Help from above

— Larry Chabot

Imagine airplanes thundering overhead every two minutes, 24 hours a day, non-stop, for 15 months. One-a-minute, some days. How could one sleep through the racket? But if that cargo passing overhead was saving lives, well, that’s okay. That’s exactly what happened, and at least two U.P. men were among those who pulled it off.
It was June of 1948. Marquette was laying plans for its centennial, the Ed Sullivan Show debuted on television, and President Truman desegregated the armed forces. The world, as usual, was on edge, flinching from one crisis after another. India’s Mahatma Gandhi, who preached non-violence, had been murdered. After finally achieving statehood, Israel was immediately attacked by its new neighbors.
The Soviet Union was poking Europe in the eye, leaning on Finland and Norway to buddy-up in case of war (no thanks). Communists seized control of Czechoslovakia, and were threatening in France, Italy, Greece and other hot spots. Defeated Germany was divided into four zones of occupation, by the United States, USSR, France and Great Britain. The capital city of Berlin was similarly divided. But alas, Berlin was deep inside the Soviet sector. On June 24, 1948, the Soviets closed off highway, railroad and canal access to Berlin, then cut off electricity to the non-Soviet zones. They halted a supply train headed for Berlin and towed it back to the Western zone with their own engine. Two million residents of free Berlin were isolated, and in the dark. Now what…
“Cometh the time, cometh the man,” as they say. Into a standoff crackling with danger came Harry Truman, the afterthought president who was thrust into the White House after Franklin Roosevelt died. Within hours, he authorized relief flights to Berlin to avert starvation. Great Britain joined the effort, as did Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa—to fly in supplies until diplomacy resolved the problem. No one expected a 15-month operation. Flights lifted off from two air bases near Frankfurt, Germany, going in via one corridor and returning in another. The round-trip to Berlin’s two (eventually three) free airfields was 530 miles.
Among the thousands who worked the airlift were Lawrence Tavernini and Dan Benstrom, both of whom are enshrined on the Sawyer Airport Aviation Wall of Honor.
Tavernini was a Norway native and Civilian Conservation Corps veteran who flew for the Air Transport Command during World War II, ferried planes for private operators after the war, and returned to active duty when he heard of the blockade. Within two days of arriving in Germany, Tavernini was at the controls of an airlift plane.
As a member of the 14th Troop Carrier Squadron, he flew 130 missions to Berlin, averaging two trips a day. His total mileage was 70,000, equal to three times around the world. He retired as a lieutenant colonel with more than 26 years of service, then worked in a financial planning firm in Marquette. He passed away in 1998 at age 75.

Headshot of Tavernini

“We’re proud of how our father lived his life,” said his daughter Mary, “and flying the Berlin Airlift was an example of the kind of man he was. He believed in doing the right thing, regardless of personal sacrifice. Every time I fly in and out of Sawyer, I look at the Wall of Honor. I remember my dad, and think of all the great people whose company he is in. It makes me tear up every time.”
Another U.P. participant was Bruce Crossing native Dan Benstrom, who enlisted in the Air Force in 1948, served in the Korean and Vietnam wars, and retired in 1975 as a chief master sergeant. In the early 1970s, he was in charge of B-52 bomber maintenance at K.I. Sawyer Air Base. Among his many volunteer posts were chairman of the airport board, president of the Berlin Airlift Veterans Association, and co-founder of the Aviation Wall of Honor. He was also noted for graduating from Northern Michigan University at age 60.
While the airlift initially required two years of college and a minimum age of 20, a shortage of qualified volunteers led to the 19-year-old Benstrom’s acceptance as a C-54 maintenance mechanic and crew engineer. As a member of the 331st Troop Carrier Squadron, he made several trips to Berlin. In his Wall of Honor biography, he’s quoted as saying, “the Soviet frustration was evident when they started buzzing our aircraft as we neared Templehof Airport in Berlin. But they never opened fire on us. They had underestimated our determination and weren’t ready to start World War III.”
In 2006, Benstrom was instrumental in getting a four-engine C-54 bomber—an airlift plane—for an air show at Sawyer Airport. His son Karl was able to take a short ride over the area in this historic craft.
“I had the chance to meet the famous Candy Bomber at Sawyer, and Dad met him in Oshkosh,” Karl said.
That Candy Bomber was Gail Halvorsen of Utah, who dropped candy to German children who were watching the planes unload. He said he’d be back with more candy. As his plane passed over, he wiggled his wings, then dropped sweets attached to handkerchief “parachutes.” Soon, American kids and candy makers were donating goodies, and Massachusetts college student Mary Connors ran a campaign to tie the candy to little parachutes. Over time, several tons of sweets were dropped. A PBS documentary on “The Candy Bomber” can be seen on YouTube.
Benstrom’s son, Karl, said his dad volunteered almost every year at the Experimental Aircraft show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. As a member and one-time president of the Berlin Airlift Veterans, he was able to schedule a reunion in Great Falls, Montana, where he had his training and met his wife Barbara. Sadly, when the group finally met there, he was too ill to attend so his wife and son Kevin went in his stead. Dan Benstrom died last October at age 86.


Statistics for the airlift were staggering. Nearly 280,000 flights brought 2.3 million tons of coal, gasoline, food, clothing, medical supplies and other staples, and flew 68,000 people out of Berlin. Cargo averaged 7,000 tons a day. Each aircraft was unloaded by German volunteers, usually within a half-hour; the record was less than six minutes.
Among the 101 people who lost their lives were 31 Americans. The flight safety record is remarkable considering the number of flights, round-the-clock format, unpredictable weather and extremely tricky airport approaches. The blockade ended on May 12, 1949, but the airlift continued until September 30.
Although the Soviets harassed the flights and even fired shots, which deliberately missed, they could ill afford to sabotage this humanitarian movement. The airlift was such an outstanding success that operation director General Lucius Clay earned a ticker-tape parade in New York City.
Those fortunate Berliners got an average of 2,300 calories of food per day, much more than the English were allowed under their country’s food rationing.

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