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The Berlin Airlift
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Lucius Clay (1897-1978) and the Organization of the Airlift

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Portrait of General Lucius D. Clay, ca 1947. Hard-charging American General Lucius Clay's preference had never been for an airlift; he wanted to test Soviet resolve with armed ground convoys. But once the decision for an airlift was made, Clay, ably assisted by organizational genius William Tunner, ensured that it would succeed and earned the title "city father" from the grateful Berliners he saved.

"He Could Run Anything"
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower talks with Lt. Gen. Lucius B. Clay at Gatow Airport in Berlin, Germany. Son of a U.S. Senator from Georgia, Lucius Clay wasted little time making his mark on the world. Forced into tough financial straits by the death of his father, Clay managed to escape the alcoholism that claimed his five older siblings. He graduated from West Point in 1918 and became a military engineer, rising through the ranks to become the Army's youngest brigadier general in World War II, where he directed the U.S. military supply operation. Of Clay, who chain-smoked and drank 20 cups of coffee a day, a superior once said, "He could run anything -- General Motors or General Eisenhower's Army."

The Great Uncompromiser
Clay helped break a supply bottleneck slowing down Allied forces after the Normandy Invasion and later became Eisenhower's deputy. Then in March 1947, he replaced Eisenhower as military commander of the American sector of Germany. Opinionated and decisive (he was called "the great uncompromiser," a play on the nickname of his famous ancestor Senator Henry Clay), Clay got to know his Soviet counterparts during meetings of the Allied Control Council in Berlin and became convinced that the city must not be abandoned to communist dominance. When the Russians demanded inspection of Allied supply trains in March 1948, Clay refused and began making contingency plans to re-supply the Berlin garrison by air. The June blockade forced those plans into action; Clay began the Berlin airlift on the 26th, but he did not think the civilian populace could be supplied via the skies. Some 4,500 tons a day would have to arrive, and the airlift's first day managed 80 tons. "Absolutely impossible," was the blunt assessment he gave a newspaper reporter.

Tunner Arrives
Lt. Gen. William H. Tunner. Summoned to Washington in mid-July to meet with President Harry Truman, Clay continued to insist that the Allies not withdraw from Berlin, arguing for an armed convoy to run the Soviet blockade and call Stalin's bluff. Clay put the likelihood of conventional war at only 25 percent (the Soviets did not yet have a nuclear weapon), but that was too much for Truman, who agreed with the airlift idea. Though a brilliant leader, Clay was no airman, so in late July someone was dispatched to Germany who fit that bill: Major General William Tunner, known as "Willie-the-Whip" to subordinates. Tunner had graduated West Point a decade after Clay and turned to flying, eventually overseeing the Allied air transport operation of which Lieutenant Gail Halvorsen was a part. Tunner had also pulled off World War II's only successful large-scale airlift, pushing tens of thousands of tons of supplies over the Himalayan "Hump" from India to China.

Nearly 13,000 Tons a Day
Vittles aircrews at Tempelhof's mobile snack bar which rolled up to aircraft as soon as they taxied to a halt. Upon assuming operational control of the American airlift in Germany, Tunner immediately set out to turn what had been a makeshift effort into a regimented machine. He brought in beautiful German women to run snack carts near American planes in Berlin, thereby keeping the crews close to their crafts and minimizing turn-around time. He made each of the three air corridors to Berlin run in only one direction to limit congestion, summoned civilian air traffic controllers from the U.S., and used skilled German airplane mechanics to supplement American ones. His unorthodox proposals sometimes caused grumbling among the pilots, but Tunner also listened to them, holding sessions designed to elicit their suggestions for improvements.

Hitting the Target
Navy and Air Force flight crews were briefed together for the day's missions in Rhein-Main Air Base, Germany. Within a few weeks of Tunner's arrival, the airlift hit its 4,500 daily tons target, and in October he was made operational director of the entire airlift. When a 24-hour "Easter parade" he devised in April 1949 brought in almost 13,000 tons to Berlin, the Soviets could no longer ignore the implications -- with the airlift able to supply Berlin indefinitely, the blockade was doomed, and it ended a month later.

Defender of Our Freedom
General Lucius D. Clay Jr. Clay's retirement was announced by Truman in early May 1949 and timed to coincide with the end of the blockade. Saluted as a hero who would never be forgotten by Berlin Mayor Ernst Reuter, Clay went into the private sector, eventually serving on 18 corporate boards and making occasional return trips to Berlin where he was lionized by crowds in the hundreds of thousands. A Berlin street bears Clay's name, and a memorial from its citizens at his West Point grave salutes the "defender of our Freedom."

 

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