Journey across the Berlin Wall
In Daring Young Men, Richard Reeves narrates the heroic acts of bravery of the people who helped to make the Berlin Airlift possible. Beginning with the conflicts among the Soviets, French, British, and Americans, Reeves takes into account the crucial political factors that catapulted the Americans into standing their ground. Throughout the book, he follows the lives of “…kids-real, live innocents abroad who…were called ‘angels in uniform.’”1 Reeves does not focus solely on political contentions, however; he also incorporates first hand documents that give his readers an opportunity to comprehend the social factors as well.
Beginning with 1948, Reeves documents the Berlin Airlift with a professional outlook through his equal emphasis on both the social and political factors of the historical watershed event. Conflicts between the Soviets and the Allies led to a division of Berlin, which resulted in the creation of the Eastern and Western sectors. In addition, views of politicians during the time also influenced the decisions of the powers as a whole. There was a variety of social outlooks on the Germans; one is given by a soldier who claims, “I saw a man with one eye and one leg moving along a 3-wheel cart. Why him? Why not me? Of course they deserved it, but that doesn’t mean I want to see it.”2 Left with remnants of bitter disputes with the Germans during World War II, the French longed to deactivate Germany and render it too weak to even fight back. However, the belief that the Germans deserved to suffer was not a position held by most Americans. They, on the other hand, viewed the Germans as innocents who needed Allied aid and delivery of supplies. The immense poverty of the city as a whole could be seen in the filthy housing conditions of the people who struggled to attain even the slightest morsel of food. Housing was limited to basic shacks and cots. Rumors of a new currency began to spread through the city, but the Soviet order for said currency was a contradiction to the Four-Power Agreement. Consequently, the Allies vetoed the currency as null in the three Western sectors of Berlin. A resulting Soviet blockade of supplies to the Allies-controlled sectors led to the first airlift, which began with the use of American C-47 planes. Unlike the French, who harbored a deep contempt for the Germans, Americans pitied the poor conditions that even children were forced to endure. The compassionate attitude they had taken upon was fairly representative of the majority of American soldiers, who saw “[nothing] but shivering, skinny people trying to get something for their children.”3 Soldiers willingly made round trips to deliver necessary supplies to the German people. Roger W. Moser, Jr., one such volunteer, “…[flew] as a copilot and made three trips to Tempelhof and back before climbing into the tower at Fassberg for his second shift the next day.”4
Throughout the duration of the airlift, food was rationed not only in Germany, but also in England. In the Western sectors, “food was allocated through local stores and bakeries, but the daily mix of cargo was determined by American and British engineers and nutritionists.”5 Each person received barely eighteen hundred calories per day, with small portions of bread, potatoes, cereals, meat, fat, sugar, cheese, coffee, and salt. Due to the strict rationing of the provisions, a black market emerged and persisted until the end of the airlift. This market included vegetables and a surplus of other goods. Meanwhile, political negotiations reached a standstill, as the Soviets refused to cooperate with the Allies. It was then assumed that the Soviets were biding their time, and further discussions were dropped. Propaganda regarding the airlift was seen as a critical aspect in the containment of Soviet plans. Allied politicians sought to portray the airlift as an essential decision for national defense, and even Hollywood movie makers discussed possibilities of a new film. The Soviets took to utilizing publicity as well: East German newspapers reported that “…the blockade was a myth and emphasized that food and fuel rations were being offered to western Berliners if they registered with eastern authorities.”6 In addition, they told of the “scandalous” deeds of airlift planes, but most importantly, they focused on the unnecessary dangers of the airlift. Necessary maintenance of the planes was improvised by mechanics that lacked proper tools and supplies. However, perilous situations were most prominent during the deliveries of supplies to the Germans. Weather, precipitation, and a lack of sleep for pilots all contributed to a rising concern of the safety of the Airlift. On the other hand, CBS News of America declared, “People were eating out of garbage cans. Scrounging the streets. We had fought for freedom and won famine. No man’s mind is free when his body receives less than 800 calories. There is no morality on less than a thousand calories a day. There is no government on less than 1200 calories per day.”7 For the Allies, the propaganda was “all part of a tremendous wave of sympathy and charity generated by press coverage of the airlift.”8
