December 24, 2016

1948. Berliners Celebrate Christmas as the Airlift Continues

Bill Downs and Larry LeSueur Reporting from Berlin
A group of children with gifts from the Berlin airlift, 1948 (Photo by Hank Walker for Life magazine - source)
Bill Downs was the CBS Berlin correspondent throughout the blockade in 1948 and 1949. During that time he received visits from CBS colleagues and fellow Murrow Boys who also made reports, including Edward R. Murrow and Larry LeSueur (then the UN correspondent), whose Berlin Christmas reports are also featured below.
Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

December 19, 1948

Bisected Berlin has become so used to tension and crisis that every time there is a short period of quiet, rumors begin circulating as if to fill the vacuum.

The past few days we have been hearing whispers of a projected putsch by the Communist-led East Berlin government in which these unfounded reports say armed East sector police would march into the blockaded West sectors and take over. A number of dates have been mentioned. One rumor said the putsch would come on Christmas. Another said it would be made the first week in January when the newly elected West Berlin city assembly holds its first meeting.

So persistent were these rumors that one nervous Western sector newspaper published them as news, evoking a denial from British authorities who said there was nothing to the reports.

However, the spirit of Christmas gradually is overshadowing the spirit of crisis in this blockaded city. With the military units, clubs, and organizations staging scores of parties for German children all over the city, it is a common sight to see lines of starry-eyed kids on the street excitedly carrying toys and dolls, bundles of clothing, their mouths full of candy saved from the American rations for the occasion.

Despite the blockade, hundreds of smuggled Christmas trees have found their way into Western Berlin. There is a shortage of decorations, and sometimes when passing a church you can hear the shrill voices of children practicing carols—somehow they seem to blend nicely with the drone of the airlift planes providing a bass obbligato.

The Germans always have been sentimental over Christmas. Perhaps this season those on both sides of the invisible barrier will call a temporary, unofficial truce for the rest of the week and allow Berlin to have peace for a few days.

However, there has been no relaxation of the blockade. More East-sector police have been stationed at streets connecting the two parts of the city.

Down in Stuttgart, however, there is proof that the Christmas spirit is solidly established. American and German officials held special tree lighting ceremonies in front of the Stuttgart Opera House. For the first time since the end of the war, no policemen are being stationed at the tree to prevent the light bulbs from being stolen.

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

Larry LeSueur

CBS Berlin

December 22, 1948

It's going to be a light Christmas here in the red-white-and-blue sector of Berlin. I said light, not white, because no snow has yet fallen to cloak the ruins of this shattered city.

At the first meeting last night of the Allied three-power Kommandatura—reconstituted without the Russians—the Americans, British, and French decided to give their sectors of Berlin a Christmas present. There'll be light all day on December 25th, instead of just for two hours in the cellars and patched-up ruins of this cheerless northern city, where even the sun shines for only a few hours a day.

Two hundred extra tons of coal will be burned for electricity on Christmas Day to illuminate the sparsely decorated Christmas trees and the Berliners' Christmas dinner of canned meat and dried potatoes. This gift of light to the loyal Berlin population represents hundreds of bags of coal flown in by the hardworking boys of the airlift. And also, every Berlin household in the Western sector will get a pint of kerosene for their lamps.

It's a funny thing about the Christmas tree situation here. There aren't enough trees in the Western sector for all the Berliners who want them. And naturally we couldn't allow space on the airlift for inedible trees. But no German family would be without one at this time.

Well aware of this, the Russians imported 350,000 Christmas trees into their sector, and lo and behold, those little trees are appearing for street corner sale in this Western sector now. The Germans are smuggling them in from the East by subway and trolley car. The Russians are so displeased that today they've announced spot checks of all subway passengers carrying food parcels or trees across the line.

Coming from Paris to Berlin as I just have is literally like going from one world to another. I never realized how far along the road to recovery France is, or what it really means for any country to be defeated and occupied.

Larry LeSueur

CBS Berlin

December 24, 1948

Nature gave beleaguered Berlin a Christmas present today. The day dawned bright and clear, and the airlift boys are really laying it in. The heavy rumble of the aircraft fills the Berlin skies, and for the first time in weeks the shabby residents on both sides of this wrecked city can actually see the cloud-free airplanes streaming in with their heavy loads of food and fuel.

