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Saving Berlin

Gwinn resident was 19-year-old G.I. during airlift crisis

June 8, 2009
By CHRISTOPHER DIEM Journal Staff Writer

MARQUETTE -Sixty years ago, Gwinn resident Dan Benstrom took part in one of the first major crises of the Cold War.

Benstrom was a student aircraft engine mechanic during the Berlin Airlift of 1948-1949. As a 19-year-old mechanic, he spent most of his time at the Rhein-Main Air Base in West Germany, although he did get to go on some of the missions into Berlin.

"The first trip I made into Berlin, I was sitting in the engineer's seat which is right between the pilot and co-pilot ... all of a sudden we got three airplanes running across the front of our nose, three fighters," Benstrom said.

Article Photos

Gwinn resident Dan Benstrom, 79, holds up a picture of himself from around the time of the Korean War in the early 1950s. (Journal photo by Christopher Diem)

The fighter planes were Soviets, trying to disrupt the cargo planes from bringing badly needed supplies into the city. Soviet interference was common during the Berlin Airlift, a massive undertaking that is often overshadowed in history classes by World War II.

Following the end of the war, Germany was divided into four temporary occupation zones. Each zone was occupied separately by the United States, the Soviet Union, France and Britain. Berlin, located in Soviet-controlled territory, was also divided into four sections, each occupied by the same nations.

Immediately after the war, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin allowed Western forces to use air, road, rail and river links through Soviet-controlled Germany to bring supplies into Berlin. But in June of 1948, Soviet forces halted all supply traffic into the non-Soviet controlled portions of the city.

Stalin's plan was to control the entire city by starving the people of West Berlin and forcing them to accept communism. He hoped that Britain, the United States and France would abandon the city.

"They were trying to starve out the city of Berlin, 2.3 million people, and if they did that then they would be able to take the rest of Germany and the rest of Europe. That was their idea," Benstrom said.

But British and American forces foiled the Soviet plan by flying supplies into the city. While the British, French and Americans had never obtained legal rights to use Soviet controlled land routes into Berlin, they had a signed agreement with the Soviets to use several air corridors into the city.

The Soviets could do little except harass the British and American planes. If they shot down a supply plane, it would have inevitably led to open war.

In total, the airlift supplied more than 2 million tons of cargo to Berlin. Benstrom said a flight arrived in Berlin every three minutes. He said the flights took about an hour and 10 minutes and it took 45 minutes to unload the cargo before planes would take back off again. Benstrom said flight crews usually flew two missions a day.

The airlift not only halted Soviet plans but created a close bond between Germans and Americans who had been bitter enemies in World War II.

He told the story of 1st Lt. Gail Halvorsen, affectionately known as the "Candy Bomber."

After speaking to Berlin children who were watching the airlift flights, Halvorsen gave them pieces of gum and promised to drop some candy bars the next time he flew into Berlin. He did as promised and wiggled his airplane's wings as he came in, letting the children know it was him.

"He dropped them for several days in a row. The commander called him in and said, 'I understand you've been dropping things out of airplanes ... it's against rule and regulations ... but keep it up. We got great publicity out of it,'" Benstrom said. "So that's what turned the enemy into friends. The fact we were flying food and coal for the winter to them and kids were getting candy. Everyone was praising Americans then, instead of calling them the enemy."

The Berlin Airlift was a huge success. After realizing the British, French and Americans would not abandon the city, the Soviets lifted the blockade of West Berlin in May of 1949.

Benstrom, 79, recently returned from Germany where he took part in the 60th reunion of the airlift. He traveled to Germany with other airlift veterans both last year and this year. He said airlift veterans are treated like celebrities in Berlin. They sign autographs and have their pictures taken alongside Berlin citizens.

They were taken to John F. Kennedy School in Berlin where more than 500 students cheered for the veterans and asked them questions about the airlift, Benstrom said.



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