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Grateful Berlin Recalls US Rescue

Celebrations begin this week marking 50th anniversary of the Berlin airlift. President Clinton to visit Wednesday.

By Lucian KimSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 12, 1998


Fear and hunger are the dominant feelings that Dieter Hahn remembers from the years following the Nazis' defeat in 1945.

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Like the rest of Germany, Berlin had been divided into zones of occupation, yet tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union soon escalated. Berliners like Mr. Hahn, then a teenager, suddenly found themselves on the front lines of the escalating cold war.

Fifty years ago, Stalin cut off western access routes to Berlin, hoping to starve inhabitants of West Berlin into joining the Soviet camp. But the bluff failed miserably. The Western Allies responded with one of the biggest airlifts in history, breaking the blockade and winning over the allegiance of West Berliners. "In the beginning we were afraid, but after the airlift began, the ice was broken," says Hahn. "We got the feeling that we weren't conquered anymore, that somebody cared about us."

This week, Berliners begin commemorative events marking the airlift's 50th anniversary and the city's continuing special relationship with the US. On Wednesday, President Clinton will arrive for a two-day visit.

Mr. Clinton's itinerary is to include a stop at Tempelhof airport, where Hahn once unloaded American planes.

"I'm curious if Clinton will reach the same conclusion I did," he says. "Namely, that the airlift was the most important step to German-American friendship."

The city government has invited 900 airlift veterans to attend the summer's worth of celebrations, including retired Air Force Col. Gail Halvorsen. Colonel Halvorsen earned the nickname "candy bomber" for his idea of dropping tiny parachute packages of candy and gum for West Berlin children. More than 20 tons of goodies were delivered in what became known as "Operation Little Vittles."

Softball and democracy

Hahn, a retired civil engineer, first made contact with US soldiers who introduced Berlin boys to American sports. One such soldier, Sgt. Charles Bass, neatly filled in the last entry of Hahn's school attendance booklet with the words: "1946-47, evenings and Sunday mornings, softball and democracy."

Once the airlift began, Hahn was one of the first Germans to sign up to help unload planes carrying supplies. After his mother, who worked in a canning factory, and his brother, an electrician, lost their jobs as a result of the Soviet blockade, Hahn became the family's only breadwinner and dropped out of high school.

"The most important thing was that I got a very good lunch, probably worth as much as a monthly ration card," says Hahn, recalling his days unloading precious food in the hungry city.

The deprivation is hard to imagine today, but at the time Berlin was extremely vulnerable. The Berlin Wall would not be built until 1961, so there was nothing to stop hungry West Berliners from walking over to the Soviet side. Furthermore, the Red Army outnumbered the American, French, and British forces in the city by almost 3 to 1.

Would it work?

"There was the potential for World War III," says retired Col. Stephen Bowman, the last deputy commander of the US Berlin Brigade and now a military historian in Berlin. "The Allies gambled. They didn't know if they could supply Berlin by air, and there were many within the military who said they couldn't."

Historians attribute the success of the airlift to Gen. Lucius Clay, the American military governor in Germany, and Ernst Reuter, the mayor of Berlin.

"Clay asked Reuter if the West Berliners could take it," remembers Robert Lochner, an American journalist who served as General Clay's translator. "Reuter quietly answered, 'You take care of the airlift, I'll take care of the Berliners.' Only on the strength of that statement did he dare to suggest the airlift."