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Aired January 29, 2007

The Berlin Airlift

Film Description

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."


Narrator: March 1948. A British military train left Berlin and stopped in the Soviet zone of occupied Germany. Red Army guards performed what should have been a routine check.

Three years earlier, these allies together had destroyed Berlin to defeat the Nazis. America and Britain from the air, the Soviets in a final ground assault against desperate German resistance.

Now, the alliance that had won the war was breaking down. The Soviets were increasingly obstructing movement through their zone and wanted to check every passenger. Allied military officials objected to the Soviet restrictions. They ordered the train return to Berlin.

Since 1945, Berlin had been surrounded by the Soviet controlled zone of occupied Germany. A road and a railway line were all that connected it with the rest of Europe.

The four powers -- the U.S., Britain, France and Russia -- each controlled their own sector of the city, home to more than two million people.

Now Berlin was in limbo. The four powers could not agree what to do with it. The Western allies wanted to revive the German economy and get business going. The Soviets wanted communist planning throughout their zone. The economic stalemate created a black market for goods. Security concerns along the border between East and West Berlin increased. Sam Young was part of an American military unit charged with policing the city.

Sam Young, U.S. Army: You saw nothing but destruction. Wherever you looked, all around. It was terrible. And for an 18 year old kid that was really apprehensive. You know, I have never seen anything like that before.

Narrator: Whole sections of Berlin were reduced to rubble. Clearing it became residents' main occupation.

But for young Sybille Griese, newly arrived from the German countryside, the capital still had its attractions.

Sybille Griese, Berliner (subtitles): It was hard to get a room. There was a lot of destruction. It really looked very sad. But not as sad as my home town. For me, Berlin was the big city. Everything I saw was new.

Narrator: Three years after the war, the city showed signs of returning to normal, but food remained in short supply. Three Western powers had taken on the responsibility of feeding Berlin.

Mercedes Wild, Berliner (subtitles): The best thing was the biscuit soup the Americans gave us. You had a little food container. Maybe it had a lid, maybe it didn't. You filled it with food and you took it home for your family. Sometimes it was the only hot meal of the day.

Narrator: But the city could not be kept on a breadline forever. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin wanted full control of his half of Germany. The presence of the Western allies in Berlin was a thorn in his side. Along with the Soviet Union, the three Western powers governed Berlin through a joint council called the Allied Kommandantura. As long as the Western powers were in the city, it was difficult for the Soviets to create a communist economy in their zone. And they were convinced the Western Allies were plotting to push them out of Berlin.

On June 16, 1948, the Soviets pulled out of the Kommandantura. Just days later the Allies issued a new currency for Western Germany -- the Deutschmark. Then, the Soviets announced that they would do the same for their zone -- and throughout Berlin.

But the Allies had already smuggled two hundred and fifty million Deutschmarks into the city. The Soviets prepared a counter move. On June 23 Soviet forces in Berlin sent a secret order to cut the city off from the West. The next day highways and railway lines were closed. No coal, no food could get through to the city.

Mercedes Wild: My mother was very upset. She said: now we'll have nothing to eat. We've been blockaded. I didn't know what 'blockade' meant. But they used that word, right from the start. And I'll never forget my grandmother's words:'Just as long as we don't end up Russian.'

Narrator: Berlin's power station was in the city's Eastern sector.

Gerhard Bürger, Berliner (subtitles): It was like an eclipse of the sun. Nobody knew what was going on. We asked the Americans, what's up? They said, 'we've packed our bags.'

Narrator: There were twenty thousand American, British and French troops in Berlin. It was enough to police the Allied sectors, but totally inadequate to defend them in the event of a Soviet attack. In the U.S. President Harry Truman was in the midst of an election campaign he was expected to lose. Truman issued a forceful response to the Soviet blockade.

President Truman (archival): What the world needs in order to regain a sense of security, is an end to Soviet obstruction and aggression.

Narrator: Then Truman's advisors gave him sobering news. Berlin had just 36 days worth of food and 45 days worth of coal. The president could not defend the city. But to withdraw would be disastrous for America's image -- and for his own hopes of re-election.