Simulations of flight training were implemented through lessons for the pilots. Basic courses usually lasted three weeks long. In general, “pilots were trained to prepare for instrument landings with the engines on fire.”9 A Link Simulator cockpit, which utilized smoke to blind the pilots, was part of the obligatory courses. Replacement crews were high in demand due to the amount of supplies that needed to be flown. And yet, accidents were still common. For example, Tom Condon, also known as South African Air Force Lieutenant Tom Condon, had missed his landing due to a sever thunderstorm. Another, John Hopkins, had flown a plane which lost an engine during the flight; he was then forced to abandon his cargo due to the lost altitude of the plane. Other dangers on the runway were causes for potential concern as well. Reeves states, “Airmen working on the field and crewmen leaving their planes would sometimes crawl-for fear of walking into propellers-to the edge of the steel runway planking and then, with one foot on the perforated metal and the other in the mud, try to get out of the landing area and out of the way of jeeps and trucks moving around blindly.”10 One of the most common reasons for a flight accident, however, was due to the pilot’s lack of sleep. Not only were pilots forced to withstand the possible dangers along their flight, but they were also forced to endure any boredom. When there was no cargo to be flown, pilots would fly out of Berlin just to have something to do; competitions and challenges were presented to the pilots to amuse them as well as keep them awake. Maintenance was difficult in Tempelhof due to the lack of mechanics and poor weather, but internal improvements led to a soaring increase in supplies flown. By November of 1948, “the airlift was carrying eight hundred bags of mail out of Berlin each day, and in the first week of the month, more than 129,000 pairs of shoes were being flown into Berlin, all donated by residents of western Germany.”11
Although political strife raged, aid would not be terminated until a year later. Long-standing contempt for communists undoubtedly influenced French political goals. Such goals were deeply embedded in the efforts to fight the Soviets, and that “[General Ganeval] believed Kotikov [a Soviet leader] had broken his word [to guarantee] safe conduct to the twenty German policemen trapped in the old City Hall in the Soviet Sector” only added fuel to the fire.12 Still, Allied aid was continuously distributed throughout Western German villages, such as Melsungen, and provided not only basic provisions such as food, but also medical care and clothing. Similarly, American politicians had their own agendas. Some, for example, “requested authority to proceed with British and French agreement at early date to make Western currency sole legal currency in the Western sectors.”13 These plans were not realized, however, as the great powers finally reached a negotiation to end the Soviet blockade and reconnect the Eastern and Western sectors of Berlin in May of 1949.
Throughout his book, Reeves describes in detail the political turmoil as well as prevalent poverty during the Berlin Airlift. His fascination with the political aspect of the event is apparent: “With Soviets preventing rail travel through East Germany by blocking or ripping up track, and using patrol boats to blockade rivers and canals, the 2.1 million people of western Berlin were effectively cut off from the world.”14 Upon reading the book, readers will find that the author places an equal amount of emphasis on social conditions as well. Reeves makes an effort to relay a message to his readers that many families had nothing to eat and were forced to rummage through trash cans for scraps. In a study regarding school children, “14 had no bed linen, water, shelter…7 young girls had contracted veneral disease, and 14 had slept with men for food.”15
Reeves, a columnist since the age of twenty three, has also appeared more than one hundred times in newspapers. He founded the Phillipsburg Free Press after his education in mechanical engineering and became the Chief Political Correspondent of the New York Times through the accomplishments of his other publications. From his career, Reeves has developed a journalist’s attitude in accounting events; he takes into detail many factors and does not limit his documentations to political ones. Reeves’ American nationality is a possible influence upon his chosen subject and reason for his bias in the documentation of American soldiers: “…the German mothers would cry out to their children that the Americans were ‘angels sent from heaven.’”16
The book was published in 2010, and by that time, most Americans had already begun to reflect upon the Berlin Airlift as a heroic American act of compassion and bravery. The traditional view is that the Americans had rescued the Germans from extreme poverty when they flew an average of five hundred tons of supplies over the wall each day. Above all, however, the Americans viewed the airlift as a valiant effort that “saved” the European nation from communism. Reeves points out, “It was not war the Soviets wanted. It was Berlin.”17 The Allies’ triumphant victory in thwarting the spread of communism is ultimately an echo of the common struggle of the members of the Allies against the Soviet Union.
