Last pilot of Berlin Airlift honors the past

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Last pilot of Berlin Airlift honors the past

by: Dr. John Provan | .
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published: November 23, 2016

Beginning on June 26, 1948, the Berlin blockade and the ensuing airlift of food and supplies to the city created a major operation for which the Allied forces were totally unprepared. Brig. Gen. Joseph Smith, who had been placed in charge, had no experience in organizing and maintaining a long-term major airlift operation and this lack of background would cause several accidents. Crews, pilots and soldiers did all they could, to make things work. However, existing manuals and operating procedures failed to cover the entire scope of such a major task.

The loadmaster and crew at Wiesbaden Air Base naturally wanted to fill each plane with as much food and supplies as possible. The old C-47 "Gooney Bird" aircraft, built in 1944, had proven its worth as a dependable and airworthy aircraft capable of transporting between 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 tons, over a distance of 1,000 miles. This particular plane was simply overloaded when it took off on July 8, 1948, shortly before 11 p.m. from Wiesbaden Air Base in route to Berlin. The pilots were unable to gain altitude or over-estimated their elevation. Near Königstein (30 km away), is the top of a small mountain — Steinkopf — reaching only 520 meters above sea level. At 11:30 p.m., the Forest Meister, who lived nearby, recalled standing at his bedroom window looking toward Steinkopf, when suddenly an explosion could be seen. It was the first fatal accident of the Berlin Airlift. All rescue attempts were of no avail, as remains of the aircraft were spread over the hillside and the burning fuselage had killed all on board. 1st Lt. George B. Smith (AO-794711), 1st Lt. Leland V. Williams (AO-686293), and Department of the Army civilian Karl v. Hagen had died while fulfilling their duty, to save a city.

Although their names appear on the Berlin Airlift Memorial along the Frankfurt-Darmstadt autobahn, only Williams has been honored elsewhere. A housing area in Erding was given the name "Williamsville" in his memory.

The experienced Lt. Gen. William H. Tunner replaced Smith as commander, on July 28th, 1948. By October, the C-47's were replaced by larger C-54 aircraft, and given the ability to transport twice as much cargo. These moves insured the future success of the Berlin Airlift.

On Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, retired Col. Gail Halvorsen, known as the "Candy Bomber" during the Berlin Airlift, will be visiting Frankfurt Main. The last surviving pilot of the Berlin Airlift will be honoring the first pilots to perish during the operation. Together with the Luftbrücke Frankfurt-Berlin 1948-1949 Association, Halvorsen will dedicate a small stone monument at this remote site, at 3:30 p.m. Several World War II re-enactors will provide historic four-wheel drive vehicles to bring Halvorsen and other veterans to the site. Clay Kaserne's Chaplain Randy Perry and Base Commander Col. Todd J. Fish, will pay their respects.

All photos courtesy of Dr. John Provan.

Tags: 2016, accident, actor, Army, auto, background, Base, Berlin, city, civilian, Clay Kaserne, command, Commander, distance, eis, experience, first, food, Frankfurt, housing, ice, July, June, mountain, moves, October, opera, read, soldiers, sport, vehicle, vehicles, vet, veterans, wi, Wiesbaden, World War II
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