A Recipe Book. An Airlift. A Song.
By Prudence Bushnell (U.S. Ambassador, Retired)
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) turns 70 this year as pundits and politicians debate what is in it for us today. The 1949 recipe book found among MY mother’s final effects has answers. Having escaped her down-sizing impulses cultivated through years in the Foreign Service, it must have been very special to her. “Operation Vittles” was published by the American Women’s Club in Berlin during the 1948-49 airlift. Its contents were dedicated to showing how American food – like tomato drop biscuits – could emerge from foodstuff flown from Frankfurt.
On the book’s cover, three airplanes swoop from the west, noses curved down to support packages of food destined for the large, open mouths of hungry chicks nested on a thick, west-facing tree limb; three perky maple leaves denoting the flags of the U.S., France and Great Britain wave from its tip. Perched on a smaller branch on the eastern side of the tree, an unhappy creature from a tiny nest uses a saw to cut himself off from the tree trunk, a solitary leaf of the USSR flag dripping sadly from the end of the scrawny limb. Inside the book, photos of children gazing up expectantly for incoming airplanes dominate the first two pages; on the last two, children’s drawings show happy people enjoying American chocolate bars. The pages in between give recipes signed by the contributor, often accompanied with an anecdote about life as an American housewife in occupied Berlin.
My mother, Bernice Duflo Bushnell, who called herself “Dufie”, was among those housewives. Self-described as risk-averse, she nonetheless climbed aboard a troop carrier in the summer of 1948 with sister Susan and me, both toddlers, and a mother-in-law she disliked, heading for occupied Germany. We were meeting up with my father, Gerry Bushnell, who had been deployed as a civilian with the Occupying Military Government, U.S. (OMGUS), headed by Army General Lucius Clay.
Their first overseas post, Berlin remained my parents’ favorite even after serving in other parts of Germany, France, Pakistan and Iran. However, they seldom went into details about why it was so meaningful. I decided to learn myself and went to the internet. What were American civilians doing at the epicenter of tension between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.? I found lots of military narratives about logistics and the most enlightening accounts in the first-hand reports from the Oral History Collection of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST). As NATO formed in 1949, the citizens of west Berlin and the combined military assets of multiple countries showed the world what a shared commitment to human security and freedom could accomplish.
Three years earlier, Lucius Clay helped shift U.S. policies toward Germany from punitive to transformational by writing a speech – without State or Defense Department clearances – which Secretary of State Jimmy Brynes delivered in Stuttgart. Clay’s vision of a peaceful, non-threatening and democratic Germany was shared by architects of the Marshall Plan in the U.S. and two of the three other occupying powers in Germany – the United Kingdom (UK) and eventually France. Russia, the fourth power, actively undermined any effort toward local prosperity and democracy, seeking retribution and control.
In early 1948, as Dad was heading for a career in civilian government service, the U.S., the UK, and France agreed to merge their zones into a united western Germany. The citizens of Berlin who found themselves in the sectors of those countries in the divided capital would be included in the emerging state, never mind that they lived a hundred miles within Russian territory. Cold and hungry, they survived in rubble on near-starvation rations with cigarettes their only stable currency. These citizens had already shown personal courage and political choice electing civic leaders who openly opposed the communists. Berliners were ready.
When Russians learned of the plans to create a western state, they withdrew from the coordinating Allied Control Council. The new currency the western allies introduced in June – complete with a planeload of Deutschmark notes marked “B” for Berlins – provoked the Russians into blocking all major road, rail, and canal links into the city. Their goal was to starve two million people into surrendering, pressure western occupiers into leaving, and bring the city into its zone with its own new “eastern” currency.
The currency reform was the reason my father was in Germany. While my mother concentrated on shipping family effects, General Clay and cohorts worried about providing over three tons of foodstuff and coal to Berlin every day. Clay admitted in a letter to Washington on June 18 that “There is no practicability in maintaining our position in Berlin and it must not be evaluated on that basis. We are convinced that our remaining in Berlin is essential to our prestige in Germany and in Europe. Whether for good or bad, it has become a symbol of the American intent.” If war started, it would be the Russians’ fault. Bring in the wives, mothers-in-law and toddlers!
