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Jeffrey G. Barlow, Ph.D.
Contemporary History Branch
Naval Historical Center
THE U.S. NAVY'S PARTICIPATION IN THE BERLIN
The Soviet blockade of Berlin became complete on 24 June
1948. That same day, General Lucius Clay, Commander of U.S. Occupation
Forces and Military Governor of the U.S. Zone of Germany, directed his
air commander, Major General Curtis LeMay, to employ all available transport
aircraft to supply the city by air. On 26 June, President Truman
directed that Clay's improvised aerial resupply plan be put on a regular
basis and that all available transport aircraft in the European Command
be pressed into service.
On 22 July 1948, General Clay reported to the National Security
Council (NSC) that he could meet the summertime needs of Berlin with an
airlift of 3,500 tons a day, but that coal shipments required for winter
heating would increase this figure to 4,500 tons once cold weather began.
Clay told the NSC that he could meet the figure of 3,500 tons a day if
he were given an additional 75 four-engined C-54 Skymaster transport aircraft
to augment his existing fleet of 52 C-54s and 80 twin-engined C-47 Dakotas.
Despite the concerns of Air Force Chief of Staff Hoyt Vandenberg that such
an increase would disrupt worldwide Military Air Transport Service (MATS)
operations, the NSC and President Truman approved assigning the additional
C-54s to the airlift. Accordingly, on 23 July, General Vandenberg
ordered nine MATS squadrons (81 C-54 aircraft) to Germany and directed
the establishment of a special task force to direct the airlift under the
Commander in Chief U.S. Air Forces in Europe. On 29 July, Major General
William Tunner assumed command of Airlift Task Force (Provisional).
On 10 September, General Clay requested 116 additional C-54s--69
to be made available by 1 October and the remaining 47 by 1 December 1948--so
that he could build up a stockpile of supplies for the winter months and
could raise the daily tonnage total for Berlin up to an average of 4,500
tons. In response to this request, Washington decided to augment
the Berlin airlift by 50 additional C-54s. On 24 September, Clay
strongly restated his appeal for the full 116 aircraft. After conducting
a thorough reappraisal of U.S. objectives in Berlin, the NSC finally approved
the recommendations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for an immediate reenforcement
of the airlift, and, on 22 October, President Truman approved the expansion
of the airlift by the additional 66 C-54s that Clay wanted.
This is when the Navy became fully involved in the Berlin
airlift. Although Navy tankers had been delivering huge quantities
of aviation gas to Bremerhaven to furnish fuel for the airlift since the
beginning of the Blockade, its planes heretofore had not been involved
in the aerial supply effort. The new increase called for, however,
would bring the use of C-54s in the Airlift up to approximately 52% of
the total number of such aircraft in the country's operational inventory;
thus seriously reducing MATS support for implementing the military's emergency
war plans. Because of his concerns over this situation, Air Force
Secretary Stuart Symington asked Navy Secretary John Sullivan to provide
the Navy's three MATS squadrons to the Airlift Task Force as part of the
latest augmentation. The Navy readily agreed to this request.
On 27 October 1948, the Commander, Military Air Transport
Service, with the concurrence of Chief of Naval Operations Louis Denfeld,
ordered Navy MATS units Transport Squadron Six (VR-6) and Transport Squadron
Eight (VR-8) to 180 days temporary additional duty (TAD) with the Airlift
Task Force for participation in Operation VITTLES (as the airlift was designated).
At the time, both squadrons were assigned to MATS routes in the Pacific;
VR-6 stationed at Guam and VR-8 based in Honolulu. Transport Squadron
Eight got the word that same day, and on 29 October its first group of
six R5D (C-54) aircraft took off for California. Transport Squadron
Six on Guam received its orders on 30 October, and on 1 November its first
contingent of four aircraft left for the West Coast.
The planes of both squadrons assembled at Moffett Field,
California for pre-employment work-ups. At Moffett, high-engine-time
R5Ds were exchanged or were reconditioned and inspected, and all planes
were winterized. In addition, VR-6, which had a shortage of four
aircraft, was provided with the additional planes to bring it up to its
authorized strength of twelve aircraft. Once they were readied, the
aircraft of the two squadrons took off for NAS Jacksonville, where APS-4
radars were installed. From Jacksonville they flew to Westover Air
Force Base, Massachusetts for movement to Germany. VR-8's last plane
flew into Rhein-Main Air Base on 15 November, and VR-6's final aircraft
arrived a week later, on 22 November.