Truman's military governor in Germany, General Lucius Clay, suggested the U.S. call Stalin's bluff. Clay proposed sending armed troops along the road to Berlin. Truman knew this might spark a war neither side could afford. Yet, he decided not to abandon the city. "We stay in Berlin," he declared. "Period."

Truman considered another option: flying supplies into the Western sectors of Berlin. If the Soviets wanted to stop Allied planes they would have to shoot them down. And that put the pressure on the Russians.

But no one knew if it was even possible to supply two million people with food and fuel by air. American officials turned to their British allies for answers. Britain had endured nearly ten years of rationing during the War.

According to the British calculations, it would take seventeen hundred calories a day per person. That meant fifteen hundred tons of food, plus another twenty-five hundred tons of coal and gasoline -- a total of four thousand tons per day.

The Allies' C-47 plane was capable of carrying just three tons. Many doubted an airlift would work. Nevertheless, the Berlin Airlift began on June 26, 1948. The first flights were reported live to the city by RIAS, Radio in the American sector.

Original Radio recording:
In diesem Augenblick kommt die die grosse Lockheed Sunderland Maschine. ...

Narrator: Berliners came out by the thousands to watch flying boats land on the city's lakes. The planes carried salt. No other aircraft could transport the precious cargo because it would corrode their fuselage.

Even though Berlin's elected mayor, Ernst Reuter, was a former Communist, the Soviets had kept him from taking office. Now, Reuter called a rally to reassure bewildered citizens and boost their morale.

Ernst Reuter (archival, subtitles): Berlin will not be next on the Soviet list! We'll used every means at our disposal to resist the forces of oppression who want to make us slaves of a single party system!

Narrator: Following the rally, General Clay summoned Reuter.

Robert Lochner, Interpreter (subtitles): He explained to Reuter the hardships for the population and said he couldn't guarantee it was even possible. No one had ever tried to supply a city by air. Would the Berliners stick it out, so soon after the War? And Reuter simply answered: 'You take care of the airlift, I'll take care of the Berliners.'

Narrator: American and British transport planes were dispatched to Germany from all over the world. Powdered eggs and milk, flour and coal began to make their way to Berlin.

A world away, in Mobile, Alabama, Air Force pilot Gail Halvorsen was enjoying post-war life.

Gail Halvorsen, U.S. Air Force: So I had a four-door, brand new Chevrolet car. This was just before the Airlift started. This was in early '48. So then I was doing big-time. I called a girl for a date. I'd take her in the car. She said 'Wow, this is pretty neat. New car. Very few new cars then. That was the car when I got the telephone call about the Airlift, I didn't have time to do anything with it. I just drove it under the pine trees on the air base at Brookley, took the keys, and left the car there. I never saw it again.

Narrator: Halverson flew to Germany that same day.

Gail Halvorsen, U.S. Air Force: My feelings for the Germans were not very good. I mean, Hitler started this thing, he caused all this chaos, he caused one of my buddies to get shot down, I don't know where he is yet.They never did find his body. So I didn't have good feelings about the Germans.

Narrator: For Berliners, the sound of Allied planes overhead brought back terrible memories.

Mercedes Wild (subtitles): I sat through so many air raids in our apartment, and suddenly there was that sound again. The sound of planes flying over the building, and with that the fear came back that the bombs would fall again.

Narrator: Halverson made his first landing at Berlin's Tempelhof airport.

Gail Halvorsen, U.S. Air Force: I had 20,000 pounds of flour on the airplane, 20,000 pounds of flour. Landed at Tempelhof, and I wondered what these supermen were going to look like; you know, all this propaganda built up through the years, coming face to face with them. The back doors of my airplane opened and about eight Germans came piling in to the back of the airplane. And that first man, the first three or four came up, straight up to me and put out their hand, and their eyes were moist, and I couldn't understand what they said but I could understand their feeling immediately. They looked at the flour and looked back at me like I was an angel from heaven.

Narrator: In Moscow, Stalin was confident that Britain and the United States would not be able to keep Berlin fed from the air. As a show of force, Truman sent sixty B29 bombers to England. For the Airlift pilots, the pressure mounted. Two weeks into the Airlift supplies reaching Berlin were increasing, but not enough. At first the Allies transported just ninety tons a day. Now, they managed a thousand tons. But it was just a quarter of the daily minimum required. And Airlift operations were still chaotic.

