Reggie Powell was a green soldier from the South, just 18, when fate landed him in post-World War II Berlin, during the biggest supply operation the world had ever seen.
An Air Force radio repairman in 1948, he didn’t know much about the politics that pitted the United States and Great Britain against the Soviet Union after the Soviets had blocked roads and rail lines into West Berlin. It was an attempt to starve the German capital into submitting to communism, and the first major clash of what came to be known as the Cold War.
But Powell did know an amazing sight when he saw it, at Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport.
“When we landed in Berlin, it was the damnedest thing I’d ever seen!” Powell said this week during a visit to Omaha. "It was like a beehive, trucks and planes, coming and going.”
Powell, 88, of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is one of eight Berlin Airlift veterans who have been in Omaha this week for a meeting of the Berlin Airlift Veterans Association.
They are joined by about 40 family members and two special guests: Roswitha Barry, 76, and Christa Schneider, 78, who live in the San Francisco Bay area now but during the Airlift were Berlin schoolgirls.
Their families, and thousands of others, received care packages flown in by U.S. Air Force and Royal Air Force aircraft that landed, one every three minutes, for more than 15 months, from June 1948 to September 1949.
“You kept us alive,” Schneider said.
“We are forever grateful to all of you,” said Barry.
The veterans visited the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum in Ashland Thursday, where they saw a display on the Airlift and toured a restored C-54 Skymaster, the Air Force’s four-engine workhorse of the air bridge that kept Berlin supplied through the crisis.
They also ate dinner at the German American Society meeting hall, and were scheduled to visit Boys Town on Friday. Their reunion, at Comfort Inn near 70th and Grover Streets, will wrap up this weekend.
The conflict was rooted in the post-World War II division of defeated Germany and Berlin, each divided into four zones. The zones were each controlled by one of the prevailing Allies: the United States, Great Britain, France and the USSR.
Since Berlin was deep in the Soviet sector, the U.S., British and French sections of the city — newly consolidated in 1948, and known as West Berlin — represented what the Russians saw as an irritating island of capitalist influence in the middle of Communist East Germany.
When they cut off ground access by June 26, 1948, the Western allies came up with a plan to supply West Berlin’s 2.4 million residents through three 10-mile wide air lanes into the city.
The Allies started “Operation Vittles” with fewer than 100 available transport aircraft. Over time, that number grew to at least 400 planes. They landed every three minutes, quickly unloaded, and took off again to grab another load of coal, flour, salt or whatever was needed.
Berlin hadn’t recovered from wartime bombing, which had leveled much of the city.
Barry recalls her once wealthy family in West Berlin being reduced to near-starvation. Her mother had been an opera singer, but she chopped up the family’s piano for firewood and sold her furs to pay for food.
They lived in a bombed-out apartment building.
“We had holes in the floor, and no windows. But it was shelter,” Barry said.
They used dandelions, grass and boiled nettles for food, or cut the maggots out of rotten potatoes.
Berliners had been the enemy of the Western Allies just a few years earlier, yet thousands of young service members worked themselves to exhaustion to feed them.
Boston native Ralph Dionne, then 21, was a mechanic when he was suddenly promoted to become a flight engineer on C-54 cargo planes, monitoring certain instruments and helping with navigation among other tasks. He had almost no training.
“They needed air crews. They said, ‘You’re going to become a flight engineer,’ ” Dionne recalled. “I said, ‘What do you do?’ They said, ‘You sit there and do what the pilot tells you to do.’ ”
The planes flew round the clock to bases in West Germany, whatever the weather.
The fog was terrible. The Air Force developed primitive ground-based navigation aids using radar signals to guide the steady stream of transports through it.
Dionne recalled one landing at Frankfurt’s Rhein-Main Air Base after a run from Berlin. As the co-pilot called altitude — 500 feet, 400 feet, 300 feet — Dionne still couldn’t see the ground.
“I said, ‘Where the hell are we?’ ” Dionne said. “Then I look down, and I see cars on the highway, right under the wings. And, thump, we were on the ground.”
The most famous Berlin Airlift pilot was the “Candy Bomber,” Gayle Halvorsen, who gained fame for dropping chocolate and gum to children who waved to him from a hill near one of Berlin’s airports.
Roswitha Barry was one of those children.
“We went to the airport and got the candy,” she said. They would bring it to school and share it with friends.
Halvorsen lives in Utah and is a member of the Berlin Airlift Veterans Association, though he was unable to attend the Omaha reunion.
His gesture touched the hearts of Germans and Americans, and is forever linked with the Airlift in many people’s memories.
“The candy bombing had a lot to do with the results,” Dionne said. “The (German) parents didn’t know whether to go with the Americans or the Russians. The kids came home with candy. It made them know the Americans had a heart.”
American airmen worked 12-hour shifts every day, sometimes making three or four round trips to Berlin. Fly in, quickly unload and fly back.
They knew the Airlift was a humanitarian mission. But for them, mostly it was just hard work.
“You had a job to do. You didn’t worry about the international situation,” Dionne said.
After 277,569 flights over 15 months, hauling 1.7 million tons of supplies, the Russians ended their blockade. The Americans, British and French had won the first major confrontation of the Cold War — though 32 Americans and 39 British airmen lost their lives in crashes.
The Airlift cemented the friendship between Americans and West Germans, especially Berliners.
“It was also a strategic move by our government, to keep the Soviets in check,” said Richard Stanberry, 90, of Burnet, Texas, a flight engineer who is attending the reunion. “The Berlin Airlift stands on its own merits. It was designed to do exactly what it did.”
As the number of eyewitnesses to the event dwindle, the veterans worry the Airlift will be forgotten. They see it as an example of Americans pulling together, along with their allies, and a useful beacon for leaders today.
“Everybody had to do something, and it all meshed. It was teamwork,” Dionne said. “Could you find a better example?”
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Despite periodic overhauls and “a lot of maintenance love,” the 55th Wing’s 29 planes average more than 80 emergencies and aborted flights per year. Some Air Force veterans fear for crews that take to the sky in the aged, overworked jets. Yet the Air Force plans to keep flying them for 30 more years. Click on links in captions to read individual stories. Or start here.