Engineering the World’s Most Famous Airlift in Berlin – 75 Years Later

On June 24, 1948, with the Cold War in its early stages, the Soviet Union blocked access for all supplies going into portions of West Berlin. This cut roughly 2 million people living there off from the most basic necessities. Gen. Lucius D. Clay was the commanding general of U.S. Army forces in Europe and the military governor of American zone in Germany at the time and quickly and decisively called for what is now known as the Berlin Airlift.

It was an ambitious idea and involved using war-torn infrastructure and limited resources to execute the largest airlift in history to provide basic necessities to the men, women and children living in the sectors of Berlin overseen by Western European allies. The newly formed U.S. Air Force made the first deliveries via the one runway available at Tempelhof Airstrip just two days later on June 26, 1948. Between June 26, 1948 and September 30, 1949, the airlift delivered more than 2.3 million tons of cargo according to the U.S. Air Force Historical Support Division. This included everything from food to medicine to coal to support those behind the blockade.

It was immediately obvious that more than one runway would be needed and U.S. Army engineers began work building two additional runways at Tempelhof Airstrip right away. The first new runway, along with taxiway improvements, were in use by September 1948 and the third runway was in use by Thanksgiving that same year.

While the improvements at Tempelhof were underway, crews also began building the new Tegel Airport on the site of a former German artillery range in August 1948. In addition to two new runways, crews there also built administrative facilities, a hangar, a warehouse, a control tower and more. The first new runway at Tegel Airport was operational by Christmas 1948 and the second was in use the next summer.

Maj. Gen. Norman Delbridge

Maj. Gen. Norman Delbridge retired as the Deputy Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1986. In the earliest days of his career though, he was one of those Army engineers overseeing crews building and maintaining runways and other facilities at Tempelhof Airport and later Tegel Airport in Berlin.

Delbridge shared his experiences in Berlin with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Office of History in 1991 and provided a detailed look at the unique way Army engineers delivered key air infrastructure in war-torn West Berlin to ensure the success of the airlift.

“We had 20,000 (people) per shift and we worked 24 hours a day with lights, generator sets — so there were 60,000 people,” Delbridge said. “We had more women than men that did all of the earth moving… and they moved the earth by hand.”

German women loading fine gravel on bucket type conveyer feeding asphalt mixer at Tempelhof Airport in Berlin on August 5, 1948. U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Norman Delbridge, who oversaw runway construction at Tempelhof and Tegel airports early in his career, explained to historians that most of the thousands of workers on site of the airports were women due to the lack of available men in Berlin at the time. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Office of History)
German women loading fine gravel on bucket type conveyer feeding asphalt mixer at Tempelhof Airport in Berlin on August 5, 1948. U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Norman Delbridge, who oversaw runway construction at Tempelhof and Tegel airports early in his career, explained to historians that most of the thousands of workers on site of the airports were women due to the lack of available men in Berlin at the time. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Office of History)

In all, records from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Office of History estimate that more than 9.8 million work hours went into the effort between military personnel and local Germans. Local Germans – mostly women according to Delbridge – accounted for the vast majority of that figure (more than 9.6 million work hours).

Delbridge said eventually they were able to incorporate small rail cars and earth movers to support operations and limited heavy equipment was also airlifted in over time.

“The Germans have these little, it looks like the mine cars, that can lay these little tracks all over everything, and that was how, essentially, they cleaned up the country after the war. They’d lay these little tracks and they’d throw the bricks in these little cars and push the cars by hand,” Delbridge said. “Well, on this site what you did was you laid the little tracks over… we’d pull together a group of people, generally mostly women — there weren’t very men left in Berlin during that time — and they would go out there with shovels and they would shovel this sand into the little carts and push it where we said, and then dump it and go back.”

Delbridge also described using rubble from war-damaged Berlin as material for the base of the runways.

“We would find — of course the whole city was level — and so we tried to find as much of the bombed-out buildings that had little structural steel in it,” Delbridge said. “We would load these little two-and-a-half-ton dump trucks with this rubble from wherever we could… there was very, very little in the way of the major buildings standing, so there was lots of rubble. But you just tried to find that which was clean. And we brought it in and we laid it down on the runway, in 10 inch lifts.”

A portion of the several hundred thousand cubic yards of brick rubble removed from the streets of Berlin being crushed in the German rock-crusher prior to use on taxi-ways connecting the parking apron with the new 5,500-foot airstrip at Tegel Airfield in the French Sector of Berlin. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Office of History)
A portion of the several hundred thousand cubic yards of brick rubble removed from the streets of Berlin being crushed in the German rock-crusher prior to use on taxi-ways connecting the parking apron with the new 5,500-foot airstrip at Tegel Airfield in the French Sector of Berlin. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Office of History)

They would then use dozers going back and forth to break the material and then they would compact it and grade it. Between both airports, they brought in and used an estimated 755,000 cubic yards of brick rubble.

That initial layer was then covered with additional layers including asphalt that had to be flown in and a surface coat made from fine crushed cobblestones gathered from the cleaning up of the city followed by a “quick, fine” seal coat. Approximately 2.2 million gallons of asphalt was flown into Berlin and used for the new runways.

