A typical Airlift night
At 10:07 p.m. on a typical airlift night, a load of flour arrived at a railroad siding in Zeppelinheim. There, it was loaded by a team of DP’s (displaced persons), working under the orders of an Army Transportation Corp private, onto a ten-ton trailer driven by a soldier of the 63rd Truck Company. By 10:31 the truck held 212 sacks, exactly the amount that a C54 could safely carry. The truck headed for Rhein-Main, where the driver, Private Earl Windom, uncoupled his trailer in Bay 27 on the transfer strip at the airfield. Then, Windom headed back for another load.
While the load of flour was en-route to Rhien-Main, the crew of the airplane that would carry it was receiving up-to-date information on their flight path and being briefed on current Soviet activity in the corridor, alternate landing sites, and any new navigational procedures. Then they proceeded to their plane, a C54 bearing the number 5540. Captain Douglas A. Graham slid into the pilots seat for this leg of the trip; his co-pilot, Captain Harold Klopp would fly the right hand seat.
The trailer Windom had left had been on the field twenty-one minutes before the control tower called the Air Force van at the transfer strip to let the men there know that aircraft number 5540 would be ready for a load in four minutes. Another 63rd Truck Company tractor hitched up to the trailer and pulled the trailer of flour out to the loading area of the field. By 11:00, another group of DP’s was heaving the sacks into the waiting C54. By 11:21 that work was complete, the flour sacks were strapped down, and line mechanics were completing their servicing of the plane.
At 12:21 a.m., C54 5540 lifted off from Rhein-Main and began a climb to nine hundred feet while maintaining its take-off heading. Then, turning and climbing at a rate of three hundred feet per minute, Graham headed for the Darmstadt radio beacon. There he turned again and, in the next twenty-two miles , continued to ascend so that he was at his assigned altitude when the plane was over the Aschaffenburg beacon. There, C54 5540 turned for Fulda.
The old city of Fulda is a Baroque masterpiece, largely untouched by the destructive bombing raids of the war. One of Germany’s oldest churches, that of Saint Michael, was built there in the ninth century. Pilgrims from across the country have come there for years to worship in the magnificent eighteenth-century cathedral, where the remains of Saint Boniface, the martyred “ Apostle of The Germans,” lie in a crypt beneath the alter.
To Graham and Klopp, the church and cathedral were lost in the dark landscape five thousand feet below them. Fulda was nothing more than a monotonous radio voice in the ether, broadcasting a cryptic refrain at 265 kilocycles. “Dit, dit, dah, dit; dah, dit, dit,” the Morse code for F and D, was the endlessly repeated , and vital, message of the Fulda radio beacon that came through their earphones. Those letters marked that point in the sky where the airmen changed course again. When the needle on their radio-compass spun 180 degrees, indicating that the beacon was now behind them, they made a turn of 23 degrees. That put them on the heading of 57 degrees magnetic that pointed straight down the southern air corridor to the city of Berlin.
When the compass needle flipped, Klopp called in the exact time, so that the ship just behind them could adjust its speed to reach the Fulda beacon a precise interval later, maintaining the steady stream of aircraft.. By 12:36 a.m., C54 5540 had entered the airspace above the Soviet Zone. Exactly forty minutes after they passed over Fulda, co-pilot Klopp called into Tempelhof radio control for clearance to begin to descend to two thousand on their initial approach to Berlin. Over the Wedding beacon, the plane turned again, slowed to 140 miles per hour, and began to lose another five hundred feet of altitude. Two turns later, the plane was on its final approach. At 2:05 a.m. the wheels touched the runway at Tempelhof. As it slowed, a jeep with a large “Follow Me” sign in the rear appeared to lead 5540 to its unloading station.
Two minutes later the plane was stopped on its hard-stand, and by 2:09, the first sack of flour was being heaved down a chute off the plane. The crew of DP’s doing the unloading was supervised by Donald Chase, a young private assigned to the 26th Infantry, but pressed into airlift duty.
By 2:27, all 212 sacks of flour had been placed on the back of a truck and were headed to a transfer station ramp. Within twenty-two minutes the load was transferred to a diesel truck supplied by the Magistrat of the City of Berlin. At 3:00 a.m. Martin Bromer, a Berliner, chugged away with it. By 3:13, it had been delivered to the Schluterbroffabrik, the Schluter Bread Factory. There, three shifts working round the clock produced 60,000 loaves of bread a day.
By 7:30 in the morning, the sacks of flour from Abilene Mills had been converted to bread that was in vans on their way to be delivered to shops throughout the city. The airlift was feeding the city. There was no alternative that anyone in the world could see, now that diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis had failed.
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