Nor is America forgetting its young citizens who make the great Berlin airlift possible—a feat which has raised American prestige sky-high all over Europe. Vice President-elect Alben Barkley is expected in Berlin tonight. Secretary of War Royall and Air Secretary Symington will also spend Christmas with the American airmen. Vice President-elect Barkley is bringing the airmen a special Christmas message from President Truman.

General Clay, after delivering a Christmas message of hope for Western Germany, has just flown up to the big air base at the other end of the line to Wiesbaden. He'll escort these dignitaries back to Berlin on the air corridor over Russian-occupied territory. And on Sunday night, over many of these CBS stations, General Clay will broadcast an exclusive interview on the past and the future of American policy in Germany.

The impersonal snow which covered the Western and Eastern sectors of Berlin alike yesterday has melted under the watery sunlight, and the gray-faced, undernourished Berliners are trudging through the ruins on their traditional Christmas Eve holiday. But the repercussions of Soviet anti-religious policy were heard here in Berlin today. Soviet authorities have announced that ten thousand German steelworkers in the Russian zone have "voluntarily" renounced the Christmas holidays to work on the two-year plan. Berliners are quipping that these workers are 98 per cent behind Marshall Sokolovsky—that is ninety per cent Marshall and eight percent behind Sokolovsky.

Larry LeSueur

CBS Berlin

December 25, 1948

Santa Claus and his reindeer haven't got a thing on the young men of the Berlin airlift. In fact, I think the young men are working a bit harder today than old Saint Nick himself. He knocked off work last night, but all day long the lead-gray skies of Berlin have been filled with the rumble of airplane engines. You can't see the big four motored planes through the overcast, but they're streaming in, heavily-laden, into Tempelhof right now, on the most ticklish kind of blind landings.

The boys have the airlift have been grabbing their Christmas dinner on the run. This afternoon I watched them gnawing on drumsticks and gulping hot coffee while their planes were unloaded. and now that darkness has fallen over Berlin, they're still keeping them flying. Their Christmas decorations are the red, green, and yellow flares that mark the flying strips of Berlin.

I was so used to reading about that Berlin airlift in the headlines that it wasn't until I came here I realized that it's not done by push-buttons. It's just like the war, it's all very human. They're pretty young, these men of the airlift, and most of them are separated from their families in America—and they're thinking about them today, but there are no holidays for the airlift. Two million people in Western Berlin must be kept warm and fed every day, and Christmas is no exception.

It's touching, for as soon as you climb aboard an airlift plane, the pilot does what has become inevitable for Americans far from home. He reaches for his wallet and proudly shows you a picture of his wife and family, and you do the same. Sometimes the heaters don't work in the planes, and it's not warm at six thousand feet over Russian-occupied Germany. But their morale is excellent and their discipline is perfect. One and all they love to fly. The only thing that bores them is sitting on the ground waiting for the planes to be loaded and unloaded.

Yet they're only human after all, and they're glad that America has not forgotten them on this day; that big brass have come to share Christmas with them in beleaguered Berlin.

There are more top American fighters in Berlin this evening than on any day since the war ended. Vice President-elect Alben Barkley, Secretary of War Kenneth Royall, Secretary of Air Stuart Symington, and Ambassador to Moscow Bedell Smith—they had Christmas dinner with General Clay a few hours ago. And perhaps best of all, there's a corps of Rockettes and a group of top American radio entertainers.

They'll do a show in Berlin's old movie house, the Titania-Palast, while the airlift rumbles on like a railroad in the sky.

This is Larry LeSueur wishing you a Merry Christmas from Berlin.

Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

December 27, 1948

The year-end holiday season is prompting some Berliners to take stock of this uneasy world, and this morning there is a typical comment in the British-licensed newspaper, The Telegraph, which pretty well reflects the worldwide confusion over the Berlin crisis.

The Telegraph says: "The outlook for 1949 is not very gay, but it is not hopeless. Never was the danger of war more imminent than it is now, but never was the outbreak of war less probable."

I pass along this comment to you because maybe you can find its meaning.

However, less confused is America's military governor here. General Lucius Clay last night was interviewed by my colleague, CBS UN reporter Larry LeSueur. What the general had to say is the top news in Germany today and worth summarizing.

General Clay believes that the worst is over for this winter's airlift; that there will be adequate food but that extremely cold weather will cause some suffering among blockaded Berliners. "However, I am convinced," Clay said, "that the people of Berlin have learned from experience under one totalitarian government to withstand almost any hardship rather than accept another totalitarian regime."