Gail Halvorsen, U.S. Air Force: I came in over Tempelhof and the weather was very bad. And suddenly, coming the other direction, into the homing beacon, was another C-54, right at my altitude. We just almost hit propellers. I could see the pilot's eyes, coming the other way.

Mercedes Wild (subtitles): At first I heard the usual engine sound. Then the pitch went up. Then there was a crash. And then complete silence. It was the first accident of many. The skies were too crowded, the men and the machines overworked.

Narrator: In July General William Tunner arrived in Berlin. During the war his transport planes had flown over the Himalayas to supply anti-Communist forces in China. Now, Tunner was charged with organizing the Berlin Airlift. His plan was to make each of the three Allied air corridors a one-way route -- two going in, one coming out. Planes would fly three minutes apart, at five levels simultaneously. On a clear day pilots would see the aircraft flying above and below them. 'I want rhythm', Tunner said, on a beat 'as constant as jungle drums.' Soon pilots met Tunner's targets, then exceeded them. They flew more than fifteen hundred flights a day and delivered more than forty-five hundred tons.

Planes now took just minutes to unload. They remained on the ground for no longer than thirty minutes. And the pilots only had one chance to land. Otherwise, they had to return their planes fully loaded. Tunner insisted that pilots stay close to their planes while on the ground. He made sure that coffee and hot food were waiting for them on the runway.

Gail Halvorsen, U.S. Air Force: It wasn't just the coffee, it wasn't just the hamburgers. In my case, I drank hot chocolate. That was a good thing ... but he put some beautiful German Frauleins in that snackbar. They knew we couldn't date them, we had no time. So they were very friendly. The first thing we'd do is we'd get a big smile, and then worry about the hamburger and the hot chocolate later.

Narrator: The Soviets did not interfere directly with the flights. Instead, they launched a propaganda campaign against them.

East Newsreel (Original soundtrack, subtitles): Haven't we heard that before? Think back. How was it again? Once upon a time our benefactors came with bombs and phosphor.

Narrator: The British responded with a campaign of their own.

British Film (Original soundtrack): No longer night, and not yet day. And as the sun rises, bombers are readied. Bombers, once the heralds of death, today, in the summer 1948, in the service of Life and Freedom.

Narrator: The Americans used a different public relations tool -- the RIAS radio station. RIAS played American music the Nazis had banned -- country tunes, popular songs, and especially, jazz. The broadcasts helped spark a West German love affair with American music that would last a generation. The Soviets tried to counter, but dancing Cossacks could not erase the horrors of the Soviet takeover in 1945. Berliners would never see Stalin as 'Germany's best friend.'

On the ground the Cold War was heating up. On September 6, East German Communists occupied the city's civilian council house to block new elections. Three days later RIAS Radio urged West Berliners to protest the East German actions. A crowd gathered at the Brandenburg Gate, next to the Reichstag, the ruined German Parliament. The Airlift was working so far, but many West Berliners feared the Allies would eventually abandon them to the Russians. Addressing half a million people -- a quarter of the population -- Ernst Reuter delivered an impassioned plea.

Ernst Reuter (Archive, subtitles): You peoples of the world. You people of America, of England, of France,

look on this city, and recognize that this city, this people

must not be abandoned -- cannot be abandoned!

Narrator: Lifted by Reuter's words, the crowd surged towards the city's Eastern sector, a few hundred yards beyond the Brandenburg Gate. Someone ripped down the Red Flag, the symbol of Soviet victory. Soviet police responded, killing one young demonstrator. Three months of fear, anger and mistrust were taking their toll.

In the Western sector, however, the airlift had already become an inspiration for young children.

'... die Berliner warten auf mir.'

Narrator: It was a sign that the Allies were winning over the next generation. At Tempelhof airport, the real Airlift drew children like a magnet, groups of boys gathered at the perimeter, waiting for a plane with a special delivery.

