Cross-posted from SFGate.com
When we were kids, our aunt told us to "clean our plates, children are starving in Europe." In Europe? Where did she ever get that crazy idea, I wondered.
Halfway through Richard Reeves' excellent Daring Young Men, I learned that all across America in the late 1940s mothers were saying something similar to their children. Organizations and individuals were preparing care packages with food and toys to send to "those poor little children in Berlin." Remarkably, altruism in America was galvanized by concern for a city that only a few years before American soldiers had helped bomb into smithereens.
By the spring of 1948 tensions had increased dangerously between the Soviets and the other occupying forces of what had been Germany. France, Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union had joint control of Berlin, but the former capital of the Reich was deep inside the sector controlled by the communists. The Allied Forces had an agreement to divide Germany to keep it weak, but this plan was quickly fading in importance before the ramifications of the mutual suspicion between the Soviets and the United States.
The Red Army was spreading Stalin's version of communism, and the dictator thought that with his vast troop superiority in Central Europe, he would eventually be able to control Berlin and much of the rest of what had been Germany. The United States had already demobilized, and few Americans had the stomach for returning to war. If Stalin wanted Berlin, Soviet leaders and most American generals agreed, there was little anyone could do to stop him.
In June 1948 the Soviets announced a blockade of the sectors of Berlin under Western control, and this seemed a prelude to a total Russian takeover. There wasn't nearly enough food, electricity or raw materials in the city, but its citizens were desperate to stay out of communist control. Against all advice, President Harry Truman made the decision not to abandon Berlin. The Americans had to find a way to keep the city fed and sheltered, despite the Soviet advantages on the ground. The solution was a massive airlift of coal, food, industrial materials and even candy - a lifeline extended by overused and underserviced transport planes.
The experts agreed it couldn't be done. There were just over 2 million people in Berlin living under Western control, and they needed everything. Officials pointed out that there weren't enough American pilots, that the British would be sending food when their own people were seriously undernourished, that the airports were in no shape to handle large numbers of heavy aircraft and that Central Europe's "General Winter" would defeat even the most intrepid airmen. Pilots could barely see the runway, and the communications networks initially were rudimentary.
Starting from expectations of landings every 20 minutes, the airlift put in place a system of bringing in planes at three-minute intervals. In the final months, groups of aviators were having contests to see how many tons could be brought in daily. Competition, ingenuity and bravery worked: The airlift delivered more than 2.3 million tons of food and materials, and the Soviets gave up on the blockade.
Reeves, a fine writer of accessible and thoughtful history, brings the relief operation to life. From memorable characterizations of the architects of policy to compelling anecdotes about the men loading and flying the planes, he illuminates what it was like for the U.S. military to embark on a rescue mission to a country with which it had been in brutal warfare a mere three years before.
Noah Thompson, for example, was called up from the family farm to go back to flying military missions. In 1945 he had dropped bombs on the same area he now flew over with coal. His buddy in the war had been shot down, then beaten to death on the ground by local farmers. Now Thompson's plane was likely to be serviced by former Luftwaffe mechanics hired to repair American C-54s.
The turnaround was dizzying, but airmen like Thompson never lost their focus and performed with enthusiasm and courage. It was dangerous work, and more than 70 men lost their lives. Despite the danger and the long odds, the mission had the vigorous support of Americans back home, who saw the Berlin airlift as a heroic refusal to give in to Stalin's tyrannical ambitions. Reeves quotes a young German boy: "Only three years ago they were fighting against my country, and now they were dying for us. The Americans are such strange people."
Reeves' book takes us back to a time when the American commitment to freedom was exemplified by its military in ways that aroused admiration at home and abroad. The "daring young men" were not perfect, but they were heroes, and we acknowledged them as such. Today, when the United States struggles with two wars only grudgingly supported by some of its citizens, Reeves' account is a welcome reminder of the importance of a military willing to take risks to preserve freedom. Daring Young Men brings to life a moment when altruism, guts and know-how inspired our country and saved a city.