Clay revealed that the governments of America, France, and Britain are in substantial agreement on the duties of a Military Security Board to operate in Germany to prevent this nation from ever again becoming a military power. He opposed the creation of a German police force which might be converted into an army, and said that only time will tell whether our democratization program will succeed in killing the military spirit which has so dominated Germany in the past.

The European Recovery Program and the currency reform has had an amazing effect on German recovery, the military governor said, increasing production by fifty per cent. "But there still is a long road ahead to German self-sufficiency. German recovery still lags far behind general Western European recovery."

And about the future, General Clay had this to say to CBS:

"I think any expectation that a stable, peaceful world can result from a general peace settlement is oversimplification of the problem. While a general peace settlement has not been agreed in the broad sense of the word, we are at peace now; or, at least, we are not engaged in war." And he added, "We do not need to be plunged into war."

The American military governor said that the conditions of stability, both economic and political, which make for a long peace, are returning to Europe. "When the freedom-loving democratic countries of Western Europe are on their feet economically and able to protect their freedom, then we may expect a long peace."

About the future of Germany itself, Clay said that the future is bright for progress both politically and economically. Increasing ERP aid will stimulate production; the establishment of a Western German government will generate healthy political activity.

The statement is a significant summary of the success of American occupation policy. It also is another significant CBS News exclusive.

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

Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

December 29, 1948

When Germany was defeated three and a half years ago, the victorious Allied powers agreed upon one thing: that never again would this nation be allowed to become strong enough to build a war machine that twice in a generation brought war to the world.

At this time there was talk of pastoralizing Germany, making her an agricultural nation; destroying all industry that might be converted to war production.

The Ruhr agreement announced yesterday shows how far this thinking has changed, with a recognizing of the important part the highly developed German heavy industry must play in the reconstruction of Western Europe.

The setting up of an international Ruhr authority changes the policy of the victors from a negative restriction to a police of positive production for peace. There will be an international policing of the Ruhr to assure that it doesn't again trend toward war production, but generally speaking the approach is one that will attempt to tie in Ruhr production with the European Recovery Plan, which eventually will relieve the American taxpayer of part of the burden now being carried under the Marshall Plan.

German reaction to the new Ruhr authority this morning is bitterly critical. Every political party, all of which appeal to the nationalism of the Germans, made statements condemning the international control of the Ruhr. Political leaders complain that the six-power agreement is "serious injury of German sovereignty," although there is at present no German government existent to claim any kind of sovereignty.

The Communists for the first time are joining the so-called Western German parties in condemning the Ruhr authority. They charge that the six-power agreement means a surrender to monopoly capitalism and American imperialism.

Probably the most important immediate effect the new Ruhr agreement will have on Western Europe will be to further emphasize the political and economic division between East and West.

The agreement makes it clear, if only by inference, that the vital coal and steel production from the Ruhr will only go to those nations "cooperating" in European recovery. This will exclude the Iron Curtain countries and further alienate the Soviet Union.

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

Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

December 30, 1948

Christmas is over in Berlin. The holiday quiet that has marked the past week of relationships between the Eastern and Western parts of the city is drawing to an end, and the old East-West fireworks are popping again.

East Berlin police are attempting to tighten their control of goods traffic between the Soviet sector and the blockaded parts of the city, but they are having a tough time.

Sector guards are now armed and have been issued thirty rounds of ammunition. Elevated and subway guards now try to stop all passengers carrying bags and luggage. But the passengers are retaliating when they can. In one subway station yesterday, an inspector was dragged inside the train, beaten by the passengers and then kicked off at the next stop.

Stoppage of food into Western Berlin appears to be the main target of the new clampdown, although in one instance a woman was relieved of five briquettes of coal she was taking home in her handbag—proving that, as in America, one can find almost anything in a lady's pocketbook. Soviet soldiers have joined German police in some inspection points.

Wilhelm Pieck, General Secretary of the Berlin Communists and President of the so-called People's Council of East Berlin, gave a New Year's interview to the official Communist party newspaper in which he denied reports that the Communists would set up a separate East German government in 1949. He made the old charges that it was the Western Powers who split Germany and Berlin. He added that a new two-year plan for the Soviet zone would begin on January 1st.

Intelligence reports of a revival of the Polish underground—which fought so successfully against the Germans—have been received in Berlin today. These reports say that anticommunist Poles last Friday derailed the Berlin-Moscow express southeast of Warsaw. A number of people were killed—one report says eighteen—and others injured. A news blackout has stopped any direct news of the incident.

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