Chuck Powell: A Berlin Airlift Story

U.S. Navy Douglas R4D and U.S. Air Force C-47 ...

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One of the nice things about a blog like mine is that I can revive or resurrect stories long ago published and forgotten. Here’s a story I did about a man who had a remarkable military service record.  His name was Chuck Powell.  He passed away recently, and I post his story here as a kind of tribute or memorial. I did the story around an anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, which he participated in as a pilot.  He also flew in World War II and in the Korean War.  He nearly flew in Vietnam.  Powell was a great big old Texican who had a way with words. He was an example to me of never judging a book by its cover.  By that I mean he appeared to be one thing from the outside looking in but he was that and so much more.  For example, by the time I met him he was pushing 80 and a tenured academic at my alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, but none of that suggested the many adventures he had experienced far removed from academia, adventures in and out  of wartime, that added up to a wild and woolly life.

The profile originally appeared in the New Horizons and I think, like me, you’ll find Powell’s story compelling if for no other reason than all the history his life intersected with.

Chuck Powell: A Berlin Airlift Story

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

Somehow it’s fitting one-time aviator turned political scientist, gerontology professor, history buff and pundit Chuck Powell holds court from a third-floor office perch on the University of Nebraska at Omaha campus.  There, far removed from the din of the crowd, he analyzes trends affecting older Americans, which, at 78, he knows a thing or two about.

On any given week his office, tucked high away in a corner of an old brick mansion, is visited by elected officials from across the political spectrum seeking advice on public policy and legislative matters.

“Most of the so-called issues are perennial.  They don’t change.  Most of the time people are searching for some magic silver bullet, but there isn’t any.  My advice is usually pretty simple,” he says.

Don’t mistake Powell for some ivory tower dweller though.  Whether offering sage counsel or merely shooting the bull in his down-home Texas drawl, this high flier and straight shooter draws as much on rich life experience as broad academic study with students and politicos alike.

And, oh, what a life he’s led thus far.  During a 30-year military career  he saw duty as a Navy combat pilot in the Pacific during World War II, a photo reconnaissance pilot in China and a C-54 jockey in the Berlin Airlift.  Later, he flew combat cargo missions in Korea.  By the time he retired a Naval officer in 1971 he’d seen action in two wars, plus the largest air transport operation in history, been stationed in nearly every corner of the globe and risen through the ranks from seaman to pilot to commander.

He’s gone on to earn three college degrees, teach in post-secondary education and travel widely for pleasure.  Yet, for all his adventures and opinions, he’s rather taciturn talking about himself.  Chalk it up to his self-effacing generation and stern east Texas roots.  Nothing in his home or office betrays his military career.  His wife, Betty Foster, said even friends were surprised to learn he’s a veteran of the 1948-49 airlift, a fact made public last spring when he and fellow veterans were honored in Berlin at a 50th anniversary event. Participating in “Operation Vittles” changed his life.

“There’s a strong feeling of public service among those of us who served in the airlift because it left us with the idea we could do great things without bombing the bejesus out of somebody,” he says.

While he has, until now, been reluctant to discuss his military service, his impressions, especially of the airlift, reveal much about the man and his take on the world and help explain why his advice is so eagerly sought out.

Born along the Texas-Louisiana border, he was reared in Tyler and a series of other small east Texas towns during the Depression.  He hardly knew his father and was often separated from his mother. Shuttled back and forth among relatives in a kind of “kid of the month club,” as he jokingly refers to it, he spent much time living with an uncle and aunt — Claiborne Kelsey Powell III, an attorney and Texas political wheel, and his wife Ilsa, a University of Chicagoeducated sociologist and Juilliard-trained musician.

One of Powell’s clearest childhood memories is Claiborne taking him to see the inimitable populist Huey Long stumping for a gubernatorial bid in nearby Vernon Parish, La.  He recalls it “just like it was yesterday.  The guy was so impressive. He was a big man.  He had a large head and a full head of hair and wore a white linen suit with a string tie.  He’d go, ‘My friends, and I say, you are my friends…’  Yeah, Huey man, he was a hoot.”

Surrounded by Claiborne’s political cronies and exposed to his and Ilsa’s keen wit and elevated tastes in music and books Powell was, without knowing it then, groomed to be a political animal and scholar.  He credits his uncle with being “probably the most influential person in my life” and sparking an insatiable inquisitiveness. “I’m a curious person.  I’m someone who likes to turn over every rock in sight,” Powell concedes. Betty, a gerontological educator and consultant, adds, “He doesn’t look at the surface of most things.  He looks far deeper than most people do.  Chuck is always looking at why we do things.  He’s very, very bright.”

