27 October 1948. Four months earlier, the Soviets began their blockade of Berlin in earnest. All surface transportation into the part of the city occupied by the Western Allies (US, UK and France) was cut off and all supplies, food, fuel and the like was prevented from entering the city. But the air approaches into the city were left open and that same day, a temporary re-supply by air was begun. President Truman extended that effort by putting it on a regular basis and directing European Command to press all available airlift in theater into service. Thus began a steady stream of C-47s and C-54s streaming in through the three corridors over Soviet-occupied Germany into the former capital city of the Third Reich.
Berlin, shattered, ruined and occupied, must not fall to this latest assault, and in so doing, would put a stake in the ground in this next war – the Cold War.
By September it was apparent that more needed to be done insofar as increased transportation of food and fuel for the coming winter. To be successful, the daily tonnage would need to be upped to an average of 4500 tons, so an additional 66 C-54′s would be needed. And where would they come from? Well, 24 would be provided by the Navy.
On 27 October 1948, the Commander, Military Air Transport Service, (MATS) with the concurrence of Chief of Naval Operations Louis Denfeld, ordered Navy MATS units Transport Squadrons (VRs) 6 and 8 to 180 days temporary additional duty (TAD) with the Airlift Task Force for participation in Operation Vittles. At the time, both squadrons were assigned to MATS routes in the Pacific, VR-6 stationed at Guam and VR-8 based in Honolulu. Transport Squadron 8 got the word that same day, and on 29 October its first group of six R5D (C-54) aircraft took off for California. Transport Squadron 6 on Guam received its orders on 30 October, and on 1 November its first contingent of four aircraft left for the West Coast.
The impact of the Navy contribution would soon be felt following their arrival. By the end of December 1948, VR-8 was leading all squadrons in the airlift in every measurable phase of air transport operation, including aircraft utilization, total cargo carried, payload efficiency, and tons per plane. VR-6 was not far behind, though, being engaged for several weeks in a battle for second place with the two top Air Force squadrons. By the end of February 1949, VR-6 was equalling and frequently exceeding VR-8 in operational achievements. During April 1949, the two squadrons flew a combined total of 8,234 hours (an aircraft utilization rate of 13.1 hours per plane per day) and delivered 23,550 tons of food and coal to Berlin.
By May 1949, it was apparent to the Soviets that their ploy had failed and the blockade was lifted on 12 May 1949. Still, the airlift continued until the final flight on 31 Oct 1949, when VR-6 and VR-8 were released from duty. During their time in theater, the 24 aircraft of the two VR squadrons flew 45,990 hours, carrying 129,989 tons of cargo into Berlin and averaging 10.1 flight hours per plane per day for the entire period. Those same 24 aircraft and their accompanying flight and ground crews were responsible for over 7% of total supply tonnage delivered to Berlin, despite having arrived five months after the airlift began.
So, what was it like to fly the Airlift? Thought you’d never ask:
See also the Naval History Center account.