“The buildings were bombed and it seemed like there weren’t many men around—all ladies. It was real poverty. It was pitiful,” 93-year-old Ralph Dionne recalls of Germany in 1948.
“There was a gate around our barracks area…the old women would come to the gate begging to help with your laundry. They would take the laundry back home and bring it back faithfully. You could trust them. And they would get paid in cigarettes. That was the money of that time.”
In the bombed out ruins of the former Nazi capital, the fate of the next century stood on the edge of a knife. Dionne, as a 21-year-old mechanic and flight engineer for the U.S. Army, had a front-row seat for the drama.
Like so many American men his age, he was called to Europe to serve. But unlike most, Dionne’s mission was not to fight Germans. It was to help them survive. This massive Allied undertaking, the first battle of the Cold War, later came to be known as the Berlin Airlift.
In honor of the 70th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, Dionne recently shared his memories at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. Along with Cold War scholar Hope Harrison and curator of the Allied Museum in Berlin Bernd von Kostka, they painted a vivid portrait of the volatile post-WWII world and why Americans should still care about the Berlin Airlift today.
Berlin, 1948: The Front Lines of the Cold War
After its devastating defeat in the Second World War, Germany was on the precipice of doom. Its cities were in ruin, the people were demoralized, and its enemies were at the gates. The nation was divided into four sectors, controlled respectively by the victorious Allies: France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States.
Losing a staggering 27 million people in the war, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had little sympathy for the Germans in the Soviet-controlled sector. With the memory of Nazi occupation still fresh in their minds, the French were also understandably leery about helping Germany back on its feet. But although Great Britain and the United States both paid dearly in the war, as well, they were confident that a stable, reconstructed Germany was not only possible but essential to world stability.
By then, U.S. President Harry Truman and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill believed Stalin and the intellectual contagion of Communism presented a far greater threat than resurgent German fascism. The Western Allies knew that a stable, democratic German republic would be an essential barrier to halting the spread of Communism into Western Europe.
On the other hand, Stalin knew that poverty and chaos would only make the German people more open to Russia’s proxy or outright rule. An unstable world, still reeling from the agonies of two world wars, was up for grabs to whichever ideology offered people their best chance for stability and peace. By the spring of 1948, the stage for the first battle of the Cold War had been set.
The Showdown between East and West
Hoping to get the Germany economy back on its feet, the Western Allies introduced a new currency—the Deutschmark—to the Western-controlled sectors of Germany and Berlin. Rightfully, Stalin saw this as a challenge to his power. In protest, on June 24, 1948, he launched a blockade on land, sea, and rail, denying all supplies to the still-devastated city of Berlin.
With the bombed-out capital still in ruins and a bitter winter approaching, Berliners needed food, clothing, and, above all, coal to heat homes and power rebounding German industry. Americans like Dionne, the British, and the French were going to make sure they got it. “Operation Vittles,” which later became known as the Berlin Airlift, was under way.
With Berlin 110 miles deep into the Soviet sector, the Airlift posed an enormous logistical challenge. The C-54 aircraft that Dionne worked on required constant maintenance due to the Airlift’s round-the-clock flights with heavy cargo.
“The heavy loads of landing after landing just seared the tires,” Dionne explained to the audience. We had to change the tires all the time.” It’s no wonder. At the peak of the Airlift, on April 16, 1949, 1,398 flights carrying more than 12,940 tons were flown to Berlin within just 24 hours. That’s an average of one flight every 62 seconds.
American Airlift pilot Col. Gail Halvorsen even took it upon himself to drop candy in little parachutes to the children of Berlin as a token of friendship and affection. Born into chaos, most children didn’t even know what candy was; many were so poor they didn’t have shoes. This gesture encouraged the people of Berlin that the Western Allies were sincere in their desire to re-build Germany as a free, self-sufficient republic.
Although the Americans and British championed its cause, the Airlift was truly a united effort. The U.S. and Great Britain provided pilots, aircraft, and flight engineers like Dionne. Not only did the British employ the resources of the Royal Air Force, but they even paid private companies to fly supplies to the desperate Berliners. The French contributed by aiding air traffic over their sector, as well as providing coal and food. Holland contributed food, as well.
In the former capital of the Third Reich, the nations Germany had tried to destroy just a few years earlier were now coming to her rescue.
What’s the Legacy of the Berlin Airlift?
By May 1949, it was clear that Stalin’s blockade had backfired; the Western Allies had proven that they could carry on the Airlift indefinitely. They had shown Stalin they were willing to fight for the fate of Berlin, Germany, and Western Europe.
Stalin lifted the blockade on May 12, 1949, but the Airlift continued to ensure Berlin would be well supplied for the winter. The United States made its final flight on September 30, 1949.
In the first showdown of the Cold War, Stalin lost. He gambled to prevent a military alliance of the other allies and against the creation of a democratic German state. His actions produced the opposite effect; the Berlin Airlift led directly to the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a military alliance that could counter Soviet power. It also led to the creation of East and West Germany, creating a democratic barrier between Stalin’s Russia and the rest of Europe.
Even more importantly, in an era of political rancor, the Berlin Airlift is a story that should make every American proud. American kids like Dionne and Halvorsen helped Germany and the world recover from the agonies of war. They stood up to Stalin’s plan to ruin the German people and consume the world.
American men who saw their countrymen and loved ones die in WWII nevertheless joined the fight to help desperate Germans rebuild their lives. Instead of revenge or indifference, as a people, we chose mercy.
In just 70 years, a nation on the brink of ruin and alienated from all her European neighbors has become the continent’s economic and political leader. Germany and the United States are not only political allies and trading partners, but share a close friendship.
And the people of Berlin have remembered. This spring, Dionne was in Berlin, being honored with other Airlift veterans. At the restaurant, his German waitress found out who he and his friends were. Her grandmother had told her stories about the Airlift and how the Americans had saved Berlin. She had always wanted to meet an Airlift veteran; she hugged him and paid for his dinner.
“They have great feeling for Americans,” said Dionne. “Let’s keep it up.”