SEPTEMBER 2002

 

While undoubtedly most of the glory went to the flyers of the Berlin Airlift, they couldn't have done it without a new-fangled gadget, the Ground Control Approach radar.  "There were no sophisticated landing aids, just a world of ball and needle - compass, altimeter, attitude and airspeed indicators.  That there were not more accidents is a tribute to the adaptive skills of the American and British flyers.  Skills or not, they could not have done the job without ground conrol approach radar, rudimentary radars by contemporary standards.  The men who stared into the flickering green tubes hour after hour, as well as the pilots who had to put their trust in the GCA controllers' judgement, made GCA landings in zero visibility the system of the future."  pp 10-11 I Always Wanted to Fly.
 
Yet there were still others who were all too frequently forgotten as well - men like Master Sergeant Thomas Etherson, then a self-described New York wise guy.  "Because I was a wise guy from New York City, the guy who sat by the potbellied stove designated me as the number-one man for fuel-tank repairs.  The C-54 was a wet-wing airplane, meaning the wing itself was a gas tank.  When a leak exceeded a number of drips per minute, we had to open up the wing and find the leak.  Dropping a wing-access plate was no easy task.  I had to put a jack under the wings, and take the studs off the access plates.  Once the plate was removed, it had to be cleaned so it could be put back on.  Also, before I could put the plate back I had to prepare a mixture of two compounds called stoner's smudge.  This required kneading these two compounds until they had the consistency of bread dough.  The more I kneaded, the blacker it got, and the mixture stuck to my hands like another skin.  If I was still stationed in Japan I could have gone to the hot baths, and maybe the stuff would come off.  But there was only cold water in Celle.  Before I could put the goop inside the fuel tank, any residual fuel had to be removed with a garden hose, and someone, usually the German helpers, sucked on the hose to siphon it out.  My man Rudi said, 'It will ruin my teeth.'  I thought he could die from a mouth full of gas.  But no ill effects were ever apparent in either of us.  When we got to town, many of the girls didn't want to have anything to do with the guys with the black hands.  A lot of German civilians came by our table in the Gasthaus and asked us what kind of secret weapon we were working on.  Then they walked away laughing.  The German civilians who worked with us were great mechanics as well as great friends.  They used our American tools.  One wrench used to install sparkplug leads was a real knuckle buster.  It took the Germans to figure out how to work the thing so it wouldn't bust your hands.  Every time I went to tighten a spark plug, the front end of the wrench would slip.  The Germans manufactured their own.  I kept one for years and guarded it like it was gold.  Another reason I will never forget our German workers was that they shared their food with me.  In the evenings they were served at a soup kitchen as part of their pay.  One man would pick up the soup cans for the entire crew and get the soup.  They gave me a can and I drew rations with them.  Certainly it was better food than the slop served by the Brits.  The poor Brits couldn't help it - they had so little themselves."  I Always Wanted to Fly, pp 81-82.
 
A final tribute from my new book The War of Our Childhood (to be released this October 1).  In one of the stories this is how a young German boy remembered the airlift.  "The English at the air base (Fassberg) were very reserved.  There was little contact between them and us.  We couldn't go anywhere on the base.  Once the Americans came in 1948 during the Berlin airlift, everything changed.  Everything was open, and the Americans were very approachable.  They brought life into our staid and reserved community.  My father led a section of loaders on the base, loading coal onto trucks and into the American C-54 transports which flew the coal to Berlin." Page 262, The War of Our Childhood.  And so it goes.  People still remember your sacrifices.  Have a great reunion.  Sorry I can't be there with you, but tomorrow (Aug 31) I am off to Germany to attend, you guessed it, another reunion.  God bless you all.  Wolf Samuel