Bay Area remembers Berlin Airlift

June 9, 2008 9:13:10 PM PDT
This month marks a milestone in history, and the local connection to it. It's the 60th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift. For two Bay Area airlift heroes and a Hayward woman, life was forever changed.

"We just didn't think the Russians would do something like that," said Lore Warren.

Lore Warren lives in Hayward. Sixty years ago, she was a 20-year-old in war-scarred Berlin, when the Soviets suddenly cut off allied supply lines to the American, British and French sectors.

Rail, water and roads were cut off and Berliners, surrounded by Soviet-controlled East Germany, lost access to food and other supplies.

"They hoped by cutting us off that eventually we would give in and the whole of Berlin, which was an island anyway, would become theirs," said Warren.

The Americans and British launched the Berlin Airlift -- flying in food as well as coal for industry and home heating.

Tom Flowers, now retired in San Jose, flew 101 missions to Berlin. His Navy squadron was deployed from Guam.

"We had just finished fighting a war over there. We were all of a sudden over there, ordered to save a bunch of people in Berlin, and we didn't understand the significance of it," said Flowers.

However to 2.5 million Berliners, the sound OF C-54 and C-47 Aircraft landing at Tempelhof was welcome.

Warren's family home was in the flight path.

"Every 60 seconds a plane would fly over our house, and they would come in, land, unload and take off again and reload and come back again," said Warren.

In all, there were 277,000 flights in 1948 and 49. The military calculated Berliners needed 4,500 tons of food and supplies daily.

Supporting those flights, an estimated 40 to 60,000 military personnel and civilians to maintain, repair and load the aircraft.

Retired Air Force Master Sgt. Johnny Macia was one of them. He has a museum of Berlin Airlift history in his Hayward home.

With crews making three to four turnarounds a day, Macia remembers how the intense operation was hard on equipment.

"The landing was critical because you're loaded with over 10,000 pounds of coal, and with the weight distribution, you had some tires were getting fatigued, and they'd blow out," said Macia.

The Soviets harassed the transport planes. Bad weather and risky conditions made landings difficult.

"You needed about 300 feet of visibility in most cases, and a lot of the time, we didn't have that. But as long as we saw the runway and could get down. The thing was, if you missed your approach, you had to take the coal all the way back," said Berlin Airlift veteran Tom Flowers.

With heavy traffic and adverse conditions, there were casualties -- 77 in all.

And a need to improvise to keep the planes on schedule.

"If you didn't have like a starter, a generator and there was another aircraft that was down for something that wasn't flying, somebody would go cannibalize it," said Macia.

Their success eventually caused the Soviets to relent, ending the blockade. The allies prevailed, although it led to a four-decade long Cold War. The German people have not forgotten.

"It changed the course of history not only, I think, for Berlin and for Germany, but for the whole of Europe," said German consul general Rolf Schuette.

A home video shows how the German consulate in San Francisco recently honored Macia and tom Flowers and several other Bay Area airlift veterans.

"Berlin would have starved to death. When you look at the scenes that you have from the newsreels at that time, you can see how enthusiastic the people were," said Schuette.

Those who took part in the airlift and those who survived because of it, don't want history to be forgotten.

"Well, to me, they were heroes," said Warren.

"I don't think we were heroes. We were just ordinary GI's doing the job and getting it done," said Macia.

"In my heart, I don't feel like I'm a hero. Shucks, that was a long time ago, David," said Flowers.

Sixty years ago, yes. But not forgotten.


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