“Ich bin ein Berliner” – I am a Berliner

 

“Ich bin ein Berliner”were the words spoken by John F. Kennedy in a speech he made in Berlin, Germany in 1963.  Other than ask not, they were the most-famous words he ever spoke. They drew the world’s attention to what he considered the hottest spot in the Cold War. It was fifteen years earlier in 1948 that I, as a seventeen year old Private in the U.S. Army, came upon the Berlin scene of destruction and darkness. This was early in a period right after World War II when the Russians cut off all access from Western Europe to the Western sectors of Berlin, which was 125 miles inside the Russian zone, or behind the “Iron Curtain” as it was called. The Russians made the mistake of not cutting off the air routes. President Truman took advantage of that mistake and against advice from, not only his commanders but all the commanders from England and France, made the decision to supply the nearly three million people that inhabited Western Berlin by air.

Two weeks earlier I had walked up the gangplank of a troop ship in New York harbor for a week and a half voyage to Germany. After a few days processing in Marburg, Germany a dozen of us soldiers found ourselves on a nighttime flight into Berlin. We arrived at daybreak and the temperature was below freezing. As I looked out from the back of the truck that I was riding in all I could see for miles was nothing but destruction. The rebuilding had begun and there were women along the way loading bricks from bombed building into wheel barrows and stacking them in the street. Men were working alongside building new buildings. The women wore only shoes, dresses, and jackets with their legs wrapped in rags to keep them warm. This vision stays with me to this day

Little did I know what the next years were going to be like. The first year, during the airlift, all food and supplies for three million people came in on an airplane. Everything was rationed. There was electricity only one hour a day. All the trees in the parks, along with anything else made of wood, had been burned for heating. The black market was rampant. All German restaurants were off limits to the American military. With all these adverse conditions, I can testify how well a young seventeen year old raised on a farm can learn and adapt.

Another thing I did not know upon my arrival in Berlin was, as a soldier in an occupying army, how to co-habit with people who three years earlier had been our enemy. Because of the airlift, Berlin became the showcase of the world on how WW II winners and losers could unite and move forward together. In Berlin, the Germans saw us as their protectors and showed their respect. They showed appreciation for what we did. They never complained and were willing to share what little they had. As a seventeen young soldier I made friends with young Germans my age that a few years earlier had been part of the Hitler Youth program. We got along very well by just looking forward and never talking about the past.

.Looking back, it was great to be part of a historic event like the Berlin Airlift which was the largest humanitarian effort in history.

Interested in more, click on one of the following:

John Black Berlin, Germany – Experiences I had while serving in Berlin, Germany

PBS Documentary, An American experience – Documentary on the Berlin Airlift

“The Big Lift” – Full length movie made in Berlin right after the Air Lift.