TDY – Germany - An Airlift Adventure
by John Townsend (56)
From the November, 2007 Newsletter


Late June, 1948, I was a 3-stripe Airman Technical Instructor with the Aircraft Mechanics School at Keesler Field, Mississippi.  In addition to graduating capable mechanics, we also helped aircrews transition to other aircraft, such as the C-54 Skymaster, the B-29 Superfortress and others.


One Sunday morning, I was awakened from an ever-so-slightly hung-over sleep by my good friend Blacky Bowman who informed me that the Personnel Office was asking for volunteers for a project in Germany - ASAP.  Being a person of adventure and having a need for new skirts and a place for cheap booze, I was a prime candidate - might even have a chance to do something unique.


Early the next morning, Blacky and I along with 15 other unsuspecting warriors boarded a C-47 Skytrain for Westover, Massachusetts.  There we changed to a C-54 and via the Azores and Paris we landed 2 days later at Rhein-Main Air Base.  It was mid-morning and there were more aircraft mechanics around than I thought possible on the continent of Europe.  The Soviets had blockaded Berlin.  We were to be a part of breaking that blockade.  We were enrolled in the Berlin Airlift.


We dozed in the Service Club until they finally found space to put cots for us to sleep.  Later we were billeted in an old German Kasern north of Frankfurt.  It was a one hour round-trip commute on a rickety old bus that was surely more dangerous than a flight through the corridor to Berlin.


There were a few C-47’s flying from Rhein-Main to Tempelhof but there were so many mechanics you couldn’t get close enough to an airplane to see if anything was wrong.  I never actually worked on an airplane myself as I had always been an instructor and taught people how it all went together and needed to be maintained.  I don’t know if I could have fixed anything.  In any case, I was initially put on ramp-control duty at the civilian terminal side of the air field (now Frankfurt International) and drove a Follow-Me jeep to park civilian and military aircraft.


Off-duty was a race to the big city and – WOW!  Frankfurt had everything a young, red-blooded U.S. Airman needed or wanted.


C-54 Practices Tempelhof Landings (USAF Photo) *


Flight Status

Maybe 10 days passed and then the C-54’s began coming in.  They were short of Flight Engineers and because I had been teaching the C-54 to aircrews, I knew the aircraft well.  People with knowledge of the C-54 were asked to volunteer to fly.  Flying had always been my fantasy, but my friend Blacky was reluctant.  He explained how dangerous it could be in the corridors with the Soviets there.  Nevertheless, I became a Temporary Flight Engineer and as a Temp we were not assigned to a permanent crew. For that reason, I flew with the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  I remember my first flight and thought for sure it would be my last. We left Rhein-Main behind aircraft "A" by 3 to 5 minutes and landed 3 to 5 minutes ahead of aircraft "A".  In the interim we were buzzed by Soviet fighters no less than 3 times in the corridor.  For the next 3 weeks or so that was the pattern.  Harassment included the Soviet fighters, search lights and an occasional balloon.


As a Temp I would make 2 or 3 round-trips per day and always with what seemed to be a cowboy pilot.  This schedule was not giving me a whole lot of time in Frankfurt, but I still went and sometimes would just make it back in time for the flight.  On one such occasion I got the first clue that I had no business in an airplane.  A taxi brought me to the flight line just in time to preflight the aircraft.  It was already loaded with coal and later as we were “on the approach” in Berlin the pilot shook me awake and said, “Gear down.”  “Well jeez!”, I wondered, “Who put them up?”  I had no idea where I was or what I was doing.


My friend Blacky had not been visiting the “Big City”.  He had been walking through the woods to a little “dorf” about every other night with his “staples” - cigarettes, chocolate, coffee, etc.  He would trade them for laundry service and some wine and German bread sandwiches at a private home.  It was then that I decided to give-up the big city life for awhile and explore the private home across the woods with friend Blacky and his laundry lady.  It turned out the lady had a young Ukrainian refugee girl living with her that Blacky was sweet on.  She also had a 19 year old daughter who sat in the corner and knitted.  The daughter could not speak English and I could not speak German but the way we communicated with our eyes, it became a relationship that is now 59 years old.  But, more on that later.