Searching for some direction early in life, Powell found it in the Navy at the outbreak of World War II. Besides serving his country, the military gave him a proving ground and a passport to new horizons.

“It provided a way out.  I could hardly wait to get on the road.”

The sea first took him away.  In a series of twists and turns he doesn’t elaborate on, his early wartime Naval service began as a sailor in the Atlantic and ended, improbably, as a fighter pilot in the Pacific. The only thing he shares about his combat flying experience then is:  “I heard some gunshots, let’s put it that way, but by the time the war ended the overpowering might of the United States in the Pacific was such that you rarely got an opportunity to even see, let alone shoot at, the enemy.”

With nothing compelling him to leave the Navy, he volunteered as a pilot on photo recon missions across northern China. Exploring the Orient had been a dream of his as a boy.  “There was some mystery about it.  Before the war about the only Americans that went were missionaries.  It was a good experience.”

After a year’s duty in China he returned home and was assigned to the Military Air Transport Service (MATS).  “I was in a Navy four-engine transport squadron that flew out of Washington National.  We had nightly, non-stop routes that went from Washington to San Francisco.”

Then, in June 1948, the Soviets blockaded all ground and water routes in and out of West Berlin and Powell and his mates were redeployed to Germany to support the, at first, ragtag airlift of vital supplies into the isolated and beleaguered city. The first supplies were flown in June 25.

Powell’s first missions supported the airlift itself:  “We started flying equipment and personnel to Rhein-Main,” a major air base and staging area near Frankfurt.  Attached to Air Transport Squadron 8, he found himself thrown in with other airmen originally trained for combat duty.  Its skipper, “Jumpin” Joe Clifton of Paducah, Ky., was a decorated fighter pilot.





The start of “Operation Vittles” was inauspicious.  Men and material were scarce.  The few supplies lifted-in fell woefully short of needs.  The whole thing ran on a wing and a prayer.  Allied commanders and German officials knew Berliners required a daily minimum 3,720 tons, including coal and food, to ensure their survival, yet Powell says,“there was no evidence they could lift this much tonnage daily.  The first day they cobbled together a group of old C-47s and lifted 80 tons.  That was 3,620 tons short.

The task, as it began, was very high on optimism and low on reality because Berlin’s huge, about 400 square miles, and we’re talking about supplying a city the size of Philadelphia by air.” All sorts of alternate supply schemes — from armored transport convoys to mass parachute drops — were rejected.

Hindering the early operation was a lack of infrastructure supporting so mammoth an effort.

To meet the supply goals hundreds of C-47s and C-54s had to be brought in from around the world and pipelines laid down from Bremerhaven to Frankfurt to carry fuel.  All this — plus devising a schedule that could safely and efficiently load and unload planes, maintain them, get them in the air and keep them flying around-the-clock, in all weather — took months ironing out.  Yet, even during this learning curve, the airlift went on, growing larger, more proficient each week.  Still, it fell far short of targets as winter closed in, leaving the terrible but quite real prospect of women and children starving or freezing to death.

“The first six months of the airlift were nothing to write home about,” Powell recalls.  “The stocks in Berlin were drawn down.  All the trees were cut to be used for fuel.  We watched that tonnage movement day by day and, intuitively, everybody on the line knew how bad things were headed.”

Historians agree the turning point was the appointment of Maj. Gen. William H. Tunner as commander of the combined American-British airlift task force.  He arrived with a proven air transport record, having supplied forces over “The Hump” in India and China during the war.  He and his staff brought much needed organization, streamlining things from top to bottom.

The number of flights completed and quantity of tons delivered  increased, but when Tunner, “a bird dog” who observed operations first-hand, was on a transport during a gridlock that stacked planes up for hours, he insisted staff devise improved air traffic routes and rules that kept planes in a rhythmic flow The result, a loop dubbed “the bicycle chain,” smoothly fed planes through air corridors in strict three-minute intervals.

“Gen. Tunner was a tremendous leader.  He knew you couldn’t turn a bunch of cowboys loose with these airplanes and expect precision.  Under him, the airlift became a rigidly controlled operation.  You had to fly just precisely, otherwise you were gonna be on the guy ahead of you or the guy behind you,” Powell says.

With so little spacing between planes, there was scarce margin for error, especially at night or in the foul weather that often hampered flying.

