It was his job.
That’s how Vernon Whitman describes his part in the Berlin Airlift.
Others may recall the 14-month airlift as one of the great international showdowns of the Cold War or as a signal humanitarian effort, but Whitman remembers it a different way. It was simply his assignment as a young Navy pilot.
“It was a job they were doing and they had to have people to do it,” the 90-year-old retired Delta Air Lines pilot said as he sat in the den of his Sandy Springs home one recent day.
“You really didn’t feel like you were fighting the Russians. It was a humanitarian thing. You just felt sorry for the people who were being starved out.”
In 1947, Whitman was part of a Navy transport unit stationed in Guam. He flew a plane the Navy called a R5D, a military plane similar to the commercial DC-4. In November 1948, he and his squadron were ordered to Germany to join the airlift supplying Berlin.
After World War II, the allied victors had divided Germany and its former capital, Berlin, into zones. In Berlin, the Soviets controlled the eastern zone and the U.S., British and French each controlled a section in the west. But Berlin stood 100 miles inside the portion of Germany set aside for Soviet control, and the Soviets felt the entire city should all be under their sway.
To try to force a change, the Soviets closed rail and road access to Berlin, cutting it off from outside supplies. The western allies responded with the airlift. A nonstop line of supply planes flew loads of food, coal and other necessities from Frankfort to Berlin. The Americans nicknamed the mission “Operation Vittles.”
The airlift carried more than 2.3 million tons of supplies into Berlin, according to history.com. Whitman said the supply planes usually left Frankfort every three minutes. “We had a three minute interval,” he recalled. “At the worst weather, they’d move it to six minutes.”
He flew two round trips a day. He flew mostly at night, so he often couldn’t see the devastated city. He didn’t fully realize how bad things were for residents of Berlin until some daytime flights took him close to bombed-out apartments.
“Seeing how those people had to survive,” he said. “People were out in the streets cleaning bricks just to rebuild. … In the daytime, I was amazed by the rubble.”
Other pilots were too. One began dropping candy on his flights. He’d tie small parachutes to the candy and drop them from the plane to children below.
Whitman got hooked on airplanes when he was growing up in Louisiana. One day when he was about 5 years old, he said, a barnstormer with an old single-engine monoplane was forced to land on the Whitman’s field for repairs. The farm boy was captivated.
“After that, my parents had to take me to the airport every Sunday after church,” he said. “That’s where I got bit.”
He enlisted in the U.S. Navy out of high school. That led to 125 flights on the Berlin Airlift.
This past March, Whitman had a chance to fly again in one of the planes used in the airlift. The Berlin Airlift Historical Association, based in New Jersey, brought one of the planes to Pine Mountain to recreate a “candy drop.” Whitman planned to visit the same plane at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport during its annual “Good Neighbor Day” air show on May 30.
Nearly seven decades later, he looks back at the Berlin Airlift as “a great thing.”
“If it hadn’t been for the airlift,” he said simply, “the Russians would have taken Berlin.”