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GENERAL LUCIUS DUBIGNON CLAY (1897 - 1978) - FATHER OF THE BERLIN AIRLIFT IN 1948 - 1949
 
 

 

    Gen. Lucius D. Clay was born in Marietta, GA, on Apr .23, 1897 and died in Chatham, MA, on April 16, 1978.  His lifelong companion in marriage remained Marjorie McKeown whom he married Sept 21, 1918.  They had two sons (Lucius Jr.; Frank Butner) who also became Generals.
     Gen. Clay grew up a Southerner - and became a ‘Man of the World,' even a peacetime military hero to the approx. 2 ½ million Berlin citizens of postwar times... and beyond!  Between the date of his birth and the day of his death, he was involved in great engineering feats; his professional life - civilian & military - was filled with extraordinary accomplishments.  He was faced with desperate situations that needed his extraordinary administrative talents and firm hand.
     Lucius Clay came from a line of distinguished public servants, some of whom are mentioned in official United States Annals: One of his ancestors was Kentucky Senator Henry Clay (1777 - 1852), called the ‘Great Pacificator' or ‘Great Compromiser,' in remembrance of his efforts in the 1820 Missouri Compromise.  Kentucky Sen. Clay was a presidential candidate in 1824, 1832, and 1844, losing all three bids due to various controversial positions on points that were, in retrospect, too far-sighted for their time.  In contrast to this high political ambition, his descendant, retired Gen. Clay firmly declared in 1963 that he would not seek, or accept, the presidential nomination.
     Lucius Clay was born the sixth, and last, child of U.S. Sen. Alexander Stephens Clay; during his father's tenure, he served as a Senate page.  In 1915, he entered West Point and graduated in 1918 as an Army engineer.  From 1924 to 1928, he taught civil & military engineering at West point - and by 1934, he was professionally prepared for the position of U.S. representative to Permanent International Navigation Conference in Brussels.  His accomplishments included directing the 1938 - 1940 constructions of Red River Dam near Denison, TX; serving as staff member to Gen. D. MacArthur in 1937; heading Civil Aeronautics Authority's Defense Airport Program in 1940/41 - responsibilities that covered work to enlarge & improve 277 airports and to build 197 new ones.
     At the height of WWII activities in 1942, Lucius Clay was the youngest Army brigadier general.  He was promoted to Asst.. Chief of Staff for Material (Service of Supply), and when the SOS was reorganized, he became Director of Material, Army Service Forces.
     One of  Lucius Clay's remarkable accomplishments came shortly after D-Day in 1945 for which he earned the Bronze Star: He was sent for by Gen. D.D.Eisenhower to help clear the war-torn Port of Cherbourg - a port so vital to the Allied flow of supplies.  Clay was characterized as 'chargetaker of chaotic situations to bring about working order,' as aptly stated by one author - and, within one day, he was able to stabilize the entangled harbor situation.  A day later, port facilities were functioning with speed and efficiency.  He earned other awards & honors: Legion of Merit, 1942; Distinguished Service Medal, 1944, and later received Oak Leaf Cluster.
     Writings included, ‘Decision in Germany' (1950) and ‘The papers of General Lucius D. Clay: Germany, 1945-49,' edited by Jean Edward Smith (1974).
     The ‘Berlin Airlift of 1948-1949' must, however, stand as his most notable achievement.  Everything in his professional life seemed to have prepared him for this crowning challenge in his career.  Even after he returned to his homeland, even after his 1949 retirement from the Army, Gen. Lucius D. Clay (RET) worried about the fate of Berlin and West-Germany.  Berlin's citizens fondly called him ‘Pater Urbis' - their City Father.
     March 15, 1947, Gen. Lucius D. Clay succeeded Eisenhower as Military Governor of Germany.  During those postwar times, problems were in evidence everywhere, and they called for hard decision-making & straight-forward solutions.  Clay was an able and fair administrator, engineer by profession, who became the only four-star general who had never seen combat.  Skills were honed and achievements were reached behind battle lines; they were, in fact, of equal importance to physical involvement in the war effort.
     As Military Governor of Germany, he directed efforts to solve vital questions regarding food; housing; health; government; currency; industry; religion; restoring wartime plunder; refugees; denazification.  He had been placed in a very unique position with unique challenges to conquer.
     When sporadic Soviet harassment of war-torn Berlin began in early 1948 (officially, the Berlin Airlift started June 24, 1948), Clay acted on his own initiative as CINCEUR (military governor & theater commander) when he ordered ‘the airlift begun!'  Only after 'Operation Vittles' took off did he convince President Truman of the necessity & ability to keep Berlin Supplied.
     This spirit regarding the ability to keep Berlin supplied was also transferred to the many Allied military men who airlifted vital supplies for the starving Berliners of those years.  It also affected mechanics & support personnel who serviced C-47's and C-54's that were the work-horses of the Berlin Airlift.  This ability to deliver also ‘infected' those U.S. citizens, stateside, who collected supplies within their own communities and had these necessities flown across the Big Pond to Berlin!  Col. G.S. Halvorsen (Ret.) was involved in bringing tons of candy to the Berlin children.
     Gen. Lucius D. Clay retired in mid-May 1949, within days after the Soviet blockade had been lifted.  In the United States, he went on to be a productive businessman, serving on eighteen corporate boards in the capacity of director or member.  His avocational interests remained horseback riding & fishing.
     Clay's manner was best described as one befitting a man who insisted on order & organization.  Unlike his ancestor Henry Clay, the ‘Great Compromiser,' Lucius Clay was known as the ‘Great Uncompromiser.' As one bargaining opponent once said, "He looks like a Roman emperor - and acts like one."
     A wide boulevard in a fancy part of Berlin is named after the city's hero: Clay Allee. Here, major consulates are located; high- priced homes sit, half-hidden among groomed trees, in well manicured gardens.
     And yet - the most precious, the most humble, tribute to a great man after death is found at the foot of his grave, buried flush with the ground.  It is a plaque placed there by the citizens of Berlin, the city he & his men saved from certain starvation & grinding Communism.  It only bears six poignant, yet mightily stirring words:
 
 

       Wir danken 
    dem Bewahrer 
  unserer Freiheit
 
ENGLISH TRANSLATION:
"We thank the defender of our Freedom"

Additional Notation by Mark Vaughn:

General Clay was buried with full military honors in the cadet cemetery at West Point. Clay's grave stands in the front rank, overlooking the Hudson River.  He is flanked by General George Goethals, a fellow engineer who built the Panama Canal, and Air Force Colonel, Edward H. White, the first American astronaut to walk in space, who perished in the Apollo capsule fire at Cape Canaveral.


The above biography was written from collated material and contributed to the BAVA web site by a former United Airlines in-flight supervisor who was, at the time of the Airlift, a small girl living in Berlin.  She witnessed the Berlin Airlift operation in 1948 & 1949, first-hand.
 
Sources: ‘ Contmporary Authors' Vols. 77-80/81-84, publ. by Gale Research Co.;
‘Dictionary of American Military' Biography Vol .1,
‘Lucius Clay' - Jean Edward Smith (Pages 685, 686)
 

Salt Lake City, UT - February 5, 1998:
    This article was written with information gleaned from material sent to the compiler by one of the 'Berlin Airlift' veterans, Chester J. "Bud" Vaughn, who wanted to honor the memory of Gen. Lucius D. Clay by publishing his biographical data on web site www.konnections.com/airlift/ index.html - in time for Germany's and Berlin's celebration of the Airlift's 50th anniversary..
    Mr. Vaughn collected all pertinent data, and it is constantly updated, by his son Mark Vaughn of Ogden, UT.