Celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift

  • Published
  • By General Arthur J. Lichte
  • Air Mobility Command commander
To the average American, June 26th is just another day on the calendar. But to citizens of West Berlin, it was a watershed moment - not once, but twice. To beleaguered West Berliners in 1948, June 26th represented "hope" as the 15-month Berlin Airlift began, symbolizing the promise of the western world - we would not leave Berliners behind the rapidly closing Iron Curtain. And to those same Berliners in 1963, June 26th represented "solidarity" as President John F. Kennedy uttered the now famous words, "Ich bin ein Berliner," and Berliners of all ages knew that the Western world still stood by them on the 15th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift. Now through May 2009, we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift - an opportunity to honor the heroes of 1948 as well as the heroes of 2008 who bring hope to our friends in need around the world.

Last month I visited Berlin and had the honor to spend time with some of the brave "Berliners" as we jointly kicked off the celebration. As we departed Frankfurt, on a flight path very similar to those flown during the 15-month airlift campaign, I was struck by the profound emotion of hope. Hope then, not only for the Berliners trying to survive the repression of the Soviet Union, but as a pilot, I also felt the hope of the allied airmen wanting to complete their mission to save individuals, families, villages, the city of Berlin and the whole of the German people. The hope offered then was apparent to every man, woman and child in the world to include the Soviet military and Joseph Stalin's regime. It was this hope that planted the seed of doubt in the mind of Stalin as he witnessed the persistence of the monumental effort.

For many, powerful images of children standing on piles of rubble with smiles on their faces, watching the promise of hope delivered in small handkerchief parachute packages with candy, or photos of flour being off-loaded from cargo planes often come to mind. Do you want to know why it's so powerful to see these images? It's not because they're pictures of someone receiving food. Not at all. Those pictures are powerful because they're images of hope...images of freedom promised and delivered. You see, the true effect of humanitarian airlift isn't measured on a ledger sheet (in tons or amounts of cargo that are moved). Instead, the effect of humanitarian airlift is seen in the eyes of the men, women and children who receive that aid. They know all too well that the food and medicine means hope...you see it in their eyes! These form lasting memories for everyone involved (in the air and on the ground), and they continue to be part of our nation's airlift heritage.

As the first "shot" of the Cold War, the Berlin Airlift was the first major challenge for the Air Force, which was still in its infancy when the Soviet blockade started. It immediately established global airlift as a valid U.S. foreign policy option and since then, air mobility has remained "on the table" as a valid instrument of U.S. foreign policy. But it's the Berlin Airlift's position as a record-setting humanitarian relief effort that captures the hearts and minds of generations of Americans and Berliners alike.

While many talk about the "greatest generation" in WWII, I am proud to say the "newest greatest generation" is serving in uniform today. In fact there are many parallels between the Berlin Airlift and operations today. During the Berlin Airlift, they flew about 900 sorties per day. Today, AMC crews fly roughly 900 sorties per day worldwide, about one departure every 90 seconds. During the Berlin Airlift, Americans hauled about 4,000 tons of cargo per day, with cargo being "the mission." Today, we haul almost 2,200 tons per day of cargo, in addition to transporting passengers as we support the GWOT. In fact, today we airlift more passengers on a single day than they did during an entire month of the Berlin Airlift.

When we speak of the "greatest generation" of Airmen in WWII and compare them to today's "newest greatest generation" it's fair to call them both heroes. We're able to accomplish more today because we stand on the shoulders of the WWII generation. And just like the Berlin Airlift, today's heroes are not just the aircrews ... it's all AMC Airmen--ground crews, maintainers, air traffic controllers, logisticians, and many more who provide hope and make miracles happen.

So, when you pause to reflect on the importance of the Berlin Airlift to our nation, do so knowing that you're part of "the newest greatest generation" and every day you're helping deliver the standing promise of hope. That spirit of hope is alive and well today, and forevermore for that matter. Today's promise of hope rests firmly on the cornerstone of humanitarian relief provided during the Berlin Airlift. The spirit of hope is a commitment to uniting forces and resources to deter aggression and uphold democracy anywhere in the world. Clearly, the benchmark has been set to never, ever, give up on mankind in times of need no matter what the political or military situation may be. The commitment to work together during times of peace and during times of war, the need to provide for the freedom and hope of the human spirit will forever be a priority. It's you, our AMC Airmen, who are today's heroes. You are the ones who continue to deliver the spirit of hope around the world...and that hasn't changed!