The Berlin Airlift of 1948/1949 was many things. It was the first major clash of the Cold War. It was one of the greatest humanitarian efforts of all time. It was a clever solution to a problem that easily could have led to bloodshed.
“I think the alternative looked very close to World War III,” said retired U.S. Air Force Gen. T. Ross Milton.
The 93-year old resident of the Splendido retirement community in Rancho Vistoso was chief of staff to the general who organized the massive effort.
Starting Tuesday and lasting through May 10, the Pima Air & Space Museum, 6000 E. Valencia Road, is hosting a traveling exhibit commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift. “The Berlin Airlift – A Legacy of Friendship” tells the story of the airlift through text and historical black-and-white photos.
“In 1948 and 1949, the United States and her allies saved more than two million men, women and children in West Berlin when the Soviets blockaded the city,” Bernard Otremba-Blanc, the German honorary consul in Arizona said in a written statement. “The Airlift created a legacy of friendship between the American and German people.”
The Soviet blockade began in June 1948 and ended May 1949. The airlift began in July 1948 and continued through September 1949.
Before the end of World War II, the Allies had agreed to split Berlin into four sectors, with the United States, the Soviet Union, France and Great Britain each controlling one quadrant. Berlin was deep in the Soviet-controlled part of Germany, but the Western allies expected to be allowed access to the city.
In May 1948, in an attempt to force the West out of Berlin and force the citizenry to accept communism, the Soviets blocked all rail, water and highway routes through East Germany to West Berlin.
The Americans weren’t going to leave, short of being of forced out by war, but the allied sectors of Berlin had less than two weeks of food and other necessities on hand to sustain its two million inhabitants.
With all other routes closed, the U.S. came up with the idea of bringing food and other goods into West Berlin by air.
According to a Pima Air & Space Museum media release, during the 11 months of the Soviet blockade, the U.S. Air Force and the British Royal Air Force flew a combined 277,569 missions over Berlin, delivering 2,325,570 tons of food, fuel and supplies.
Several Air Force veterans who played roles in the airlift now make their home in southern Arizona.
Retired Air Force Col. Bill Lafferty of Green Valley flew one of the earliest flights of the mission, although he didn’t know it until a superior told him so afterward.
“‘Congratulations. You just flew the first mission for the Berlin Airlift for the group,’” a colonel informed the young Lafferty.
Retired Air Force Col. Gail Halvorsen of Elephant Head is famous as the “the Candy Bomber” for his drops of gum and candy to the children of Berlin. Although the drops were initially unauthorized, the program got the approval of the brass and provided not only sugary treats but a morale boost to the people of Berlin. It was a sign that somebody on the outside cared about their plight.
“The candy represented hope,” Halvorsen said.
Milton, however, played an even more central role in the airlift. He served as chief of staff to Maj. Gen. William H. Tunner, who was put in charge of the airlift shortly after it began.
“Tunner was the guiding genius behind the way we got through that mission. I was his chief of staff, which I had been for three or four years, so I guess I was the number two fellow there,” Milton said.
The logistical challenges were enormous. At the peak of the airlift, planes were landing in Berlin at the rate of one every 45 seconds.
“We couldn’t have possibly done the tonnage that was required to keep Berlin alive without some innovative operational practices and we devised those as we went along,” Milton said. “You could look at the airlift as kind of a giant, endless belt of airplanes, all flying at the same speed, at prescribed altitude and if they missed their approach in Berlin, they had to come home. There was no tolerance for circling and making another approach. That would have broken the belt.”
The tremendous effort by American and British forces met the Russian challenge while avoiding all-out confrontation.
“I don’t know what would have happened if we had decided to force our way in on the ground,” Milton said.
Anne T. Denogean can be reached at 573-4582 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Address letters to P.O. Box 26767, Tucson, AZ 85726-6767. Her columns run Tuesdays and Fridays.
ON THE WEB
Pima Air & Space Museum: www.pimaair.org