Operation Vittles was the name given to the U.S.-led airlift that began on June 26, 1948. The United Kingdom, France, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa participated as well. Overwhelming logistical challenges initially hampered delivery targets, prompting diplomats to approach the Russians for a possible solution. Their answer: withdraw the Deutschmark from West Berlin or the blockade would continue. On September 9th, 300,000 Berliners voted on the Russian proposal with their feet as they flocked to the Platz der Republik to hear Ernst Reuter, a city councilor, voice their message to the world: “People of America, England, France, Italy of the world …. look upon this city! You cannot abandon this city and its people. You should not abandon us.” A few months later, he was elected mayor of Berlin, overseeing the gargantuan effort of providing food, heat, electricity, transportation, and safety to the western sectors of the city. The Bushnell family had already settled in.
My sister Susan and I grew up among the sights of severed apartment buildings, men without limbs, orphan girls with big white bows in their hair, and very big airplanes. Beyond our awareness, Mayor Reuter, his staff and the people of Berlin proved capable of handling their part in receiving and distributing over 2.3 million tons of supplies that eventually flew into Tempelhof Airport. Volunteers extended the runways, initially working solely for food and cigarettes. Germans unloading and maintaining the aircraft that arrived every 47 seconds reduced turnaround time to 49 minutes. As the cargo was removed, the crew members required to stay planeside would see three vehicles pull up. Canteen refreshments came out of one, briefings on weather and operating conditions came from another, and from the third, experienced mechanics, among them former Luftwaffe.
One day, a pilot approached a group of children clustered on the other side of the fence from the runway and gave them some candy, which they quickly divided and devoured. He soon began dropping small bundles tied to handkerchief parachutes as he approached the landing, “Operation Little Vittles” began. His squadron and then the American public and candy makers joined the effort, dropping over 23 tons of candy via 250,000 handkerchief parachutes to delighted children for months.
At Christmas, a plane load of children’s gifts arrived with Santa Claus. Songwriter Irving Berlin and entertainer Bob Hope came as well to entertain American troops. “Operation Vittles” was the song written for the occasion and jauntily presented by Irving Berlin and a chorus of soldiers. As an Easter challenge and celebration, delivery supply targets were set exceptionally high. From noon on April 15 to noon April 16, 1,383 flights flew into Tempelhof with 12,941 tons of coal without a single accident. On May 12 the Russians ended the blockade.
Dufie started house-hunting in 1949, taking Susan and me on back-haul and supply flights to/from Frankfurt. She recounted dutifully wearing slacks under her skirt as directed in case she had to parachute into Russian territory. Flight crews ordered everyone to check for passports, travel orders, and parachutes, and . . . ah . . . mothers could take one child should a jump be necessary. Mom said she would pick “an apple-cheeked soldier” to ask for help that fortunately was never required. After we left Berlin, the sights of building cranes and the smell of concrete became far more familiar to me and eventually only Mom’s stories, a few memories, and a recipe book remained from Berlin.
As elected officials currently consider how many more billions of dollars we need to protect our national security with weapons and conflict, Operation Vittles reminds us what can happen when we go to work peacefully to free others from fear and want. Once the nation-state of Nazi Germany was gone, our policies turned to human security and look what happened. Berliners won their freedom through smart power, not war power. Mom’s “Operation Vittles” recipe book is a metaphor for effective and shared problem-solving.
2Robert R. Bowie, interviewed by: Robert Gerald Livingston, Philipp Gassert, Richard Immerman, Paul Steege, Charles Stuart Kennedy and a public audience at the German Historical Institute, Washington, DC Initial interview date: February 19, 2008. Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection, Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, Arlington, VA, www.adst.org.
3 Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, Milestones 1945-1958: Berlin Airlift, 1948-1949. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/berlin-airlift
6 Kelly Howard, Operating Objectives of Logistics. Berlin Airlift Timeline: – 24 June 1948 to 12 May 1949, https://slideplayer.com/slide/6422266/