“With a guy coming in three minutes behind you, if you missed your first approach you didn’t have enough time to take another shot.  You either made it the first time or you went home,” says Powell, who after a few weeks ferrying essentials to support the airlift’s launch, began carrying coal into Berlin’s Tempelhof airport from Rhein-Main (the base in the southern corridor reserved for C-54s).   “If everything was going right you could do a turnaround (roundtrip) in four hours. If it wasn’t going right it could take you 24 hours.  There were any number of things that could go wrong.”

Rules were one thing, says Powell, but they were often ignored in the face of the dire task at hand.  “I can’t speak for anybody but myself but I never carried a load of coal back.  There were times in the airplane when you set the glide path and the descent and the first you knew you’d landed is when you hit something.”  To work, he explains, the airlift depended on men and machines going beyond the norm in “a max effort.”

“We were flying over manufacturers’ specified weights.  Engines were a constant problem.  We were wearing these things out.  The airplane was actually being asked to do things it wasn’t even built to do, and everybody knew that.  In wars and crises things are set aside.  You take chances because you don’t have time to sit around and procrastinate.  The Soviets were trying to starve the people of Berlin into submission.  You got swept up in all this and pretty soon you were doing all you could.   The only time I know of when it (the airlift) was shut down was one night when there were some violent thunderstorms. I was in the corridor and man, it was grim that night up there.  Just before we were ready to take off at Tempelhof to come back home they shut the thing down for six or seven hours until that storm dissipated.”

Considering the scale of operations, blessedly few planes and lives were lost.  During the entire 15-month duration, covering some 277,000 sorties, 24 Allied planes were lost and 48 Allied fliers killed.  Another 31 people died on the ground.  “I think it’s remarkable that with all the things that were required, we lost so few,” Powell says.

All the more remarkable because aside from the dangers presented by night flying, storms, fog, overtaxed planes and fatigued fliers, there were other risks as well.  Take the Tempelhof approach for example.

“Tempelhof was the toughest of all the fields,” he notes, “because you were coming in over a nine-story bombed-out apartment building.  You had a tremendous angle on your glide slope.”

Then there was the danger of transporting coal.  A plane might blow if enough static electricity built-up and ignited the dust that settled over every nook and cranny.  To ventilate planes crews flew with emergency exits off.

 Photo: wiki



“It was noisy,” Powell says, “but you couldn’t argue with it because then you’d be arguing you want to get killed.”

Coal dust posed an added problem by fouling planes’ hydraulics and irritating fliers’ eyes.  Powell was legally blind six months and grounded for two due to excess coal dust in his eyes. He says even the most benign loads, if not properly lashed down, could shift in mid-air and compromise flight stability.

“You didn’t want anything rockin’ around loose in the airplane.”

He reserves his highest praise for the Army Quartermaster and flight maintenance crews that kept things running like clockwork.  German citizens made up part of the brigade of workers loading and unloading supplies and servicing planes.

“The crews were exceptional.  They were absolutely incredible in their ability to perform this work and to perform quickly.”

The operation got so precise that a C-54 could be loaded with 22,000 to 25,000 pounds of supplies, refueled and lift-off — all within 20 minutes.

“It wasn’t going to run unless everybody did their job, and if one part broke down the whole thing broke down.”

He says many civil aviation advances taken for granted now were pioneered then, such as strobe lights lining runways and glowing wands used by grounds crew to steer planes to gates.  All this happened in a pressure-cooker environment and the menacing presence of nearby Soviet forces.  The Soviets used harassment tactics, including sending fighters to buzz transport planes and ordering ground-based anti-aircraft batteries to fire rounds at the corridors’ edges.

Powell says if the tactics were meant as intimidation, they failed.

“C’mon, we’d all been shot at before, give me a break.  The ammunition made for a good fireworks display, but it made no impact.  Probably the worst thing they did from my point of view was shine some very high-powered searchlights on the aircraft at night and jam the final control or frequency.  You just had to keep driving and hope you made it all right.”

Make no mistake, it was a tense time.  The blockade and airlift had put the world on the brink.  One false move by either side could have triggered WWIII.  Despite the threat, U.S. and British resolve held firm and the Cold War didn’t turn hot. By 1949 it was clear the airlift was succeeding beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.  Tunner’s bicycle chain was humming along and with the weather improving that spring he chose Easter Sunday to kick the operation into overdrive.  In what became known as The Easter Parade, the airlift’s spacing was dropped to one-minute intervals and in a single 24-hour stretch in April a record 1,390 flights delivered 12,940 tons into Berlin.

