The Second World War had been over for three years when pilots, navigators, and air-traffic controllers all over America were recalled to active duty to rescue Berlin. They were there within days and weeks, flying tired planes filled with food, coal, medicine, and mail. Many had bombed the place to rubble in 1944 and 1945. Now they and the British airmen were bringing it survival.
Drawing on hundreds of interviews in the United States, Germany, and Great Britain, best-selling author Richard Reeves tells the stories of these civilian airmen, the successors to Stephen Ambrose's Civilian Soldiers, ordinary boys called to extraordinary tasks.Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had ordered Berlin blockaded, betting that the Americans, the British, and the French would abandon the city. Many of President Truman's advisers wanted to retreat; others wanted to risk war with the USSR. Truman ordered the Berlin Airlift, neither retreat nor confrontation. It ended only when West Germany was established by the three powers and NATO was born. The Soviets did the backing down. Led by Generals Lucius Clay and Curtis LeMay, the first battle in the Cold War was won. The young men came home again, some of them trying to remember where they had left their cars.
Of the 60,000 individuals who made the Berlin airlift work, Richard Reeves fleshes out key stories that illuminate the fraught history, including that of Noah Thompson, a farm boy from Vermont. During the Second World War, Thompson led 21 bombing missions to Germany, but no sooner had he returned to civilian life then he was recalled to take part in the audacious operation. Reeves describes how, on his first trip piloting 10 tons of coal to the blockaded city, Thompson remembers his war-time bunkmate who parachuted out of a crashing plane over Germany only to be beaten to death with pitchforks and clubs. “And now I'm bringing them food,” Thompson thought. “What a world.” This ambiguity towards the population of the ruined city runs through the book, with several of the "angels in uniforms" as Berliners soon came to refer to the pilots having been responsible for bombing the place only three years earlier. Reeve’s description of the "city of zombies" is haunting: "one huge pile of crushed stones and rubble" where hunger is so acute that "cats and dogs disappear regularly" and shattered citizens are barely able to function because of malnutrition. He also repeatedly returns to the idea of the airlift as PR for the Air Force, for the West, and, above all, for the U.S.
Perhaps inevitably, the book's most memorable images come directly from first-hand accounts of ordinary people such as the Berlin diarist Ruth-Andreas Friederich caught up in a tense battle of wills between opposing ideologies. Outside of these vivid passages, the author is meticulous in detailing the myriad logistics that were part of the “luftbrücke”. This constant switching between a detailed breakdown of military strategy and the more evocative anecdotes can be unsettling material that would be easily divided on the printed page is less easily differentiated in audio, and the result can have the dizzying effect of a camera lens zooming in and out.
Johnny Heller’s narration does little to differentiate the various material used by the author; there is minimal variety in tone in his performance, so that newspaper articles, official reports, diary extracts, and interviews are delivered at virtually the same pace, tone, and pitch. But his tense and smoky voice certainly brings a sense of urgency and drama to the narrative, his saloon-bar drawl making up in character what it occasionally lacks in clarity. Dafydd Phillips
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If You Are Lacking Courage: Read This Book.
For me, history doesn't provide a better example of courage, vision, and bravery than the story of Berlin Airlift. This book tells that story so completely and with such rich details that I find myself constantly feeling joy for the souls of all those involved. Characters in this story soar to heights normally not seen in man's history. For the past 5 years I've made it a point to begin my summer holiday by listening to this book first--before all the 'new reads' I've carefully chosen through the year. This story carries me through the remainder of the my year as the relatively small challenges, obstacles, and puzzling circumstances are thrown across my life's path...I find myself saying silently: "I can do this. I can make it through this. If people, just having survived the horrors of WWII, had to turn around and immediatley face the Berlin Blockade and then stand firm and carry out the successful Berlin Airlift--I can face this, no problem. I can get through it." It's worked every time and having just finished listening to it again for the 5th consecutive summer, I can say I plan to continue this annual rite in the years to come.
- Jeanine W. Smith
No better example of America opposing despotism