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Airlift – The Wings of Mercy

In the recent activities commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift much has been said, published and screened about it. My personal story about a small part of that operation is nothing more than what GIs have done since our country had a military establishment. Men in uniform have always shared special parts of their rations with children of friendly countries and with the children of conquered countries. It is nothing new.

My story began when I met about 30 children in July 1948 at the beginning of the Soviet siege of West Berlin. The scene was a barbed wire fence surrounding Tempelhof Central Airport in the American Sector. Pilots assigned to fly food and fuel over heavily fortified Soviet East Germany wanted to see the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag and Hitler’s bunker, not just from the sky but up close and on the ground. I was no different. General Tunner wisely required all pilots to stay by their aircraft while it was being unloaded. The engines were to be started the moment the last sack of flour or coal was taken from the aircraft. We were to go back to West Germany for another load, fly two or three round trips to Berlin from Rhein-Main, sleep and do it again. No sightseeing.

My only chance to see Berlin on the ground was to finish my round trips and instead of going to bed return to Berlin from Rhein-Main as a non-crew member, a hitchhiker. That is what I did early in the afternoon one day in mid-July. This would allow me to look around Tempelhof and visit the points of interest then catch a ride back to Rhein-Main on a returning aircraft. That was no problem. C-54s were leaving Berlin empty for Rhein-Main every few minutes. No reservation needed. The only problem was the loss of sleep for 24 hours and getting back to West Germany before I was scheduled to start my next trips to Berlin.

It was at this time I met those 30 children at the barbed wire fence on the approach end of the runway at Tempelhof. It was these children who first taught me about the Berliner’s desire for American style freedom.

Before proceeding by jeep to the Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag and Hitler’s Bunker I wanted to get movies of our aircraft coming over the bomb-damaged apartment houses just off the approach to Tempelhof on the end of runway 27 right (west landing). Runway 27 left, over the graveyard (cemetery) would not be constructed for some time.

Soon about 30 children came up on the opposite side of the barbed wire fence and began talking with me in broken English. They were watching the planes land with special interest. The discussion began about the increased number of planes landing each day, their cargo and our commitment to keep the airlift going. There were no complaints about the dried eggs, potatoes or milk. Their questions began to center on how firmly we were committed keep up the airlift in the face of the Soviet threats. I was just a pilot not a politician but I told them not to worry.

They cautioned me that the good summer weather would be replaced with fog, freezing rain and snow. Could we do it then? I assured them we could but they still showed some concern. They said, “During bad weather times you don’t have to give us enough to eat. Just give us a little. Some day we will have enough to eat but if we lose our freedom, we may never get it back.” It was the children encouraging me rather than me encouraging the children. They said that whatever we could do would be good enough. They taught me a lesson about the importance of being able to choose one’s own destiny, another definition of freedom. They were aware of what Hitler had done to their lives. Their relatives across the border in East Berlin and East Germany told them about the system Stalin was imposing on the people there. These children knew what they wanted, the right to choose!

The hour I was with them at the fence went quickly. I turned to leave them for the jeep waiting at the Tempelhof terminal building. I marveled at how mature these children were. How concerned they were for the truly important things of life. Not one begged for gum or candy although they hadn’t had any for months and knew that being an American, I might have some. They would not lower themselves to be beggars. They were too grateful for the flour each day to keep them free. I was astonished because in other countries during and after the war, groups of children like this would chase Americans down the street begging for gum or candy. I knew it must be on their minds but not one would be so ungrateful to ask for something more than food.

I knew that it was not just the children that valued freedom, but they also learned it from older family members. Gratitude for their freedom was the great motivation in this city under siege. On September 9, 1948 the West Berliner’s exceptional Mayor Ernst Reuter, echoed this spirit in the Plazt der Republik, “There is only one possibility for all of us: to stand jointly together until this fight has been won.” This was the Berliners “Spirit of Freedom” completely supported by Mayor Reuter’s great American counterpart, General Lucius Clay.

Because of the children’s gratitude, I wanted to give them some sweets but all I had was two sticks of gum. Thirty children and two sticks – there could be a fight. I broke the sticks in two and passed the four pieces through the fence. No fight, but those who didn’t get any wanted a piece of the wrappers. They smelled the small pieces of wrapper and their eyes got big as they remembered what it was like to have gum. I was astonished at their response. Just then a C-54 flew over our heads and landed behind me. I decided that the next day I could drop gum and even some chocolate out of my aircraft as I flew over their heads to land. There would be enough for all. That way I could respond quickly, and I wouldn’t lose any more sleep.

The children were more than excited when I explained my plan. Because there were so many airplanes landing, they immediately wanted to know how they could recognize mine. I told them that when I came over Tempelhof from West Germany I would wiggle (rock back and forth) the wings of that big C-54. They said let’s get this thing started.

The next day I came back over Tempelhof. The children were down below waving! When I wiggled the wings, they went wild. They caught the three parachutes loaded with goodies and they shared. We wanted to keep it a secret because we had no time to get approval from the authorities.

            

For each of the next three weeks we dropped more. The crowd grew. One day I returned to Rhein-Main from Berlin. There was an officer there to meet me. He took me to my colonel who demanded to know what I had been doing. Because I didn’t get permission first I could have been court-martialed, but General Turner thought it was a good thing so I was given permission to continue. My squadron members gave me their candy and gum rations and handkerchiefs for parachutes. Then the candy companies in America sent tons of candy and gum through Chicopee, Massachusetts where children from 22 schools loaded little parachutes and sent large boxes full and ready to drop. They were flown to Rhein-Main through Westover AFB. By the end of the blockade our squadrons had dropped 23 tons of candy and chewing gum. Fifteen tons had come through Chicopee.

The children wrote thousands of letters. I had no time to answer them so two German secretaries answered the mail. One sample follows:

Dear Uncle Wiggly Wings,
August 29, 1948

When yesterday I came from school, I had the happiness to get one of your sweet gifts. First I didn’t know what to do; I couldn’t come home quickly enough, to look at your wonderful things. You cannot think how big that joy was, they all, my brother and parents stood about me when I opened the strings and fetched out all the chocolate. The delight was very large.

Gratefully,
Lieselotte Muller
Berlin-Tempelhof, Conturstr 75