“A one-minute separation — that’s pretty close for big overloaded airplanes,” Powell says.  “I don’t think we could have cut it any closer.  But it was a beautiful day.  The weather was ideal.  You could see everybody.  That made it easier.  The Soviets of course were betting the next day would be a huge fall-off but we did something like 8,000 tons.  By then we’d hit our stride and we were routinely lifting 8,000 to -9,000 tons a day.  It sent a message to Joe Stalin.  The next month the Soviets lifted the blockade.”





However, the airlift continued months afterward as a buffer against any further Soviet ploy.  By operation’s end — September 30, 1949 — more than 2.3 million tons of supplies had been lifted-in and a world crisis averted.

For Powell, its success, along with rebuilding Europe, were America at its best.  “We’re an amazing country.  Sometimes we have a veritable uncanny propensity to do the right thing.  It brought into rather sharp relief just what could be done. In my humble opinion the United States, between 1945 and 1950, could be compared to ancient Greece under Pericles.  It as a golden era.  We did virtually everything right and you can’t do that without leadership.  We were deep in leadership after the war.”

He says the feeling in America then — “that everybody was in this together” — is hard for young people to understand. “Now, we’re so disparate. Everybody’s off doing their own thing.  But I still put my faith in the willingness of the American people to do the right thing…given the right leadership.”   The airlift’s legacy, he says, is the goodwill it generated.  “Civic-minded Germans formed the Berlin Airlift Foundation to take care of the wives and children of the airmen killed in the lift.

When he joined other vets in Berlin last May he spoke with Germans who vividly recalled the airlift. “They all mentioned the omnipresent noise.  One lady told us, ‘It didn’t bother us because we knew if the noise continued we would eat.’  He adds the warm outpouring of gratitude got him “a little choked up. We made generations of friends there.” He says if there’s any heroes in all this, it’s “the people of Berlin, because they could have very easily gone to the Soviet sector and been fed and clothed.  No question.  They were down to 1,200 calories a day but chose to stay and stick it out.  These people sought self-determination.”

After the airlift Powell was set to study law when the Korean War erupted.  He spent 21 more years in the service, moving from place to place “like a locust.”   Posted in France during the ‘60s, he became a certified Francophile  — enamored with the nation’s history, culture, people.  He’s often returned there.

Along the way he married, raised a family (he has three grown children) and indulged a lifelong search for knowledge by reading and studying.  He describes himself then as “a kind of journeyman” scholar. That all changed in 1964 when plans to join an F4 Phantom squadron off the coast of Vietnam were scuttled and he was assigned instead to Offutt Air Force Base.

Here, he finally stayed one place long enough to earn a degree (in business administration from Bellevue University).  And here he’s remained. His post-military career saw him remake himself as an authority on public policy and aging issues, earning a master’s in public administration and a Ph.D. in political science.  UNO hired him in 1973 to implement training programs under the Older Americans Act.

As a full professor today he teaches courses, advises students and collaborates with colleagues on
articles, surveys and studies.  He’s applied the public service mission he took from the airlift to serve political campaigns, advise local and state government and participate in White House conferences on aging.  Both his life and work dispel many myths about aging.

“We feel it’s wonderfully appropriate to have a 78-year-old teaching younger people all older people are not alike,” says James Thorson, UNO Department of Gerontology Chairman.  “Dr. Powell is an excellent instructor and accomplished researcher.  He’s wildly popular with students.  He works long hours.  He wants to wear out, not rust out, and I respect him for it.”

It was at UNO Powell met Betty.  Both were recently divorced.  He was teaching, she was doing grad work. They married in 1982.  Everyone agrees they make a good match.  They travel together and enjoy entertaining at their sprawling Keystone neighborhood home, where he often holes up in a study whose impressive library is stocked with volumes on American history (the presidents, the Civil War) and France.  Travel is no idle pursuit for him.  He researches destinations and prepares itineraries detailing sites and themes, from architecture to art to vineyards.  He got in the habit in the service.

“It permits you to observe how other people do things and to see Americans don’t have a corner on how things are done.”

The couple prove growing older doesn’t necessarily mean slowing down.  In typical fashion he and Betty plan ushering in the new millennium under the Eiffel Tower in Paris. “I’m really looking forward to it,” he says.  In his office hangs an enlarged photo of the French landmark with an inscription that sums up his ageless sense of wanderlust:  “Paris is like a lover.  You may leave her, but you will never forget her.” It’s the same way with Chuck Powell:  Once you meet him, you never forget him.

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