As a young boy, I spent World War II in Berlin. Of course, I have many very terrible memories which, thank God, have faded more in intensity in the pursuant decades than have the really beautiful memories of the Berlin airlift by the Americans and the Allied forces. West Berlin, so very hungry and cold, was saved by the airlift from falling into the arms of Soviet annexation into the occupied zone in East Berlin.
The Soviets had, after the foundation of a West German state became obvious, categorically cordoned off West Berlin and seized the electric supply. All transports from and to West Berlin through the zone surrounding Berlin came to a halt and the two million people there faced catastrophe. Supply structures were still nonexistent 3 years after the end of the war, so Berlin was dependent on the daily supply of all life-necessary materials, not only food but also heating materials and fuel for the electricity power plants.
What happened within the population after the Soviet Blockade can barely be described. Many Berliners saw only a choice between “pest and cholera” as we say in German: it was either go down or to give up to the Russians. The blockade began in 1948 and West Berlin became a little island embraced by the Russian area of influence and control. Stalin was on the verge of letting two million people die from hunger.
My father, as a former lieutenant of the armed forces, had not yet come back from a Russian prison camp so it was up to my mother to figure out how she would bring her children through all by herself. Suddenly, unexpected relief came and it came from people who Adolph Hitler had declared our enemies: The Americans and the British. In an ingenious and forward-looking humane decision, the United States administration began to bring West Berlin much needed supplies through the air! The Brits went along with this action and the French, too, agreed to it but their military engagement in Indochina kept them from very actively participating.
On June 26, 1948, the first aircraft took off from Frankfurt and brought supply goods to Berlin. We Berliners could only be amazed and felt such deep thankfulness not only for the necessary help but also for the sign of a democratic new start for us and a return to feeling like one of a family of countries, something the Americans showed us through this wonderful action.
Also, we as children sensed the city starting to breathe again. We followed with gratefulness each announcement of the astonishing performances which our former “enemies” did for us. This was the birth hour of the German/American friendship and partnership which, despite all prophecies of gloom which always come from the same political side of both our countries, has achieved an unbreakable status.
Unforgotten by the Germans of my generation is General Lucius D. Clay, who stood by us for many years through his presence and his effective aid management. Also unforgotten remain the more than 20,000 men of the US Air Force and their comrades in the Royal British Air Force who tirelessly flew, day and night and WITHOUT PAUSE, in a 3 minute cycle with 300 aircraft, supplying West Berlin for 15 months! These aircraft didn’t just fly one after the other but in 3 elevations at the same time. There were air corridors for incoming and outgoing flights. This was a logistical master performance, particularly for the conditions at that time. Almost 2.5 million tons of freight and 225,000 passengers were transported in those 15 months. So very regrettably, many pilots lost their lives in flight accidents during that time.
These are some of the impressive facts which I came to understand only many years later. For me as a small boy of 10 years, something else will remain unextinguishable in my memory: “Operation Little Vittles”. This began through a letter written by a little girl in Berlin, Mercedes, who lived in the airplane approach path of Tempelhof Airport .
The letter was directed to the pilots (“Chocolate Uncles”) who flew in low altitudes above her. In her letter, she told them that next time they should drop some candies! “…there, where you see the white hens in the garden, this is where I live and this is where I’d like you to drop the sweets, bitte!”
This little girl’s request reached Colonel Gail S. Halvorsen, who immediately took charge of this task and who constructed little parachutes by which he could start dropping sweets. Rapidly, other pilots also started to do this and what they initiated was incredible. Large numbers of children gathered in the flight path, stood on the rubble of bombed houses, and waited for chocolate and chewing gum. Gail had let the children know that he would wiggle his wings when he came before he made the drop of the rain of candy! We who were born during that time had no knowledge of sweets until the airlifts! No one who wasn’t there could imagine what that meant to us. After that started, these aircraft were called “Raisin Bombers” (raisin is a synonym for sweets in German). “Operation Little Vittles” had an enormous effect and triggered an enormous wave of desire and willingness by the Americans at home to help us children. They collected gifts and sweets which were now also dropped by pilots in other areas of the city. In addition, the children in hospitals were supplied. One US official later said: “This self-initiated act of kindness became the humanitarian heart that kept the air crews going, fueled the hope of all Berliners, and set the mold for all future humanitarian airlifts.”
Gail Halvorsen is now eighty-seven years old but as “lively as tennis shoes”, another German expression, and he was one of the honored guests at the 60 year commemoration festivities in Frankfurt. Of course, he also met Mercedes, the little girl with the white hens!
I had fourteen years to go before I could go to America for the first time. I stood on the Empire State Building, looked down at the city, and wanted to embrace every American. Thank you for your spirit and for being such an incredible role model of aid and friendship.
Mr. Klaus Lewin