WASHINGTON — Raymond Roberts still remembers vividly the sight of that Soviet MiG jet teasing the cargo plane he was in as a crew member ferrying supplies 70 years ago to a besieged Berlin.
“We were helpless,” Roberts, who lives in Denton, Texas, said in an interview. “We were just flying in a small (air) corridor that we didn’t dare get out of. He was ready to shoot.”
The Soviets never did shoot down or divert any U.S. aircraft bringing coal, consumables and candy to those living in Berlin — an 11-month operation from June 1948 to May 1949 that defeated Moscow’s attempt to squeeze the U.S., Britain and France out of Berlin.
The airlift also stamped the newly minted U.S. Air Force as a service branch with a distinct mission that resonates today — silencing skeptics in the 1940s who thought it should remain part of the Army.
“It absolutely proved we [the Air Force] could be a viable service on our own,” said Ellery Wallwork, the command historian for the U.S. Air Force Air Mobility Command. “It proved the value not just in [service] terms but also in humanitarian and international affairs.”
The airlift was launched on June 26, 1948, just days after Soviet authorities closed all road, rail and barge access connecting western Germany to West Berlin.
Moscow hoped Berliners would be desperate for supplies and turn to them — and thus away from Britain, France and the U.S. — and give the Soviet Union total control of Berlin.
Moscow was wrong. The U.S. and its allies decided to supply their sectors of the city from the air through “Operation Vittles.” Said President Harry Truman: “We shall stay.”
At the start, planes delivered about 800 tons of supplies to West Berlin daily, an amount that quickly escalated; by the end, the loads had increased to about 8,000 tons of supplies per day — totaling about 2.3 million tons of cargo over the course of the airlift, the Air Force said.
“Other than some of the Air Force people, such as Gen. [Curtis] LeMay, no one else thought it would work long-term,” Wallwork said. “The Soviets also did not think it would work, which is why they did not initially do any harassment, which is so much better.”
The Soviets caught on in a few weeks and then they launched some attempts are disruption. But the Soviet uptick coincided with a major shift in the airlift operation, which moved from a haphazard effort to a finely tuned relief machine — one that has been used in hundreds of Air Force efforts in the 70 years since, Wallwork said.
It also coincided with the command shift to Major Gen. William Tunner, who arrived in Germany on July 28, 1948, and elevated the operation. Tunner — whose nicknames included “Tonnage Tunner” and “Willie the Whip” — was the architect of the successful supply chain to China of “over the hump” during World War II.
“He put a lot of those lessons learned and the concepts develop there in place early on and said ‘we can do this long-term’,” Wallwork said.
The Russians watched everything closely.
“Occasionally we would get a little response from the Russians,” John Heckler of Hecktown, Pennsylvania, who was a mechanic then a flight engineer on C-54s, said in an interview. He arrived in Germany in January 1949.
“They liked to buzz off the wing tip a little bit,” he said. “They had jets, the jets were new. It was very impressive.”
There were never any close calls between the Soviet jets and U.S. aircraft but it was always on the minds of the crews. Early in the airlift, there was a fatal collision of a British cargo plane and a Soviet jet.
At the operation’s peak, on April 16, 1949, an allied aircraft landed in Berlin every minute, the Air Force said. The airfields were Tempelhof in the American sector, Gatow on the Havel river in the British sector and Tegel, which army engineers and Berlin volunteers built in 49 days inside the French sector.
“We would be on the ground about 20 minutes, no longer than 30 minutes, as the German crews unloaded the planes,” Ralph Dionne of Nashua, New Hampshire, a mechanic and then flight engineer during the airlift, said in an interview. “We would take off and land in the same direction.”
Dionne said the air path was 20 miles wide but “when you are up flying in a fog, it’s not that wide. That was the main problem.” He said the airlift was blessed with a milder than usual winter. “We were very fortunate,” Dionne said. “The Russians figured we would never get through the winter.”
Roberts, who was 15 when the Air Force took him in because of his mechanic skills, said some of the Russian pilots would push very close.
“It got my attention a little bit,” Roberts said. “They looked us over real good and we started to wave at each other. We used a finger top wave. They would be almost laughing, and then roll and they left.”
On May 12, 1949, the Soviets lifted the blockade and reopened all routes into the city. The airlift continued until September 1949 to stockpile supplies in case Moscow tried the same tactic again.
Forty years later Moscow saw its dream fulfilled — Berlin was united as one city with one key difference: It was under western democratic ways.