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The Berlin Airlift
Film Description

"The best thing was the biscuit soup the Americans gave us... Sometimes it was the only hot meal of the day."

- Mercedes Wild, Berliner

"Operation Vittles"-the most successful peacetime air operation in aviation. It was the largest humanitarian campaign the world had ever seen. Western superpowers would come together to feed the city of Berlin.

On June 24, 1948, the Cold War began in the war-torn, divided city of Berlin. The Soviets, who controlled all of East Germany and the eastern half of Berlin, blocked all access to the American and British-controlled West Berlin, choking commerce and starving the people. The Soviet goal was to expel the Allied forces, who had long been a thorn in Stalin's side. But Western forces refused to abandon the city. President Harry Truman proclaimed, "We stay in Berlin. Period." To do so would mean attempting the impossible: supplying two million civilians and twenty thousand Allied soldiers with food and fuel -- entirely from the air.

American Experience presents The Berlin Airlift from filmmakers Peter Adler, Alexander Berkel, and Stefan Mausbach. This one-hour documentary offers a striking look at the first battle of the Cold War. Featuring interviews with pilots who flew the mission as well as civilians who were supplied by the airlift, the film combines historical and contemporary footage to tell a story of courage and humanity set against the backdrop of the early days of the Cold War.

Previously, the roar of American and British planes overhead heralded death and destruction to the people of Berlin. Now, Allied troops were seen as angels of mercy, delivering powdered eggs and milk, flour, coffee, and coal to the beleaguered city -- more than four thousand tons of life-saving supplies daily. The operation was masterminded by U.S. General William Turner, who during World War II had developed a daring scheme to supply anti-Communist forces in China.

One of the heroes of the airlift, U.S. pilot Gail Halverson, dropped thousands of tons of chocolate and sweets into the thankful hands of German children, earning himself the title of Candy Bomber. Acts of bravery came from both sides. After his plane crashed, U.S. Army pilot Ken Slaker was taken in by German soldier Rudolph Schnabel and his wife, Magdalena. Slaker later returned the favor by helping the couple escape to the west. The airlift also brought people together in unexpected ways. Sam Young of the US Army met his future wife, Berliner Sybille Griese in that chaotic time. "It was a nice time, but it was also an uncertain time," says Griese in the film. "Sam could have gone back to America at any time."

After eleven months, the success of the mission was a continuing embarrassment to the Soviets and an overwhelming triumph for the Allied forces. President Truman, elected for a second term, emerged as the strong man of the Cold War. All told, the airlift delivered 1.7 million tons of essential food and fuel to the people of West Berlin.

"What could have been the start of World War III turned out to be one of history's greatest acts of kindness," says American Experience executive producer Mark Samels. "And while Berlin remained divided for four decades, the airlift remains an uplifting chapter in the city's tumultuous past."

Film Credits

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The Berlin Airlift American Experience