Sky Suppliers Museum opens Berlin Airlift exhibit

Six decades ago, American and British airmen accomplished a logistics feat that the Soviet Union thought was impossible — supply an entire city from the air.

From June 1948 to May 1949, cargo aircraft staging minutes apart, day and night, hauled food, fuel and materials into Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, Germany.

By the time the embarrassed Soviets removed their blockade of railways and roads into the city, the Allies had delivered more than 2.3 million tons of food, fuel and materials in what turned out to be the first serious confrontation of the Cold War.

The Museum of Aviation at Robins Air Force Base is honoring that 60th anniversary with a new exhibit entitled “The Berlin Airlift — Legacy of Friendship.” The collection of pictures, information and story boards is on loan from the German Embassy and will remain at the local museum through May 6. The free display, embellished by artifacts from the museum’s period collection, is located on the second floor of the Eagle Building.

“We’re real excited to have the exhibit here,” said Ken Emery, museum director. “It’s a traveling exhibit so it will have a number of stops around the U.S.”

Emery said Robins is a logical place for a salute to the airlift.

“Much of our airlift today is supported from right here — the C-5s, C-17s and C-130s. So we’re happy to make the connection between the Berlin Airlift and what we do today,” he pointed out.

Some 70,000 people were involved in the Berlin Airlift, still one of the greatest humanitarian exploits of all time. Several Middle Georgians who had a direct role in the expansive enterprise attended a grand opening of the exhibit Tuesday evening.

Paul Jarrett, a Pennsylvania native but now a Warner Robins resident, flew C-47s into the German city. He logged 227 missions carrying flour, coal, steel and aluminum planking, potatoes — even wine.

“We supplied everything they needed,” said Jarrett, who retired from the Air Force in 1973 as a lieutenant colonel. He said the missions were fairly routine.

“We just followed the instructions of the controller and landed,” he recalled. “We weren’t there long. It only took 15 minutes to offload.”

Jay Jones had 102 missions in the larger, four-engined C-54. He said the aircrews were not allowed to leave the aircraft after landing. At the height of air activity, fully loaded cargo aircraft were approaching the city every 30 seconds.

“We’d watch them take the load off, and as soon as it was clear we’d taxi out,” he said.

Jones was a friend of another U.S. Air Force pilot, Gail Halvorsen, who came up with the idea of dropping candy bars and bubble gum to German children as he approached the airfield. Halvorsen anchored the sweets to miniature parachutes. Eventually, the idea caught on and many Allied pilots did the same thing.

“We’d drop all the candy we could get our hands on,” Jones reported. “Our wives would cut squares of cloth and send them to us and we’d make parachutes out of them.”

The Warner Robins resident said he visited Berlin 10 years ago on the 50th anniversary of the airlift.

“We were hosted by a banker who was a kid at the time,” he said. “He told us all about getting the candy.”

Berry Segraves also flew C-54s, logging 142 missions into Berlin. He said there was little time on the ground, usually 16 to 18 minutes from touchdown to takeoff.

“We’d shut down the engines on the side of the aircraft away from the cargo door so they could unload,” he said. There were a few fleeting moments to talk with German crews unloading mainly coal from his large transport.

“Some spoke real good English, and I really enjoyed the exchange of questions and answers,” Segraves said. “They were grateful for what we were doing.”

He’s been back to Berlin several times since the blockade ended.

“I think we did the right thing,” he said. “I think history has shown that. I know I wouldn’t take anything for having been able to help do that.”

To contact writer Gene Rector, call 923-3109, extension 239.