Chapter OneBread from the Heavens
Nine-year-old Peter Zimmerman searched the sky for airplanes. It was 1948, and Peter stood in his uncle's yard in West Berlin, Germany. There had been a time, three or four years earlier, when the droning of American and British bombers would have sent Peter running for cover. But World War II was over, and things had changed. Now the aircraft didn't frighten him. In fact, he longed to see a particular American plane—one that would fly over and wiggle its wings.
In the same city seven-year-old Mercedes Simon was amazed that her wartime enemies—the Americans and the British—were now her friends. She peered out the window of her apartment, watching US Air Force planes swoop by to land at nearby Tempelhof Central Airport. The pounding of their mighty engines filled the air day and night. Like Peter, Mercedes was watching for a special plane—one she hoped would fly closer, rocking its wings back and forth.
West Berliners were excited to see the steady stream of great silver birds crowding their sky. Instead of bombers come to destroy, these aircraft were cargo planes that had come to save West Berliners from starvation. Each plane was filled with flour, potatoes, milk, meat, or medicine—even coal to heat homes and generate electricity for the city. Of course, there were hundreds of American and British military aviators flying into the city, but Peter and Mercedes were waiting for just one pilot. And they weren't the only ones. Every youngster in the city had an eye on the sky, waiting to spot Lt. Gail Halvorsen's plane.
But why was this pilot, along with the others, flying food into West Berlin? And why was it coming in on airplanes at all? It would have been much more efficient to transport the food with trucks and railway cars.
The answers lie in what happened to Berlin when World War II ended in 1945. The Allied powers—Great Britain, the United States, France, and the Soviet Union (Russia)—defeated Germany and then divided it into four occupation zones. The Soviets took the northeastern part of the country, which included Berlin, the capital city. Although Britain, the United States, and France (the Western Allies) each occupied a zone, they still wanted a presence in Berlin—even though it was located 110 miles (177 kilometers) inside the Soviet-controlled zone. Therefore, the Allied powers agreed to divide up the city: the eastern part of Berlin would go to the Soviets, and the western part would be split into three sectors, one each for the Western Allies.
The Soviet Union had been on Germany's side earlier in the war. When Germany unexpectedly turned against Russia, the Soviets switched their allegiance and joined Britain, the United States, and France. But Russia's Communist government was a dictatorship, and it did not trust democracies. When the war ended, the Soviets distanced themselves from the democratic governments of their former allies. Soon Russia's leaders made it clear that they wanted Britain, the United States, and France out of Berlin. When they didn't leave, the Soviets cried foul by claiming that the Western Allies were forcing their democratic, capitalistic ideals on everyone in Germany.
Finally the Russians decided to drive the Westerners out by blockading Berlin—not allowing trains, cars, trucks, or river barges to reach the city. By cutting off land and water travel across the Soviet zone, the Russians intended to stop all food shipments to West Berlin. Surely after a few miserable weeks, West Berliners—who were already suffering in their war-ravaged city—would beg the Western Allies to leave so they could be fed by the Soviets. The Russians were certain Britain, the United States, and France would have no other choice but to go. As it turned out, there was another choice.
Although the treaty dividing Berlin did not guarantee travel over land and water, it did allow for several air corridors into Berlin. With this avenue of travel still open, the Western Allies decided to fly food and fuel into West Berlin in a concerted effort called the Berlin Airlift. The task was daunting. To feed over two million people seemed difficult if not impossible—certainly the Soviets thought so.
The British Royal Air Force (RAF) launched its airlift of supplies on June 26, 1948, calling it "Operation Plainfare." The RAF flew its cargo planes into Gatow Airfield in the British sector. Besides regular aircraft, it also used flying boats named Sunderlands, which had marine fuselages resistant to their corrosive payloads of salt. They landed on lakes along the River Havel in West Berlin.
The US Air Force (USAF) began its airlift on the same day as the British and dubbed it "Operation Vittles," after the vittles, or food, it was flying into West Berlin. Douglas C-47 Skytrain and C-54 Skymaster aircraft flew into airfields in the French, British, and American sectors of West Berlin: Tegel, Gatow, and especially Tempelhof Central Airport. The cargo planes dropped out of the sky to land every few minutes, twenty-four hours a day. US pilots made as many flights as possible before fatigue required new flight crews to take over. One of these pilots was Gail Halvorsen, a young lieutenant who had just arrived in Germany.