November 17, 2016

1949. Celebration as the Berlin Blockade is Lifted

The Blockade is Lifted
Bill Downs in Germany in 1947 interviewing a German veteran as part of CBS' "We Went Back" series
Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

May 11, 1949

In just ten hours from now the great Berlin Derby will be on. The blockade will be lifted and a hundred or so radio press correspondents and photographers will dash to the German capital to do exactly the same thing that we in the city have been doing all along—report the news and take pictures.

A five car train of American correspondents are now en route to the Helmstedt crossing point where they will hitch onto a British train, scheduled to be the first into Berlin, at about six o'clock in the morning.

The little village of Helmstedt already looks like a gold rush town. Scores of reporters are jammed into its two hotels and have taken rooms in private homes. The streets are jammed with cars from all over the world.

At the autobahn checkpoint the guard houses have been freshly painted and decorated with flowers. Batteries of press telephones have been installed just ten yards from the crossing point. A broadcasting line has been installed. And come the magic hour of midnight tonight, the race will be on—foreign correspondents dashing a hundred miles through the Soviet zone down the wide autobahn that Hitler built to give rapid transit to his troops.

We hope to flag in CBS correspondent Charles Collingwood about four o'clock in the morning after he makes a special broadcast for Ed Murrow's news show.

British traffic authorities fear that there may be accidents on the road in and propose to lead the correspondents in convoy, but no one expects the convoys to stick—not with the fast American cars.

CBS correspondent Betty O'Regan will be aboard the first train into the city. I'll be covering the lifting of the blockade from here in Berlin. If everything works, we hope to give you the best coverage of the story possible.

In Berlin, Communist police are removing the street barriers between East and West. But for this city, the best news today is that, effective tonight, the electricity will go off ration. Candlelight may be romantic in restaurants, but when you have to live by it, it is just a plain nuisance.

This is Bill Downs in Berlin. Now back to CBS in New York.
Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

May 12, 1949

I have an idea that for years to come the German people are going to be talking about "the day the Americans went crazy when the Berlin blockade was lifted."

There's something a little unreal about the whole thing, kind of like a James Thurber fantasy. CBS correspondent Charles Collingwood tells me of how the Germans in the little town of Helmstedt yesterday and last night stood on the street corners, their mouths open with astonishment, as reporters dashed for telephones; as photographers took pictures of everything in sight; and as radio correspondents fought for microphones.

Mobile units from the Army Signal Corps would appear out of nowhere—a maze of wires would be laid—then after a while the whole thing would disappear.

There should be some interesting letters home to Russia, also, from the Soviet G.I.s who were on duty the night the blockade was lifted. They will tell about the lines of American reporters, the fanatical gleam of hope in their eyes, crouched over the wheels of their automobiles speeding down the autobahn towards Berlin, as if chased by the ghost of Horace Greeley. The Blockade Derby—the reporters' race to be first into this city—was won, incidentally, by Walt Rundel of the United Press.

At the Russian checkpoint we found a half dozen spruced up Soviet soldiers, and another half dozen really dressed up Russian officers.

Everything was very proper and very correct. The red and white drawbar across the autobahn was raised in the air. The moon turned the Russian flag over the guard post a dark maroon.

I approached the group of officers and explained that I wanted them to make a recording for CBS. Something about how they felt about the lifting of the blockade and its possible effect on the peace of the world.

A stocky little individual on the outskirts of the group interrupted. There was some rapid palaver in Russian, and the officer interpreter explained that they could not discuss these political questions. I asked him if the lifting of the blockade was good or bad—he finally said "good."

Most of the American colony in Berlin stayed up most of the night last night. Scores of military and civilian personnel drove with their wives out to the Babelsberg checkpoint to see the barriers lifted, and throughout the night couples appeared to cheer on the correspondents racing in their automobiles. Many of the women came in long dresses from the blockade lifting parties staged throughout the British, American, and French sectors.

Most of the crowd at the Berlin checkpoint were newsmen and photographers taking pictures of each other. It was all very confusing—and somehow a little forced. There was no ceremony, only a little cheer as the cars moved.

The people who had the most fun at the lifting of the blockade on the outskirts of Berlin were a group of Germans who brought along several bottles of Schnapps.

They interrupted their drinking long enough to sing a song—a sad song popular during the last war. One of the lines goes, "And all things pass every December, and then there is May." Only the Germans were singing, "And all things pass every blockade, and then there is May."

Whether the cynicism of the Berliners is justified only time will tell. However, the news coverage is certainly building this event to immense proportions.

The best assessment of this event was told to me last night by a young mother here, who explained to her eight-year-old son that she was going out to watch them lift the blockade.

The little boy, who had had the whole situation explained to him in the American school in Berlin, thought the goings-on a little bit foolish. "They are not going to really lift anything, mother," he said. "All it means is that the soldiers will let them go through."

This is Bill Downs in Berlin. Now back to CBS in New York.