Sunday, June 29, 2008

A Little Boy in the Berlin Airlift. His memories, a true and touching account

I am not sure whether the 60th Anniversary of the Berlin Airlift has had as much attention paid to it in the US as it has in Germany. I think it should.

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
Cologne, Germany

Klaus is a very good friend of Mr. and Mrs. Z's who asked us if he could share his story with a few Americans. I consider this a great honor to my site and I consider it a gift to us all. As Mr. Z translated this to me and I typed (editing afterwards), I have to admit we both became quite moved. We hope this touched you, too. Thank you so much, Klaus.


Anonymous said...

The Berlin Airlift was one of the most dangerous operations undertaken by the Air Force. Plane crashes were frequent due to circumstances of landing a heavy aircraft on a postage stamp sized runway. It is indeed touching to hear how this operation touched the lives of real people.

Please convey my deep appreciation to Mr. Lewin for allowing this story to be told; and the Z family has my gratitude as well ... as they always do for exceptional posts.

Semper Fi

The Merry Widow said...

And the Love of G*D was allowed to reign...tell your friend, that my parents were on the other side during that war, but there were no hard feelings.
AND, the Berlin Air Lift was remembered(after all, we were Air Force!)
And does this history crop up in textbooks in public schools? NO!
The historical and known kindness of Western troops is denied and repudiated.
Wherever American's went, as soldiers or marines or sailors, they would start or assist orphanages(especially), hospitals, churches...who ever got an assist.
This too is forgotten and denied!


Anonymous said...

My father knows a lot about The Berlin Airlift, but then sadly he knows to about being in a Labor Camp with his father and younger brother who he had to steal food for so that he would live since he would not eat what they gave him. Also, the men were separated from their wives and sisters. The hate of Jews and Christians during this dark period in history is being less and less spoken about.

I heard things as a child about WW11 that I will not repeat because it is to painful to imagine what the Nazi's did to hurt so many people - even their own.

Your dear friend Klaus was so kind to share this with us here. It is so sad that it is not in most history books and as I said I only knew about it because of my father who coincidentally came to the United States from Germany in 1948. The German Nazi's raided his town in Lithuania and sent most of them on trains to Germany - the others were killed. My dad's family lost everything.

But he loves the United States. This is his home. He did go back to visit Lithuania in the early 90's and his home as a child was gone-like his life there was wiped out. I cannot imagine how many feel that - WW11 was so horrific and I get mad when people complain about Iraq. They just do not get it.

Sorry for rambling, but this post is so moving and reminded me of so much my father who hardly ever talks about those days, but did share enough with me that I could identify with Klaus's memories.

Thanks for sharing this Z!

CJ said...

I knew nothing about this. Thank you very much.

Anonymous said...

Z and Mr.Z,

My thanks to Mr. Lewin for a memory of light from an otherwise dark time. I was a child myself then, but can only imagine what a child in Berlin must have felt.

It's a tale of emerging from despair to hope and promise. God bless him and others for remembering, and honoring our men who flew those planes in a spirit of mercy, and giving.

This is truly a moving tribute to from good people. Thanks.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this incident, it just goes to show the nobleness, too, of the American Spirit.

We look for the good in people, even though we might have once been enemies.

Even now, in Iraq and Aghanistan , the American GI emobodies some of the same attributes as the American GI of the 1940's.

You have to love a people who respond to a little girl asking for a sweet.

Reading about Stalin cutting off supplies, food, heating oil,.etc, willing to kill 2 million people, I cannot help also to think of what Putin has been up to lately regarding the Ukraine.

The more things change, the more they remain the same, do they not?

I had heard of Templhof Airport and a little about the Berlin Airlift, but not as much as I should.

Yes, the doomdayers, naysayers always say we can't do something, but we prove them wrong every time.

Noble warriors we have .

And I think it true that fortune favors the bold.

Karen Townsend said...

Such a moving post, Z. Thanks to you and Mr. Z.

We need to all remember how blessed we are to be Americans and living here. We are a nation that is a force for good around the world.

This story of the candy drop is the genesis of the candy democracy now practiced by our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mrs. Nancy Reagan helped get the ball rolling with Jelly Belly jelly beans, President Reagan's favorite treat. Such a tender gesture, soldiers giving candy to freightened children in a war zone.

beakerkin said...

It is a forgotten chapter in the aftermath of WW2.

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful and moving first-hand account of history!
Thank you for sharing your friend's story with us, Z.

Nikki said...

I miss this generation. A generation of true sacrifice and appreciation of what it means to be a patriot. What a wonderful story. My husband read it as well and thanks you too. My gratitude to the author, for the great read and the service. Freedom fighters! :)N

Freedomnow said...

Its good to read about the German Awakening!

Thats the true nature of the American occupation!!!

Anonymous said...

Aww, what a beautiful story and a heartfelt tribute to our military and to all Americans. I believe this typifies the American spirit of generosity and human compassion unrivaled throughout the 20th century.

Anonymous said...

Another wonderful post, z. Funny how much good America can do when united and resolved... and how much evil when divided and uncommitted.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much Z and Mr.Z and your wonderful friend!

Rarely do we hear GOOD these days. It's a refreshing change.


Z said...

Everybody, I'm so glad you enjoyed reading this piece.

I heard from Klaus this morning and he's so appreciative of all your comments. He tells me part of his writing this for us was to give honor to Gail Halvorsen.