In the years after Berlin, Delbridge commanded several other U.S. Army Corps of Engineers offices all over the world, including operations in Turkey (now part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Europe District’s mission) from 1960 to 1963, the Pittsburgh District from 1972 to 1975, the Europe Division (now the Europe District) from 1976 to 1978 and the Pacific Ocean Division from 1978 to 1980.

A portion of the several hundred thousand cubic yards of brick rubble removed from the streets of Berlin being crushed in the German rock-crusher prior to use on taxi-ways connecting the parking apron with the new 5,500-foot airstrip at Tegel Airfield in the French Sector of Berlin. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Office of History)
A portion of the several hundred thousand cubic yards of brick rubble removed from the streets of Berlin being crushed in the German rock-crusher prior to use on taxi-ways connecting the parking apron with the new 5,500-foot airstrip at Tegel Airfield in the French Sector of Berlin. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Office of History)

While the Berlin Airlift was near the beginning of Delbridge’s career, the man known for calling for the airlift and administrating it was wrapping up his illustrious military career at the time. Most people don’t realize though that Gen. Lucius D. Clay was a key leader with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers prior to his World War II and post-war heroics and he credits his time with the Corps of Engineers for his later successes.

Gen. Lucius D. Clay

Before World War II, Clay was serving at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Headquarters in Washington, D.C. The 1930s was transformative for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with its mission greatly expanding as a result of the Flood Control Act of 1936.

“The flood control act made the Corps of Engineers into a much broader engineering organization than it had been because it involved it for the first time in the construction of major dams and reservoirs,” Clay told historians in a 1977 interview. “Up to that time we had only constructed reservoirs and things of that type and kind as a part of a channelization approach and not as part of a flood control approach.”

As part of that growing mission, Clay was sent to Texas to oversee the construction of the Denison Dam on the Red River to supply water, hydropower and reduce flood risks near the border of Texas and Oklahoma.

Then Capt. Clay set up the now-defunct U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Denison District essentially from scratch and went to work. He said that experience helped prepare him for his later roles.

“I think this is where you really get the experience that helps the engineer officer in war,” Clay told historians, referring to being assigned to Denison to build a District and a dam. “I was sent to Denison, Texas to build Denison Dam by myself. I went out and looked at a river where there wasn’t any water. I immediately began to borrow men from other organizations, other Districts.”

He said he pulled engineers from construction of what is now known as the Conchas Dam in New Mexico where construction was winding down, personnel from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Little Rock District and other places and within a few months had an operational organization.

Together, the team he pulled together oversaw construction of what at the time would be the largest rolled-earth fill dam in the United States. Today, the dam is still operated by the U.S. Army Corps pf Engineers, Tulsa District and is generally better known as Lake Texoma, the name of the lake created by its impounded water.

To this day the dam still supplies water for millions of people living in an arid region, produces up to 100 megawatts of hydropower energy to customers of Rayburn Country and the East Texas Electric Cooperative power companies in the surrounding communities thanks to upgrades over the years and has prevented an estimated $844 million in damages through its flood risk management benefits.

Clay credits his experience both managing large-scale infrastructure projects and having to do so with limited support to begin with for his successes later in his career.

“I owe everything I have in life to the Corps of Engineers,” Clay told historians when asked if his time with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers served him well later in life.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Europe Today

While Delbridge was working in Berlin, the materials flown there were coming from airfields in West Germany. Much of that came from the Wiesbaden Air Base, which is still in use today and is located on what is now Lucius D. Clay Kaserne – part of the larger U.S. Army Garrison Wiesbaden.

In fact, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Europe District – headquartered in Wiesbaden – is currently managing the replacement of the airfield’s air traffic control tower so it can continue to support U.S. military operations going forward.

Crews prepare to lift the top of the new air traffic control tower in this file photo from the U. S. Army Garrison Wiesbaden Army Airfield Nov. 9, 2021. The airfield played a key role in the success of the Berlin Airlift and continues to play an important role in supporting U.S. Army Europe and Africa operations. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Europe District is managing the construction of the new tower there. (U.S. Army photo by Chris Gardner)
Crews prepare to lift the top of the new air traffic control tower in this file photo from the U. S. Army Garrison Wiesbaden Army Airfield Nov. 9, 2021. The airfield played a key role in the success of the Berlin Airlift and continues to play an important role in supporting U.S. Army Europe and Africa operations. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Europe District is managing the construction of the new tower there. (U.S. Army photo by Chris Gardner)

The air traffic control tower is just one of 100s of projects the Europe District is managing in Europe as well as in Israel and Africa supporting regional security.

“From the beaches of Normandy to the Berlin Airlift through the Cold War and now through the delivery of our more than $7 billion design and construction program across Europe – Army engineers have a legacy of delivering solutions when called upon in Europe,” said Europe District Commander Col. Pat Dagon. “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is proud of our role in that legacy and delivering for U.S. forces, allies and partners.”

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