Gail Halvorsen, U.S. Air Force: I wiggled the wings of the airplane, and they went crazy. I can still see their arms and hands up to the sky -- and, er, just went mad.

Narrator: Halvorsen had started dropping candy to the waiting children. It became the biggest public relations coup of the airlift. And Gail Halvorson its biggest hero.

Gail Halvorsen, U.S. Air Force: Before I got donations from big candy companies, the children of America were sending me donations, and sending me money so we could go to the base exchange and buy the things to drop to the children of Berlin.

Narrator: But one little girl wanted something special.

Mercedes Wild (subtitles): So I wrote to him: 'Dear Chocolate -- Uncle, you fly over Friedenau every day. Please drop a parachute over the garden with the white chickens. They've stopped laying.'

Gail Halvorsen, U.S. Air Force: They think you're a chicken-hawk, and the eggs aren't coming any more, and their feathers are falling out. And then the last letter, the last part of the letter she said, 'when you see the white chickens, drop it there'.

Mercedes Wild (subtitles): If you drop a parachute, I don't mind if you hit them. Your Mercedes.

Gail Halvorsen, U.S. Air Force: I told my buddies who were dropping them. I said, 'When you're coming in to Tempelhof, drop on the approach, at apartment houses wherever you see them. We gotta hit Mercedes. We didn't hit Mercedes. Took a big pack of government candy in Berlin, mailed it to Mercedes.

Mercedes Wild: The chocolate was okay. But the important thing was the letter. He had written back. I had written to him, so I was waiting for an answer. And I still have that letter. It was wonderful.

Narrator: Dear Mercedes: If I did a couple of circuits over Friedenau, I'm sure I'd find the garden with the white chickens. But I'm afraid I haven't got the time. I hope that you will enjoy the enclosed. Your chocolate uncle, Gail Halvorsen.

Mercedes Wild (Subtitles): My father had gone missing as a pilot during the war. Now I saw this Chocolate Uncle as my father who was showing me that he was there for me.

Narrator: Throughout October 1948, flights continued day and night. As winter approached more food and fuel were needed, but American commanders would not be deterred.

General Lucius Clay (archival): We are not going to be forced out of Berlin.

Journalist (archival): Will you be able to continue the present air supply indefinitely?

General Clay (archival): We will increase it, and we can continue it indefinitely.

Narrator: To build a new airport, the Allies employed eighteen thousand Berliners -- half of them women. They completed the job in two months. But an extra airport was not enough. The airlift needed more pilots.

Former bomber pilot Ken Slaker was called out of civilian life in the U.S. and pressed into emergency service on night flights.

Ken Slaker, U.S. Air Force: We'd just been 20 minutes into Eastern Germany when we lost both engines simultaneously. And went through emergency procedures. We couldn't get them started again. So I just bailed out. I said to myself, this is it. When I got my memory back and it was daylight. And then I heard a noise. And there was the sound of a airlift aircraft overhead. So I knew where I was. Let's say that I was right on the route to Berlin. I realized I was in a real, real trouble.

I ran face-to-face with a German. And I told him, where's Fulda. He said, 'Fulda nein good.' I said, Fulda's good for me. I told him I'm an American pilot on the airlift. And when I said that he had immediate respect for me. He opened his coat and pulled out some papers. And they were his discharge papers from the American prisoner for two years and so we were able to communicate.

Narrator: Risking his freedom, Rudolph Schnabel took Slaker back to his own home.

Magdalena Schnabel (subtitles): I made something to eat and said, 'Come on, you eat too.' At first he said: 'No, you haven't got enough.' So I said: What feeds two will also feed three.' He was a very good looking man, neat as a pin, tip-top, with the uniform and all ... Ken said goodbye very nicely and so did my husband and we hugged, and said: "Let's hope it'll be okay. And I said:'Say a quick Our Father and it'll be all right.' And he said, 'You say one too. Then it will be all right.' Schnabel made contact with agents willing to help Slaker escape.

Ken Slaker, U.S. Air Force: They told us what we had to do to get through the border. That they'd buy -- and I gave them some West marks, they bought off the East German policeman who was on the bridge on the river from 8:00 to 8:30 when the Soviet guard changed.

