Remembering American Heroes

Cross-posted from

When we were kids, our aunt told us to "clean our plates, children are
starving in Europe." In Europe? Where did she ever get that crazy
idea, I wondered.

Halfway through Richard Reeves' excellent Daring Young Men, I
learned that all across America in the late 1940s mothers were saying
something similar to their children. Organizations and individuals
were preparing care packages with food and toys to send to "those poor
little children in Berlin." Remarkably, altruism in America was
galvanized by concern for a city that only a few years before American
soldiers had helped bomb into smithereens.

By the spring of 1948 tensions had increased dangerously between the
Soviets and the other occupying forces of what had been Germany.
France, Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union had joint
control of Berlin, but the former capital of the Reich was deep inside
the sector controlled by the communists. The Allied Forces had an
agreement to divide Germany to keep it weak, but this plan was quickly
fading in importance before the ramifications of the mutual suspicion
between the Soviets and the United States.

The Red Army was spreading Stalin's version of communism, and the
dictator thought that with his vast troop superiority in Central
Europe, he would eventually be able to control Berlin and much of the
rest of what had been Germany. The United States had already
demobilized, and few Americans had the stomach for returning to war.
If Stalin wanted Berlin, Soviet leaders and most American generals
agreed, there was little anyone could do to stop him.

In June 1948 the Soviets announced a blockade of the sectors of Berlin
under Western control, and this seemed a prelude to a total Russian
takeover. There wasn't nearly enough food, electricity or raw
materials in the city, but its citizens were desperate to stay out of
communist control. Against all advice, President Harry Truman made the
decision not to abandon Berlin. The Americans had to find a way to
keep the city fed and sheltered, despite the Soviet advantages on the
ground. The solution was a massive airlift of coal, food, industrial
materials and even candy - a lifeline extended by overused and
underserviced transport planes.

The experts agreed it couldn't be done. There were just over 2 million
people in Berlin living under Western control, and they needed
everything. Officials pointed out that there weren't enough American
pilots, that the British would be sending food when their own people
were seriously undernourished, that the airports were in no shape to
handle large numbers of heavy aircraft and that Central Europe's
"General Winter" would defeat even the most intrepid airmen. Pilots
could barely see the runway, and the communications networks initially
were rudimentary.

Starting from expectations of landings every 20 minutes, the airlift
put in place a system of bringing in planes at three-minute intervals.
In the final months, groups of aviators were having contests to see
how many tons could be brought in daily. Competition, ingenuity and
bravery worked: The airlift delivered more than 2.3 million tons of
food and materials, and the Soviets gave up on the blockade.

Reeves, a fine writer of accessible and thoughtful history, brings the
relief operation to life. From memorable characterizations of the
architects of policy to compelling anecdotes about the men loading and
flying the planes, he illuminates what it was like for the U.S.
military to embark on a rescue mission to a country with which it had
been in brutal warfare a mere three years before.

Noah Thompson, for example, was called up from the family farm to go
back to flying military missions. In 1945 he had dropped bombs on the
same area he now flew over with coal. His buddy in the war had been
shot down, then beaten to death on the ground by local farmers. Now
Thompson's plane was likely to be serviced by former Luftwaffe
mechanics hired to repair American C-54s.

The turnaround was dizzying, but airmen like Thompson never lost their
focus and performed with enthusiasm and courage. It was dangerous
work, and more than 70 men lost their lives. Despite the danger and
the long odds, the mission had the vigorous support of Americans back
home, who saw the Berlin airlift as a heroic refusal to give in to
Stalin's tyrannical ambitions. Reeves quotes a young German boy: "Only
three years ago they were fighting against my country, and now they
were dying for us. The Americans are such strange people."

Reeves' book takes us back to a time when the American commitment to
freedom was exemplified by its military in ways that aroused
admiration at home and abroad. The "daring young men" were not
perfect, but they were heroes, and we acknowledged them as such.
Today, when the United States struggles with two wars only grudgingly
supported by some of its citizens, Reeves' account is a welcome
reminder of the importance of a military willing to take risks to
preserve freedom. Daring Young Men brings to life a moment when
altruism, guts and know-how inspired our country and saved a city.