A Reservist Flies the Berlin Airlift
The telephone rang early on that August morning in 1948. "You have a telegram from the Air Force," came a soft, sweet voice over the line. "I’ll read it and send it right on to you." "OK, read it," was my almost involuntary response, for alarm bells had gone off instantly in my head. "By direction of the President, you are ordered to active duty for the Berlin Airlift, reporting to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey not later than August 17."
The Berlin whaaat? Hmm. Berlin Airlift. Seemed to me that I had recently read something about the Soviets blocking off traffic to Germany’s largest and most historic city. Oh yes, rail and water traffic, too. In fact, every sort of surface traffic was blockaded. But I hadn’t paid much attention to it. "How can they do this to me?" I complained to my wife, Doris. "I’m headed for graduate school next month. What about that?" "You forget that I have a new job starting next month, too," responded my ever-lovin’. "I’ll have to cancel that because where you go, I go."
In due course the telegram arrived in the mail, followed by detailed written orders. Indeed, it was no dream. The orders contained a call-up of reserve officers and airmen from all parts of the country. There, in neat alphabetical order were the names, including mine: First Lt. Edwin A. Gere, Jr., MOS 1024. Translation: military occupational specialty, multi-engine pilot. During World War II, I had been a B-24 pilot in the western Pacific in the war against Japan and had been retained on the reserve listings. So there I was, along with all the others, a prime target for the military headhunters. Even before the days of computers, they were good at finding their man.
From that point on, time passed quickly. About a week at Kilmer for in-processing, medical exams, shots, issuance of clothing and other equipment, then off by train to Westover AFB, Massachusetts to organize into groups for travel to Germany. In short order we were all assigned as passengers on Military Air Transport Service C-54s, the very bird our group would soon be flying and maintaining on the airlift. Trans-oceanic routing took us north to Newfoundland for refueling, then across the wide waters of the Atlantic to the Azores, with a couple of days layover in those beautiful Portuguese islands prior to heading out on the final leg to Rhein-Main air base in Frankfurt. By the time of our arrival in Germany, it was the first week in September, and we quickly realized from the noise of many airplane engines and the bustle of activity at the giant air base, that the airlift had been going on for over two months, since June 26, to be exact. Airplanes, air crews, and supporting ground forces were desperately needed as airlift leaders struggled to meet the growing requirement for ever more daily tonnage of supplies to be delivered by air to the blockaded city.
Assigned immediately to the 60th Troop Carrier Group at nearby Wiesbaden, I found a new friend: Lt. Frank Zamboni from St. Louis. Frank had departed Westover at about the same time that I had, but we didn’t meet until we reported to base operations. Suddenly, Frank heard our new operations officer growl, "Zamboni, get in the right seat. We’re going to Berlin." Frank was now a copilot on C-47s, in service around the world since the 1930s, and now the aging workhorse of the U.S. Air Force, the Royal Air Force, and a few banana republics. Fondly dubbed the "Gooney Bird" by the Americans and the "Dakota" by the British, it could lift three tons of cargo. In no time at all, I was accorded the same treatment and ordered into the right seat of a loaded C-47. The first flight to Berlin is imbedded firmly in my mind. Nervous? Hell, yes. Although I had flown quite a bit in light aircraft since the end of the war, I hadn’t been in the cockpit of a B-24, or any other heavy aircraft, in three years. I had trouble reading the checklist, my radio procedures were eminently forgettable, and when the controls were in my hands the Gooney Bird seemed to wander all over the sky, as if in agonized protest to its misuse.
In addition to all my nervousness, here I was in a strange, foreign land, flying over the Soviet zone of occupation into a famous capital city reduced to rubble only three years earlier by relentless allied bombs and guns. My first sight of Berlin, as we made our approach to Tempelhof airfield, was one of shock and disbelief. It appeared to me as if every building in the city had been devastated. Only when on the ground and briefly out of the aircraft could I see that the wide, curving, cantilevered administration and operations buildings of this central Berlin aerodrome, a former Luftwaffe air base, were relatively unscathed.
Barefooted Suzanne Joks presenting bouquet to Lt. Don Measley at Tempelhof, Berlin, August 1948.