Organization Change

The flights from Rhein-Main to Tempelhof continued with skilled efforts but lacking in organization.  There were times when 2 or more planes would arrive at Tempelhof simultaneously [sic] and the controllers would have to stack them at various altitudes over the Divided City.  With the Russians controlling part of the airspace, this was as dangerous as playing Russian Roulette - pun intended.  It took good flying skills to navigate the corridor with the Soviet harassment and to land at Tempelhof between the apartment buildings and over the cemetery.  And, if you didn’t touch down near the end of the steel plank runway, you could end up on the other end with no runway.  If you tried to brake too hard, the steel planking could buckle and/or tires could be blown. 


The end of July saw a change.   General William H. Tunner arrived on the scene.  He had been in charge of another airlift - over the Hump, in Burma.  After about 2 weeks, Black Friday occurred with Gen. Tunner en route to Tempelhof and the weather at its worst.  One plane failed his test of touching down soon enough and ended up crashing on the other end.  Another plane, trying to stop in time, blew tires and another landed where there was no runway and ground-looped.  These problems caused a large number of planes to be stacked at various altitudes above Berlin.  When Tunner’s plane was told to take an altitude and hold, he took charge and told the tower to bring him in and send everyone else home loaded or not.  That was his plan from then on - take a direct approach into Tempelhof and if there was no room to land, head for the center corridor and go home - no more stacking.  His plan included entering the corridor 3 minutes apart at assigned speed and altitude.  That meant they would land 3 minutes apart.  He began negotiating with the British to establish U.S. bases at Fassberg and Celle, north and west of Berlin. They were nearer by more than 100 miles and didn’t have to fly over the Taunus Mountains as we did from Rhein-Main.


Aircraft from the bases at Fassberg and Celle came into Berlin through the North Corridor and some landed at Gatow.  Aircraft from Rhein-Main and Wiesbaden approached the city from the south corridor.  All aircraft returned to West Germany via the center corridor.  This smoother operation was a result of good organization and made for a safer airlift.


Memorable Moments

That doesn’t mean there weren’t those scary moments. I recall one time when my plane flew through the smoke not too far above a downed Navy R5D (Navy C-54) that had augured into a mountain side in the Taunus.  Scenes like that start you to thinking.


There were more than my share of scary moments but one that was on the edge. I give praise to the pilot whose name is now forgotten.  We were taking off at Rhein-Main on a still night with little or no wind.  We were loaded to the limit.  I was doing my duty - watching instruments and the little radar shack and trees at the runway’s end.  We had already reached take off airspeed but were still on the runway, and I noticed the pilot pulling hard on the yoke.   I thought, “This is it!”  I could still see the shack and trees.  He yelled for me to lift the landing gear.  I thought, “Nuts!” but did as told and it seemed to me the aircraft dropped about 100 feet but it started to rise and made it over the shack and trees – although barely.  Barely was good enough.  With the gear down that plane would have never gotten airborne.


On one flight in late August my plane lost an engine in the corridor to Tempelhof and after 2 days waiting in Berlin, it was decided to fly it out with that engine feathered.  It was not too scary as we were at least empty.  Another one was later in September with weather as bad as you could imagine in that area.  We were indeed grateful that the GCA system was up and operating.  As we approached Tempelhof you could not see the cemetery or the apartment buildings.  In fact, you could not see anything. I thought of my Baptist minister father and started doing what I thought he might do – pray.  I said something like, “Get me out of this and I will never fly again - even as a passenger.”  The controllers guided us in and about 20 feet from the steel planking I got a visual.  I took back my prayer.


You could get scared and hurt on the ground too.  Another incident occurred when I opened the cargo doors.  Swirling wind from prop wash blew coal dust over me and into my eyes.  Local irrigation of the eye failed to get the dust completely out and eventually I had to be sent to the Army General Hospital in Frankfurt where I was sedated and was told by the medics my eye had to be removed from the socket to get the fine dust out.  I don’t know if they told me the truth, but I couldn’t see for awhile and wore a patch for about a week.        


After all that excitement in the air and on the ground, there were plenty of certified flight engineers on-board and I was offered permanent status as a flight engineer or I could return to ground maintenance.  My romance with the air was over and I was happy to be put in charge of an aero repair crew.  I guess they figured I had to be in charge as I couldn’t fix anything!


