“We must have a bad phone connection,” asked General Curtis LeMay, the cigar-chomping, gruff-talking head of Strategic Air Command. “It sounds like you are asking whether we have planes for carrying coal.”
It was June 1948, and on the other end of the call was General Lucius Clay, the military governor of the U.S. Occupation Zone in Germany. Clay confirmed, “Yes, that’s what I said. Coal.”
LeMay, later the inspiration for the pugnacious and unreasonable Buck Turgidson in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, answered gruffly after a long pause, “The Air Force can deliver anything.”
Thus began the Berlin Airlift — two days after the Soviets had imposed a blockade on the city which was in their occupied zone to force the Allied occupying powers out.
What Clay had in mind was unthinkable — supplying 2.25 million people with food and fuel by air indefinitely. Initially, it began haphazardly. A “cowboy” operation, unauthorized by the higher-ups (President Truman only later approved the mission). The U.S. Air Force, after all, was a military organization without much experience in running transport and cargo operations. Yet, under the command of Maj. Gen. William Tunner, it became a streamlined and coordinated effort and an incredible feat of logistics.
At the peak of the airlift, cargo planes landed at Tempelhof every four minutes around the clock, and the daily tonnage of food and supplies brought into Berlin by the planes exceeded the amount of material that had been brought in by trains before the blockade. It was a defining moment that won the hearts and minds of the occupied and defeated Germans.
During a landing at Tempelhof, a pilot named Gail Halvorsen befriended the starving children who played around the airfield. Halvorsen, who had personal reservations about the airlift, grew up poor during the Great Depression and empathized with the children. He handed the children two sticks of gum and told them to come back the next day when he planned to airdrop more sweets from his plane. He would wiggle the wings of his aircraft so they would know it was him, he told the children.
Thus began the story of a man remembered in Germany as Der Schokoladen Flieger, the Chocolate Flyer. Not only did he live up to his promise, but Halvorsen also asked other pilots to donate their candy rations, and he had his flight engineer rock the airplane during the drop. More and more children showed up to catch his airdrops, and letters arrived requesting special airdrops at other points in the city.
It was against the rules, but when an Associated Press story appeared under the headline “Lollipop Bomber Flies Over Berlin,” Halvorsen’s superiors realized the PR opportunity. Candy and handkerchief donations arrived from all over America following the AP story (candy was dropped using handkerchiefs as miniature parachutes), and Halvorsen was dubbed Uncle Wiggly Wings in the press. Now officially sanctioned as ‘Operation Little Vittles’, dozens of pilots dropped more than 21 tons of candy in 250,000 small parachutes across Berlin.
The Soviets would soon recognize the futility of the airlift, but the standoff would ultimately last fifteen months. President Truman would use the crisis to his advantage and win an upset reelection victory, while his Secretary of Defense would descend into madness in the midst of an escalating crisis. All in all, when the airlift ended, the United States, Britain, and France had flown 278,228 flights altogether to supply isolated West Berlin.
Operation Little Vittles was immortalized in a photo which had become as iconic as the candy bombers themselves — and later featured on posters and commemorative stamps.
The photo was taken by Henry Ries, a Berlin-born Jew who fled Nazi Germany and migrated to the United States before the war. He first arrived in the United States in 1937 but was sent back due to improper immigration papers. However, he was able to emigrate the following year and began selling vacuum cleaners to make a living. In 1943, he joined the U.S. Army as an aerial photographer and worked first in the Pacific theater, then in Europe. After the war, Ries returned to Germany and used images of mundane life to contrast the darkness of war’s aftermath.
Another famous Ries photo, titled ‘Germany’s future swings in front of Germany’s past,’ depicted children at an amusement park ride in Lustgarten in the shadow of the bombed-out ruin of Königliches Schloss, the seat of the last German Kaiser.
Ries’ photos put into images the thundering words of Berlin’s Lord Mayor Ernst Reuter, the symbol of the Free Berlin. On September 1948, Reuter gave a speech in front of the burned-out Reichstag building, facing a crowd of 300,000 where he appealed to the world not to abandon Berlin — a moment also captured by Ries (above).
Reuter pled, “Ihr Völker der Welt … Schaut auf diese Stadt und erkennt, dass ihr diese Stadt und dieses Volk nicht preisgeben dürft, nicht preisgeben könnt!” (People of this world… look upon this city and see that you should not, cannot abandon this city and this people).
Ries’ photos complemented these words and shone a light on the plight of the defeated Germans, and their struggling lives: a woman ironing while her family slept in the same room; hardened black market traders; emaciated women returning from markets and rummaging in the streets for fuel; citizens planting modest vegetable gardens in the Tiergarten; ethnic Germans expelled from Silesia (surrendered to Poland after the war) and released prisoners of war. In his photo of poor market on Wittenbergplatz in front of the completely destroyed Kaufhaus des Westens, emaciated women offer pitiful bundles of herbs for sale and a man repairs a tattered shoe.
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