FJ's right; when Americans are "united and resolved", there's no telling the good they can do.

I'm reminded of the photos of American soldiers now in Iraq holding children in their arms, giving candy to kids playing ball in the streets,'ve seen those photos.

Some things never change.

The WordSmith from Nantucket said...

Thank you for the personalized history account. Thank you Klaus, for sharing your story.

Pat Jenkins said...

great post indeed z.... boy the russians had a habit of breaking mankind to get capitulation... (hello famine of ukraine as well) and yet reagan was admonished for trying to wipe out communism.... hmm... good stuff again...

WomanHonorThyself said...

thanks for sharing this moving account Z!

Brooke said...

What an awesome story, Z! Thanks for posting it!

defiant_infidel said...

What a tremendous, treasured story! And surely it is a privilege to be enlightened to it by Mr. Lewin's kindness... and yours.

I have believed emphatically, for many years now, that our current challenges are precipitated by a generation's apathy. That apathy, IMHO, is the blossom from a plant of historical ignorance. That plant is a weed and we now have acres and acres of them.

Thanks so much...

heidianne jackson said...

to this day, my mother rarely eats sweets, but not because she doesn't like them. it's because she says "other people need them more than" she.

it seems that she got in the habit of sending the candy she would buy at the movies each week to this effort. she was a young girl of about 10 at the same time as mr. lewin - and enjoying her piece in the puzzle every bit as much as he and the other german children.

i had never met anyone else who knew about this outside of my mother and her family. in all honesty i kept meaning to check into it and never got around to it - part of me thought the effort she described was exaggerated.

it seems not. i have sent the link to this story to my mother - i hope she will come and read it to see how her generosity (and that of others in our fine nation) contributed to the memories of an entire nation.

thank you so much for sharing this, z. i'm still blubbering like a baby!

Z said...

Heidianne! WHAT a blessing..that we'd have your mom on the other side, here in America, one of those who gave of her own things to help those little children! Oh, I sure do hope she loves the story.

And I SURE DO HOPE she realizes she, particularly, is one of those Americans Klaus would love to embrace, if I can be so bold as to speak for him!

He's so happy with all these responses....I'm quite sure he'll be as touched as we are at reading this when he hears your mother still has those memories and habits.

Thanks so much for sharing that. I blubbered too, I've gotta say!


EDGE said...

Good stuff, Z!

Trekkie4Ever said...

What an incredible story! Thank you so very much for sharing, it needs to told. We must never forget.

Elmers Brother said...

The noble warrior was part and parcel of my experience in the military. Everywhere we went in peacetime and in war we built orphanages, repaired schools and played with the children.

This is such a great story Z! Thanks so much for sharing it...and thanks to Klaus for reminding us of what we (the US and our Allies) can accomplish when we overcome and adapt.

Incognito said...

very touching... we hear so little about this kind of endeavour, because it is so much easier to villify our country.

kevin said...

The History Channel Magazine prints stuff like this all the time. I recommend submitting it.

Beverly said...

Oh, thank you so much for sharing this with us. Tears are running down my face.

Anonymous said...

What a Klaus! thanks for sharing that with us.


Z said...

thanks, everybody...I'll make sure Klaus keeps checking to read these wonderful comments.

Kevin, thanks..I'll look into that History Channel Magazine. Great tip. MORE people should know this, that's for sure.

I'm glad you've all enjoyed it so much. I know Klaus is, too.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your much missed and appreciated comment at my site.

Z said...

layla, same to you.
you know that.

Average American said...

Such a fantastic post Z. I remember studying WWII in junior high school and a brief description of the Berlin Airlift effort, but not in nearly the detail Klaus went into.

I also know that todays service members in Iraq and Afghanistan hand out candy and toys to the kids, as I and thousands of others did in Vietnam, but I didn't realize that the custom goes so far back. Leave it to us Americans to be such kind-hearted people!Makes me proud to be one!


Anonymous said...

I have a lump in my throat and gratitude in my heart. Against all odds, good people found a way to help there fellow man.
Thank you for your moving story
which I will never forget.
Mr.&Mrs.Z you bring truth and insight to us all. Thank you.

kevin said...

This will help. Put "I Was There" in the subject line and email to,

snail mail,
The History Channel Magazine
PO Box 3485
Minnetonka Mn

It's recommended that the story be between 500-1000 words and include a picture if possible.

Z said...

THANKS, Kevin...I've emailed Klaus asking if I can send this article in for him. I really appreciate your suggestion and the help.

EVERYONE: Klaus wrote to me yesterday saying he's so glad people are seeing what this meant to the Germans and the following:

"I did abstain from describing too much of my personal experiences and those of my family to avoid any compassion by the readers for me but to show the incredible achievement of the Allies.
Just to give you an example what the hunger has caused to us: My mother, my sister and I were happy about a meal consisting of wizened potatoe skins, fried in light machine oil and , in order to smoother the taste of oil, drizzled with a little ersatz coffee from barley. These "nice"
dinners came to an happy end then
through the Berlin Airlift."

Some dinners...we Americans can't even imagine that, can we. May God continue to bless America.

CJ said...

Oh, much as I appreciate Klaus' intent to give the glory to the airlift, I would LOVE to read his personal story in more detail.

Z said...

cj..I would to. I'll tell him. Maybe he'll write us more of what it was like to be a child in World War II Germany and directly afterwards. Thanks.