Memorable Characters

My most memorable characters of the airlift are General Tunner, the organizer, and Gail Halvorsen, the Candy Bomber, der Schokoladen-flieger, Onkle Wiggly Wings.  Whatever the German kids called him was fine.  To me, he was the best public relations man we ever had in Europe.   He is still the Ambassador of the Airlift Association and flies the plane owned by the Association, Spirit of Freedom.  I never flew with Halvorsen but have talked to him occasionally and also helped attach the handkerchief chutes to the candy for dropping to the kids in Berlin. 



October came and my 90 day TDY was over but I remained in Rhein-Main.  The end of December, 1948 came and my 90 days were now 180 days.  In February, 1949, I was finally returned to my home base, and my current enlistment was past – at the convenience of the government, as they say.  I re-enlisted and volunteered for Europe because I wanted to return and marry my fiancée, the 19 year old daughter of the laundry lady. The Airlift was still going on and people were needed at Rhein-Main, and lucky me - I returned to the same 61st Air Base Group with only 2 miles through the woods to lovely Margot. The only difference was I was not aero repair now but was a shop chief of the hydraulic shop.  We still worked 10 to 12 hours per day while the Airlift continued until September, 1949.



A G.I. could not marry a German National until he got his Commander’s permission and that had to be no earlier than 90 days prior to rotating back to the United States.


We were living together and pressure from her mother and my very religious parents prompted me to get her passport and visa for Switzerland and we were married in Berne on June 8, 1951.  I did not apply for quarters and rations until 1952, just 90 days before rotation and with the Commander’s permission got married again in Frankfurt.  But, she already had her American passport and a non-quota visa.  When I got orders to rotate I asked for concurrent travel for my wife.  They couldn’t figure out how she had her passport already, but complied and we returned together.


West Palm to Berlin

I was sent to MATS training school in West Palm Beach, Florida as an instructor for transitional training on the C-124 Globemaster, C-97 Stratofreighter, SA-16 Albatross and the old reliable C-54.  What an assignment that was, at a small base at West Palm International.


I volunteered for the European Theater of Operations in 1956 and was assigned to the 7350th ABG at Tempelhof.  Although housing was hard to get for enlisted personnel in Berlin at the time, they allowed Margot to go with me.  But, she would have to live with her Mother in Walldorf until I got quarters in Berlin.  That was in May 1956, and I manipulated a mutual transfer with a man in Rhein-Main who had similar qualifications.  I must say, the job was great at the 7350th - line chief of maintenance for 3 C-47’s - quite a change - most would agree.


What I remember most about being stationed in Berlin was the fantastic improvement in the city since the Airlift days.  I also remember how we would see young officers on the base watching people depart from incoming flights and we would see these same officers later in Berlin riding a bike and wearing civilian attire like a German worker.  We laughingly referred to these folks as "Spooks" …and, I guess they were.


Margot & John Townsend – late 1940’s


Career Closing

In 1960, my wife, two sons and I were sent to Vandenberg AFB where I trained for what was considered state-of-the-art equipment – ICBM’s.  I was assigned to the Air Defense Command.  We flew our birds from Johnston Island and the mission, of course, was missile air defense.


I retired from the USAF in 1966 and worked for awhile as beverage manager for a big restaurant.  I had plenty of experience, but it was on the other side of bar and I soon realized the bar business was not where I should be and went back into the protective hands of Uncle Sam - the U.S. Postal Service - until 1981.


And now, I have time to reflect on a life well-lived.  Maybe the rest of it won’t be quite as exciting.



Ed note:  The following picture of John and Margot was added following their 60the anniversary in 2011.

* Re aircraft picture at top of article... 1940’s – A Douglas C-54 Skymaster makes a “Tempelhof Landing” at Great Falls Air Force Base, Mont.  Student pilots are taught this special type of landing to simulate flight conditions at Tempelhof AB, Berlin.  The approach glide angle is very steep and the airplanes touch down with a nose-high attitude and are held nose-high until the engines slow down.  This causes the wing to act as an air brake and use of the wheel brakes is cut to a minimum.  (U.S. Air Force Photo)


© 2007, the Berlin Island Association

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