Well, my heart was in my mouth when we started crossing the bridge because that German policeman was coming straight towards us. And about two meters from us he stopped, turned around and ignored us. So he'd been paid off.

Narrator: Just before the border, they met up with others hoping to escape.

Ken Slaker, U.S. Air Force: And so we started up the incline. My back was killing me. I got halfway up the ridge. My back gave out and I fell and rolled back down to the bottom. And the girl said, "The captain has fallen. " And they stopped. They came back down there and they pulled me up that incline. If they had not have done that, I would not be here.

Narrator: Schnabel was not so lucky. On the return journey he was captured and interrogated for weeks by the Communist authorities, but gave nothing away. Eventually, Slaker was able to help the Schnabels leave their homeland and escape to the West.

As the airlift entered its fifth month, temperatures dropped and flying conditions worsened. There were days when no planes could fly. With the airlift periodically grounded, Berliners had to find fuel wherever they could. Electricity delivery was unreliable, but many found ingenuous ways to keep the power going. And finding fresh meat was even more of a challenge.

Mercedes Wild, Berliner (subtitles): My grandmother caught a sparrow flying around our apartment. And that lunchtime I had a portion of meat -- tiny piece of meat and bones. And I knew it was the sparrow. I didn't eat it.

Narrator: As shortages grew, Soviet authorities offered to provide West Berliners with food imported from Eastern Europe. But only if West Berliners transferred their ration cards to the Soviets.

East Newsreel Narration (Subtitles): Since 1 August every Berlin housewife -- in any sector -- can register her ration card in the Soviet sector. Supplies to Berlin's millions are guaranteed by the deliveries from the Soviet Union, Poland and Czechoslovakia.

Narrator: Sensing a trick, only a small percentage took up the offer.

Hans-Günther Richardi, Berliner (subtitles): Somehow my mother somehow got hold of a card. And she sent me over to East Berlin to Alexanderplatz. There was a big market hall -- I can still see it now -- and I bought some bread. And each time, my mother begged me -- almost on her knees -- not to eat any of it. But to my shame, I never managed to get home, without taking one or two bites, I was so hungry.

Narrator: In December 1948, Berliners prepared for new municipal elections. East Berlin authorities once more organized demonstrations against them.

Banner (subtitle): 'The divisive vote on 5th December means war!'

Narrator: The Communists boycotted the elections and appointed their own mayor for the Soviet sector. Friedrich Ebert would rule East Berlin for 19 years. In the Western sectors the vote went ahead. The political division of Berlin was now complete. Ernst Reuter was reelected mayor of the Western zone.

Ernst Reuter (archival): The people of Berlin wants nothing else than to be a free people. No dictatorship will stop our free election.

Narrator: With husbands and fathers still in Soviet prison camps, many families in Berlin were barely scraping by. In between power cuts they turned to the radio for news of their loved ones.

Hans-Günther Richardi, Berliner (subtitles): My mother suffered greatly from her husband's absence, and of course it was vital for her to have a source of information to tell her how he was. And every night on RIAS, about half past nine after the news -- there came:

Original Radio Sound (subtitle): 'This is the Task Force against Inhumanity.'

Hans-Günther Richardi, Berliner (subtitles): And they passed on news from the different camps. And one evening, when I was eight, my mother was washing me in the bathtub. I'll never forget it. She was listening to the radio and the Task Force against Inhumanity came on and the voice said: 'Railway engineer Günther Richardi has died in the Neubrandenburg Concentration Camp. My mother had no idea it was coming. She let out a single cry. It was a disaster for her.

Original Radio Sound(subtitles): 'We'll keep you informed!'

Narrator: But even amidst the bleak Berlin winter, the airlift continued to bring people together in unexpected ways.

Sybille Griese, Berliner (subtitles): Meeting an American was something special. They were supposed to have money. They were good looking, they had uniforms, and they were attractive young men.

Sam Young, U.S. Army: I was just as I am. I mean I didn't do anything to impress her, I don't think, because that's why she called me the obnoxious American. As a matter of fact ... that was my real first date, too.

Narrator: But conditions for romance were far from ideal.

