Berlin Airlift a triumph for early Air Force

C-54 Skymaster

C-54 Skymasters such as the one shown here were workhorses of the Berlin Airlift, which delivered 2.3 million tons of food and supplies to West Berlin on more than 275,000 flights. At the airlift's busiest point, one supply-laden aircraft was landing every 63 seconds. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo/Air Force Historical Research Agency)

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- In comparison to other wartime commemorations, you don't often hear about an air campaign that resulted in one of America's finest victories without a single shot fired: The 1948 Berlin Airlift.

It began when the Western allies approved the deutschemark as the postwar German currency June 20, 1948. The Soviet Union responded by cutting all land and waterways between the West German occupation zones and West Berlin three days later. 

U.S. commanders and Berlin Mayor Ernst Reuter predicted the German city of 2 million had suddenly become an island in a sea of communism. To survive the Soviet blockade, Berlin needed 3,440 tons of provisions per day -- but merely 36 days of food and 45 days of coal supplies were on hand in the city. 

America and the Western allies considered a short-fused shooting war unacceptable and unwinnable at the time. Instead, they responded with a strategic and logistical masterpiece. With roads and waterways severed, Berlin's inhabitants would receive their lifeblood from the air.

On June 30, the first C-54 Skymaster transport aircraft landed at Berlin-Tempelhof Airport with 10 tons of supplies. Despite technical difficulties and unpredictable weather, the supply rate reached 2,000 tons per day in mid-July. In September 1948, it was up to 7,000 tons per day. 

By April 1949, the determined airlift warriors flew in 13,000 tons of supplies with one aircraft touching down every 63 seconds. The Russians were stunned -- and decided to back down!

The frontline heroes of the airlift were ordinary Americans supported by courageous British and French flight crews. They flew nonstop, under the most challenging weather conditions, often with shifting cargo in the bellies of their grossly overloaded transports. The unsung heroes -- mechanics, refueling and loading teams -- worked 24/7 to keep the air armada flying.

For Berliners, the constant roar of aircraft engines was initially a reminder of the bombing raids of '44 and '45. Only this time, the bombers didn't come to kill but flew to keep them alive! For many others, the airlift became a team effort that fostered unthinkable friendships. My father, a former German tank commander, then age 22, still remembers his part in the "Berlin Air Bridge." For him, it was as significant as any of the many combat operations in which he had participated, for it gave new purpose to many of his generation's war veterans. With many other undernourished former Wehrmacht soldiers, he had joined the American effort as a company commander of a newly created uniformed Labor Service Company with the task to load the Berlinbound air transports around the clock.

As my father and his German military veterans loaded and helped maintain the planes, the American crews would initially walk around the aircraft and suspiciously glance at their former enemies. After a while, short conversations ensued and cigarettes were passed out. Then one day, one of the crewmen remarked: "You Kraut soldiers are some tough SOBs -- together the commies can't beat us!" 

The ice was broken. On one official occasion, even Gens. Lucius Clay and James Doolittle came to thank the former German Wehrmacht soldiers for their 24-hour-a-day team effort.

For almost 11 months, Americans and Germans loaded aircraft and flew food and dairy products by day and airlifted coal, wood and other supplies by night. As in any operation, there were casualties. When a plane didn't return, the Germans of the Labor Service unit mourned as if they had lost their own in battle. Former enemies had begun to accept an odd alliance for the preservation of a common ideal -- victory over oppression.

The men who flew the "Raisin Bombers" and those who supported the lifeline to Berlin will soon no longer be with us, but their accomplishments live on in the hearts and minds of those who experienced their courage and determination. Many gray-haired Berliners still remember the planes, the candy parachutes and the confident Americans who inspired a new German generation under the umbrella of democracy.

World War II and the Berlin Airlift united the Western world under U.S. leadership. In 1948, old and emerging friends conquered the moral high ground, defeated communism and began rebuilding Europe from the ashes of a devastating war. As modern Westerners, we have an obligation to those who built friendship from the rubble of war by working for a better and more peaceful world for our children. The Berlin Airlift reminds us that sometimes winning peace requires not bombs and rockets, but moral strength and goodwill.

Editor's Note: Colonel Zimmermann is a former U.S. Army tank battalion commander and decorated Desert Storm veteran.