Daring Young Men: The Heroism and Triumph of the Berlin Airlift, June 1948- May 1949
by Richard Reeves, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2010, $28.
The news was ominous in June 1948. Red Army troops had blockaded all surface connections from West Germany into Berlin, which was divided into four occupation sec tors located deep inside the Soviet occupation zone. Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin was determined to force the three Western powers to withdraw from the city. There seemed to be no way that the French, British and American forces could overcome the restrictions short of armed intervention.
But there were three air corridors linking the three Allied sectors to Berlin that were not blocked off. If the corridors stayed open, could the city of 2.1 million be supplied with all the necessities of life by air? If not, would it mean World War III? Should the three nations withdraw their occupation troops and let the Soviets have the city? The answer came from President Harry S. Truman: “We stay in Berlin. Period.” The result was the Berlin Airlift.
Richard Reeves sees it as his duty not only to explain the political machinations and explore the opinions and decisions by high-level civilian and military officials on both sides, but also to show how the men and women in the ranks put together the “air bridge” and made it work. In the process he covers subjects overlooked by other writers, such as the daunting problems of assembling large numbers of suitable aircraft and materiel from scratch, preparing airfields, providing housing for thousands of military personnel and a ground logistics organization to keep food, coal and medical supplies flowing. But most important was the effort to inaugurate an unprecedented system of air control that would permit safe round-the-clock operations through the air corridors.
It is this last challenge that will most interest military pilots. Thanks to the strict air discipline brought to the job by Maj. Gen. William H. Tunner, veteran of “Hump” operations in the CBI theater, the challenge was met. “The actual operation of a successful airlift is about as glamorous as drops of water on stone,” he later said. A staunch devotee of statistics to evaluate performance, he said, “The real excitement from running a successful airlift comes from seeing a dozen lines climbing steadily on a dozen charts—tonnage delivered, utilization of aircraft and the lines representing accidents and injuries going sharply down.”
Reeves includes testimonials from a wide variety of participants. He looks at the black market, German-American fraternization, training of air and ground crews, aircraft capabilities, establishment of air depots, food distribution and the effects of fatigue on air and ground crews. His narrative makes it clear that the Germans who loaded the planes and lent their expertise to keep the aircraft of their former enemies in the air were just as important as those “daring young men” who piloted, maintained and controlled the aircraft. Along the way there were fatalities—and the ever-present threat of Russian fighters that harassed the cargo planes. But the airlift helped to keep Berlin alive, and Reeves includes interviews with some grateful Berliners to emphasize the importance of this massive effort.
Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.