Sam Young, U.S. Army:They were bad. Cold. You didn't have to worry about taking your coat off because it was too cold when you went to visit. Oh, we would sit close together and stuff like that. But we didn't have much room. I mean it, had, her bed, her bed couldn't have been more than, smaller than a rollaway bed.

Sybille Griese, Berliner (subtitles): He never had much money, but there were benefits. We went out to eat and there was coffee and candy. We didn't get much of that. Yes, there were benefits.

Sam Young, U.S. Army: They said, 'Well, you can buy care packages down at the quartermaster for $12,' and if she didn't eat a lot that would last her for probably a couple, three weeks. But if I took candy down there, I took candy once, one time in particular. And ... hid it in the closet. Yea. Went back the next day and it was all gone. She ate it all at once, the whole package of chocolate because we didn't get that too often.

Sybille Griese, Berliner (subtitles): Yes, it was a nice time, really. It was a nice time, but it was also an uncertain time, because Sam could have gone back to America at any time.

Narrator: Young talked over the options with his best friend.

Sam Young, U.S. Army: 'John, what are we going to do about these ladies? They're awfully nice ladies.' Said, 'we can't just take off and go back to the states and say adios or auf Wiedersehen or whatever.' And he said, 'yeah, you're right.' He said, 'we better be talking seriously about it while we can.' I said, 'well right now's a good time.' 'I said, let's talk about it.' So we did. We sat down there in a doorway of a business place at about 10:30 or 11:00 o'clock at night. And we, we decided well, we'll ask them. So we did and they said 'yes.' So that's how the romance really got started.

Narrator: In January 1949, British authorities added a new twist to the airlift. They began using their empty planes to transport German families who wanted to leave Berlin. Royal Air Force pilot John Irvin Eddy prepared for a night flight to Lübeck in West Germany. One of his twenty-two passengers was ten-year-old Peter Zimmermann.

Peter Zimmerman, Berliner (subtitles): There were hours of waiting. They kept saying the plane wasn't ready or it had to be repaired. I don't think we were afraid, at least, I wasn't, and my sister didn't really know what was happening.

Narrator: It was pilot Eddy's third round trip flight of the day. Weather conditions were not ideal. For the passengers, it was the first flight of their lives.

John Irvin Eddy, Royal Air Force: Coming back from Berlin as far as the flight was concerned, the take off and everything was normal. There was no, no ... it wasn't until we got towards Lübeck itself that they told us that there was this full cloud cover and, and how far it was from the ground, from the airfield surface.

And they said, well, the instruction was to descend and do a visual circuit. And when we broke cloud it was inky black. There was not a sign of a light or anything.

Peter Zimmerman, Berliner (subtitles): There was a slight scraping sound and a moment later there was a louder scraping sound, and then another.

John Irvin Eddy: But unfortunately the trees stretched up to 200, 300 feet. And we hit them. And as far as I know, I pushed the throttles forward but we didn't get away.

Peter Zimmerman, Berliner (subtitles): All I can remember

is that last loud bang, and then the fuel exploding.

John Irvin Eddy: And the next thing I knew I was lying on my back on the ground, looking up at the sky and seeing all the stars, which was ridiculous because it was full cloud cover. But I could see every star in the sky.

Narrator: Peter Zimmermann was pulled from the wreckage by fellow passengers.

Peter Zimmerman, Berliner (subtitles): You can't imagine how bad it was -- utter chaos, utter helplessness. Pieces of the plane were lying around. The plane was on fire. There was a terrible smell,and the most terrible thing of all was a smell of grilled meat. It was roasted human flesh.

Narrator: Later, Zimmerman learned that his mother and sister were killed in the crash.

But such accidents were rare and as the spring of 1949 approached, the airlift entered a new phase. The Allies began employing their former enemies, including German Air Force technicians.

Walter Riggers: I still don't understand it. How, so soon after the war, they could just say to us, come on, work for us ... I don't understand where they got the idea that it might work ... I just don't know.

Gail Halvorsen, U.S. Air Force: That guy up there's a German! He used to work on a Luftwaffe airplane. And now he's working on my airplane? Here is this man, who supported the fighters against us, or the transports or whatever else, is now working on our plane. Wow, it's a crazy world, you know ...

