the airlift than anything else," says Hall, whose accent still echoes from East Baltimore. "That's why," he says. "You kept people free. You saved their lives."

The planes

Fred Hall and a dozen other airlift vets returned to Berlin this week in an airlift-type C-54 transport called the Spirit of Freedom to join in the celebration of the lifting of the blockade by the Soviets 49 years ago today.

On Thursday, at Berlin's Tempelhof Airfield, President Clinton and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl will mark the anniversary by christening a modern C-17 airlifter the Spirit of Berlin.

The airlift began when the allied coalition that had conquered the Nazis in World War II fractured on the fulcrum of Berlin. The United States, France, Great Britain and the Soviet Union occupied Germany, each governing a separate zone. Berlin was also split into four sectors. But it was 110 miles inside the Soviet zone, surrounded by Red Army soldiers.

On June 24, 1948, the Soviets cut off all land, water and rail traffic into the western sectors of Berlin. The ostensible reason was currency reform that threatened the East Berlin mark. But the Soviets also were uneasy about Western efforts to create a new Federal Republic of Germany, while the West believed the Soviets were trying to squeeze them out of Berlin.

Gen. Lucius Clay, U.S. commander-in-chief in Europe and military governor of Germany, immediately proclaimed the West would not be intimidated: "They cannot drive us out by any action short of war," he said.

On urgent instructions from the Secretary of the Army, Clay softened his stance. But he had already ordered Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay to marshal all his transport planes for an airlift to Berlin.

On June 25, 1948, eight Royal Air Force planes landed at a small field in the British sector of Berlin. The next day, 32 American C-47s flew 80 tons of supplies to Tempelhof Airfield. On June 27, President Harry Truman told the Cabinet: "We are staying -- period."

What the Berliners called the Luftbrucke, the Air Bridge, was being built. American airmen instantly gave it a less grand title: "Operation Vittles."

Just 'routine'

Voigt made his first airlift flight on Aug. 1, 1948, in a C-54 bearing coal. For Voigt, an unpretentious man with the nonchalant professionalism of Cary Grant playing a jewel thief, Berlin was no big deal. He flew where he was ordered to.

"I didn't hate the Germans. I didn't love 'em. I was indifferent," Voigt says. "It was a job to be done. They say: 'Fly coal.' I fly coal.

"There was nothing super or thrilling about it," he says. "If you're looking for somebody with thrills and spills, I am not him. Everything we did was routine."

Routine perhaps, but not without danger: 31 Americans, 39 Britons and 9 Germans died during the airlift; an official history records 70 major aircraft accidents.

Even Voigt had a spot of trouble. He lost engine power on two flights out of Berlin. Not that it bothered him.

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