Reviews of Reeves’ book are generally positive, with appraisal for the details and well-written documentary of the airlift. The American Spectator (April 2010) states, “Richard Reeves’s engrossing new book [is] about one of the Cold War’s hottest episodes.”18 They also describe his book as a “highly readable account of the Airlift [that] highlights a largely neglected operation that once again showed American ingenuity and resourcefulness, as well as the selfless, can-do spirit of its citizen soldiers.”19 The journal also reflects American bias towards the event with, “It was undeniably a heroic undertaking.” In a separate review, The Air and Space Power Journal (May-June 2012) chooses to describe Reeve’s account as one with “…[a] well-chosen title,…clearly [laid] out purpose of revealing the bravery and achievement of a military operation often misunderstood or overlooked by Americans today.”20 Although it is acknowledged that the Airlift was a heroic act, the Journal also states, “Reeves seeks to correct this oversight…and makes an important contribution to the history of the Airlift.”21 Overall, the documentary is “easy to follow, even for readers having little familiarity with the airlift.”22
This book accounts for a variety of aspects of the Airlift, including, but not limited to, a plethora of diplomatic negotiations. In addition, it calls to attention the social factors that inevitably influenced foreign affairs. To accentuate the significance of each, Reeves allocates a substantial amount of attention to both. Politically, Reeves takes into account the long standing conflicts between the French and the Germans; he states that “…the French, occupied by the Germans for countless years, wanted to impose a new Germany that would be too weak to fight back.”23 Examples of the social conditions that Reeves chooses to include are the poverty and filth that the Germans are forced to live in. The author’s balanced utilization of these elements gives a professional outlook upon the “heroic event,” despite the possible bias due to his American nationality.
Reeves’ book is an evident acknowledgement of the notion that the airlift was a revolutionary event of the 1940’s. The enduring American view of the airlift has been maintained for decades after the conclusion of the event. The heroic triumph of the Allies against communism is found in Reeves’ documentation of the political conflicts during diplomatic negotiations. The tension due to the pressure on Soviets to cooperate with the Allies resulted in a distinctive break in hopes of collaboration. Reeves describes the meetings as futile; for instance, one ends with “…the French representative leaving [for the night]… [the Soviet leader] then [stands] up and [says], ‘there will be no later meeting.’”24 The refusal of the Soviets to bend under the pressure of the Allies into surrendering Berlin is indicated by the division of the city into Eastern and Western sectors. Through the Allies’ persistence, however, the powers eventually reach a negotiation that is still touted today as what “emancipated” the Germans from the possible dangers of communism. Overall, this book unequivocally supports the perception that the Berlin Airlift was a watershed event of the 1940’s.
Reeves’ book is laudable in that it imparts an equal emphasis on both the political and social factors. The gathering of “…extensive archival material, conducted interviews with some of the participants, and…[a] host of secondary sources” allows Reeves to competently deliver to his readers a comprehensive documentation of the Berlin Airlift.25 Along with a professional outlook of the event, Reeves is able to provide an accurate yet engaging documentary of the airlift that truly upholds the revolutionary qualities of the event.
End Notes
1. Reeves, Richard. Daring Young Men. New York: Simon and Schuster. 2010. xiiv
2. Reeves, Richard. 11
3. Reeves, Richard. 51
4. Reeves, Richard. 53
5. Reeves, Richard. 94
6. Reeves, Richard. 107
7. Reeves, Richard. 113
8. Reeves, Richard. 134
9. Reeves, Richard. 158
10. Reeves, Richard. 157
11. Reeves, Richard. 186
12. Reeves, Richard. 235
13. Reeves, Richard. 5
14. Reeves, Richard. 28
15. Reeves, Richard. Xvii
16. Reeves, Richard. 21
17. Coyne, John R., Jr. "Heavy Lifting in Berlin." The American Spectator (2010): 74. Web.
18. Coyne, John R., Jr. "Heavy Lifting in Berlin." The American Spectator (2010): 74. Web.
19. Coyne, John R., Jr. "Heavy Lifting in Berlin." The American Spectator (2010): 74. Web.
20. Biles, Amanda B. "Book Reviews." Air and Space Power Journal (2012): 3. Web
21. Biles, Amanda B. "Book Reviews." Air and Space Power Journal (2012): 3. Web
22. Biles, Amanda B. "Book Reviews." Air and Space Power Journal (2012): 3. Web
23. Reeves, Richard. 42
24. Reeves, Richard. 78
25. Reeves, Richard. Xiv