Walter Riggers: They had real confidence in us and we proved ourselves. They said: 'Do something.' And we did it.

Gail Halvorsen, U.S. Air Force: These guys were good! And they learned the American system very quickly, and it was a good partnership. Ein gutes Mannschaft. Ja.

Narrator: Increasingly, the the Allies began using a fleet of much bigger aircraft. Giants like the C-74 'Globemaster carried twenty-five tons. As did the new C-97 'Stratofreighter,' eight times the capacity of a C-47. With the new planes, General Tunner's operation set an airlift record on Easter Sunday 1949. Nearly 1400 flights and 13,000 tons of supplies delivered in a single day. May 12th, 1949 -- the Soviets relented and lifted their blockade of Berlin.

Newsreel Sequence: The hottest spot in the Cold War is eliminated. Allied vehicles await the removal of the barriers and the signal for the dash to Berlin. With the opening of the gates a new chapter in postwar history begins to unroll down German highways. Just 10 months and 23 days after the capital was sealed off from the ground, traffic is rolling toward Europe's number one trouble spot. Its a day of [unintelligible] for band of men in the airlift who kept Berliners eating while they were held in an iron ring.

Narrator: Lucius Clay returned home and was greeted with a ticker tape parade in New York. At Tempelhof airport children got their chance to thank some of the departing airlift pilots.

Hans-Günther Richardi, Berliner (subtitles): And now trucks were coming in from the West -- and interestingly, the first thing they brought was masses of oranges. And I said to my friend, "let's go down to the end of the Autobahn where they arrive and maybe we'll be lucky.

And they were throwing oranges to the crowd -- still nicely wrapped back then -- and some kids were lucky and they caught some. But I didn't get any, and neither did my friend, and we went home really downhearted. Just like kids are, because they would have been my very first oranges. So I came home, went into the kitchen and I couldn't believe my eyes. There on the table were two oranges, cut open like a water lily.

Narrator: The Berlin Airlift officially ended on September 30, 1949. By October, Germany was split into communist and capitalist halves. The divided city of Berlin was where the Cold War began, and this was where it would end, forty years later. The airlift had lasted 15 months and delivered more than 2.4 million tons of supplies to Berlin. Seventy-nine people lost their lives in the effort, including thirty-one Americans.


Written and Directed by
Peter Adler
Alexander Berkel
Stefan Mausbach

Joe Morton

Historical Consultant
Prof. Gerhard Keiderling

Thanks to:
Allied Museum, Berlin
British Berlin Airlift Association
Bundesarchiv Transit
Joseph Cresto
Deutsche Wochenschau GmbH
Gail Halvorsen
Heinrich Riethmüller

Pavel Figurski

Set Dresser
Markus Bendler

Production Supervisor Poland
Jacek Gaczowski, Tempus-Film

Udo Jordan
Evelyn Kremer

Original Music


Sound Mixer
Oliver Engelhardt

Bernhard Sehne

Anthony R Miller
Jan Prillwitz
Peter Ruppert

Executive Producer
Guido Knopp

A ZDF production
in association with
ZDF Enterprises

©2006 ZDF Enterprises

American Experience

Post Production
Greg Shea
Glenn Fukushima

Series Designer
Alison Kennedy

On-line Editor
Spencer Gentry

Sound Mix
John Jenkins

Series Theme
Mark Adler

Business Manager
Nancy Sherman

Jay Fialkov
Maureen Jordan

Project Administration
Susana Fernandes
Pamela Gaudiano
Sherene Ing
Vanessa Ruiz

Nancy Farrell
Ravi Jain
Stewart Smith
Li Wei

Director of New Media
Maria Daniels

Director of Marketing
Susan Trabucchi

Daphne B. Noyes
Lauren Prestileo

Series Editor
Susan Bellows

Senior Editor
Paul Taylor

Series Manager
James E. Dunford

Coordinating Producer
Susan Mottau

Series Producer
Sharon Grimberg

Executive Producer
Mark Samels

© 2007 WGBH Educational Foundation.
All Rights Reserved.