The Berlin Airlift has been called “America’s Finest Hour” by historians. World War III almost happened in 1948 but the Berlin Airlift helped avert a third world war.I studied war for one year at War School in Alabama at Air University and this Berlin Airlift part of history has fascinated me every since.
Jesus mentions children and the gentleness of His Spirit in this morning’s reading. This Berlin Air Lift story is a fascinating commentary on how one can win a war without evern firing a shot. Using the military machinery to crush an enemy with no bullets.
One little line in a World War II Treaty said that a twenty-mile wide air corridor would be allowed through Soviet airspace to allow air travel in and out of Berlin. Someone had the vision to put that line in the treaty.
World War III was about to begin in 1948, just three years after World War II ended.
The Russians cut off all communication and travel to and from the city of Berlin in Germany. The Russians were daring the U.S., Britain, and France to cross the line into war.
Two and a half million people in Berlin were going to starve to death.
President Truman called in his senior military leaders and told them he wanted to feed and supply Berlin. At first some generals said it would nearly impossible. President Truman told them told them to figure out a way to do it. Period.
All roads were cut off by the Russians. Any movement on the road by cars or tanks or trucks heading toward Berlin would be taken as a threat of war by the Russians and World War III could happen. .
A British commander Sir Brian Robertson suggested we supply the city by air. Truman asked General Curtis LeMay, commander of US Forces in Europe, if that was possible. LeMay responded, “We can haul anything.”
The operation to fly in tons of supplies daily to over 2 million Berlin residents was planned to only last a few weeks.
It lasted over a year. The Russians did not think we could sustain the operation for more than a few weeks. We did.
It was called Operation Vittles because one general said, “We are haulin’ grub.”
Daily it would require over 1,000 C-54 cargo plane flights. Daily it would require 646 tons of wheat and flour; 125 tons of cereal; 64 tons of fat; 10 tons of dehydrated potatoes; 180 tons of sugar; 11 tons of coffee; 19 tons of powdered milk; 5 tons of whole milk for children and baking; 144 tons of dehydrated vegetables; 38 tons of salt; and 10 tons of cheese. Plus 2,000 tons of coal and fuel would be needed daily for industry to continue.
President Truman made the commitment that we would not abandon Berlin. The Airlift would happen, beginning in June of 1948.
Black Friday happened on July 28, 1948. General Turner, commander of the Operation, flew into Berlin to give a medal to a pilot. Weather was awful. While Turner’s plane was in the stack of planes waiting in a pattern to land, a C-54 crashed on the runway. A second plane crashed and burned trying to avoid the first crashed plane. A third plane crashed trying to avoid the other two. Turner got on the radio and told the tower to send every plane back to home station. All planes left. Game over, it seemed.
But General Turner created a new policy immediately. Took a tragedy and learned from it. It worked great. Any plane that missed its landing would become a departure and would have to head back home. You had one shot to land. If you missed it, you went home and started over. Planes were scheduled to land every three minutes, around the clock.
It was a brilliant plan that came out of tragedy. Now my favorite part of this story.
Operation Little Vittles. U.S. pilot 1st Lt. Gail Halvorsen became one of the most poignant stories of the Airlift. On a day off, he hitched a ride to Berlin on a US plane. While standing on the ground by the runway in uniform, a crowd of Berlin children started asking him all kinds of questions about the planes. They wanted to know how fast the planes were flying, etc. He noted that not one kid asked for candy or treats, which was unusual. Some kids had been born during the war and had never seen candy or treats. They were kids of war.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out two pieces of Wrigley’s Doublemint Gum and gave it to them, telling them to not fight over it and to divide it evenly…and that if they did he would drop some more gum to them the next day when he flew in with supplies.
One kid asked, “But how will we know your plane?” He said, “I will wiggle my wings for you.”
The next day on his approach he rocked his plane and dropped some chocolate bars attached to a handkerchief parachute to the children waiting below. Every day the number of children would grow and he made several more drops. Mail he received began to be addressed to “Uncle Wiggly Wings”, “The Chocolate Uncle” and the “Chocolate Flier”.
He did not tell anyone what he was doing for fear of getting in trouble. Then his commander General Turner called him in and asked what he was doing. “Flying, sir.” Again the commander asked him what he was doing. “Flying, sir.” Then the commander pulled out a newspaper with a picture of Halverson’s plane with little parachutes trailing behind. Turned out one of his parachutes hit a photographer on the head and the photographer took a photo of it all.
General Turner loved the idea and ended up having his pilots drop over 3 tons of candy over Berlin and this became known as Operation Little Vittles. We even dropped candy into the Soviet sector of the city.
A year later the Berlin Airlift was still going. The Americans and the British never gave up flying around the clock delivering tons of food and candy and coal. On Easter Sunday General Turner decided to try and break the record of tonnage of supplies delivered in one day. He just wanted to break the monotony of the operation and to set a record for his troops to enjoy breaking.
They did set a record that day. They delivered 12,941 tons of coal to the people of Berlin, nearly doubling the previous record for one day of supplies delivered.
That broke the Soviet’s will. They gave in and opened up the city to the world after the Easter Day Parade, as it became known as around the world. World War III was averted.
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me. For I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
6 lessons from this for me.
1. Have a vision. Someone had the vision to put that one line in the Treaty about keeping Air Space corridor open. Keep your options open in life with vision.
2. Decide what to do with your life and pursue it, even when you do not have the details worked out and when it does not seem possible. Like President Truman, commit to doing right and then figure out a way to do it.
3. Let the tragedy in your life lead to a better plan IN your life. General Turner saw three planes crash below him, sent everyone back home, and then figured out a better plan. Life will attempt to crush you through tragedy. Turn tragedy into triumph. The cross was a great tragedy. God turned it into a great triumph.
4. Feed the children and the hungry and the powerless, no matter what your rank or stature is in life. Drop candy dangling from handkerchief parachutes in life.
5. Be willing to take risks for the good of others.
6. Live for others. Use your power for the good of others. America in her finest hour during Operation Little Vittles in 1949. Happy Birthday, America. Amen.
By GARY L. SMITH
Reverend – Christ the Redeemer Church