In addition to the two Navy MATS squadrons stationed in Germany
as part of the Airlift Task Force, the third Navy MATS squadron, the fifteen-plane-strong
Transport Squadron Three (VR-3), provided trans-Atlantic support to VITTLES,
flying from the U.S. East Coast. Also, Transport Squadron Forty-Four
(VR-44), a Navy transport training squadron that was not part of MATS,
provided pilot training for replacement crews destined for the Navy MATS
squadrons in Germany and training for personnel needed to man the expanded
overhaul facility. In the meantime, Marine Transport Squadron Three
Hundred Fifty-Two (VMR-352), had been ordered by the Chief of Naval Operations
to report to Commander of the Military Air Transport Service's Pacific
Division to take over, within its fifteen-plane capability, the Pacific
airlift duties that VR-6 and VR-8 had been handling.
The two Navy squadrons in Germany quickly made
themselves known to their Air Force counterparts. The winter weather
in Germany proved extremely trying for all of the squadrons engaged in
the airlift, with cold fogs often blanketing Berlin. It was routine
during these months for the aircraft to fly east and west through the air
corridor on instruments and to make GCA approaches at both Berlin's Tempelhof
Airport and Rhein-Main. Fortunately for the Navy planes, their crews
had been required to make all their approaches on GCA during the years
that they had been part of the Naval Air Transport Service (NATS), and
so they were, on average,
more skilled in instrument flying than were their Air Force counterparts.
Although their planes had been averaging six hours a day
in flying time in the Pacific, VR-6 and VR-8 arrived in Germany fully manned
with skilled maintenance personnel prepared to maintain a schedule of eight
hours a day per aircraft. This substantial increase in flight hours,
however, was soon being regularly surpassed. During the first two
weeks of flying the air route from Rhein-Main to Tempelhof, the two squadrons
carried a total of 6,526 tons of cargo. By the end of December 1948,
VR-8 was leading all squadrons in the airlift in every measurable phase
of air transport operation, including aircraft utilization, total cargo
carried, payload efficiency, and tons per plane. VR-6 was not far
behind, though, being engaged for several weeks in a battle for second
place with the two top Air Force squadrons. By the end of February
1949, VR-6 was equalling and frequently exceeding VR-8 in operational achievements.
During April 1949, the two squadrons flew a combined total of 8,234 hours
(an aircraft utilization rate of 13.1 hours per plane per day) and delivered
23,550 tons of food and coal to Berlin.
After several months of on-and-off-again negotiating, the
Soviet Union finally agreed to end its blockade of Berlin if the three
Western powers (Great Britain, France, and the United States) agreed to
terminate their restrictions on trade with East Germany and East Berlin.
On 5 May 1949, the four governments issued a
communique announcing that the blockade would end on 12 May.
The Blockade was lifted on the day agreed upon.
On 30 July, an official announcement was made that the airlift
would end on 31 October 1949. The two Navy squadrons were released
from their duties with the Airlift Task Force in mid-August and returned
to the continental United States. After having its aircraft reconditioned
by the Fleet Logistic Support Wings at Moffett Field, VR-6 was stationed
at Westover Air Force Base for operation with MATS between Westover and
Rhein-Main, Germany. The reconditioned planes of VR-8 returned to
their old base in Honolulu for duties on MATS Pacific routes.
During the months that VR-6 and VR-8 operated in Germany,
their aircraft flew 45,990 hours, carrying 129,989 tons of cargo into Berlin
and averaging 10.1 flight hours per plane per day for the entire period.
Even though the twenty-four aircraft of the two squadrons had not been
involved during the first three months of the Berlin airlift, by Operation
VITTLES's end they had managed to deliver some 7.3 percent of the total
tonnage flown into the besieged city by U.S. aircraft. It was a masterful
THE U.S. EFFORT DURING THE AIRLIFT*
1.783 million tons
*A total 2.325 million tons of food, fuel, and supplies were
delivered during the airlift. The other 0.542 million tons
were carried by British aircraft.
For More Information, Please contact the U.S.
Navy Historical Center.