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Historic aviation event prompts memories of Berlin Airlift

By Anna Marie Lux
July 11, 2015

JANESVILLE--James Zillmer will never forget the persistent fog that plagued Berlin in winter or how clouds sometimes lowered to the tops of buildings.

But even nasty weather could not stop one of history's greatest humanitarian efforts by air.

Zillmer was among U.S. Air Force mechanics who kept the planes running during the lifesaving Berlin Airlift in Germany more than 65 years ago.

“Many times our pilots were flying blind,” the 86-year-old Zillmer said. “They flew airplanes when crows would not fly.”

He explained that ground controllers used radar to guide them to safety.

Zillmer gets emotional when he thinks about the people who carried food and fuel to more than 2 million West Berliners and 20,000 Allied soldiers stationed in the city.

The Soviets put them in danger of starving when they isolated them from the rest of the world.

This week, Zillmer will think about the dramatic airlift when he rides in an old military transport plane. He is among veterans invited to fly in historic aircraft to publicize the upcoming Heavy Bombers Weekend in Madison on July 17-19.

The event gives people a chance to see a dozen World War II-era aircraft, including the world's only airworthy B-29 Superfortress.

Zillmer trained on several kinds of planes, including the B-29, when he signed up for an aircraft-engine mechanics course after enlisting in the Air Force.

The Janesville man was only 18 when the military sent him to Rhein Main Air Force Base in Frankfurt, Germany.

The base is where U.S. officials organized the Berlin Airlift from June 1948 to May 1949.

In addition to working on planes, Zillmer flew special missions with the wing commander as a mechanic, navigator and engineer.


When World War II ended, the Soviet Union controlled the eastern half of Berlin, while the United States, Great Britain and France controlled the western half. Berlin was surrounded by East Germany, a Soviet satellite nation.

In June 1948, the Soviet Union tried to control all of Berlin by cutting off traffic and railroad access to and from West Berlin.

One of the first major crises of the Cold War, the effort could have sparked more fighting in post-World War II Europe.

Instead, two days after the blockade began, the United States began bringing supplies, including groceries and coal, to West Berlin. Pilots used air corridors into two airports in Berlin's western sector set up by a 1945 agreement.

The effort started with two-engine Douglas C-47 Skytrains.

“They were very reliable aircraft,” Zillmer said.

But the planes could only hold 3.5 tons each and couldn't meet the demand of so many hungry and cold people.

“Pleas were made worldwide for C-54s, which were much bigger,” Zillmer explained.

Each four-engine Douglas C-54 Skymaster could carry about 10 tons each.

To meet the urgent need, planes flew 24 hours a day and were spaced three and a half minutes apart, Zillmer said.

Former German soldiers built airfields and repaired engines for the enemy they had been shooting out of the sky just a few years earlier.

In addition, U.S. pilots who once dropped death from above were now angels of mercy to the struggling city.

By the time the Russians lifted the blockade, the U.S. with the help of Great Britain had delivered more than 3.2 million tons of supplies and made more than 277,000 flights.


Zillmer returned to the United States in 1951 and went to work as an auto mechanic. He made a career as a service technician or manager at several Janesville businesses.

“I thought about being a mechanic for the airlines,” Zillmer said. “But I couldn't support a family if an airline went out of business.”

He and his late wife, Charlotte, raised four children.

After retirement, Zillmer worked part-time at Blackhawk Airways for a decade. During that time, he helped restore several historic aircraft, including a World War II fighter plane recovered from Lake Michigan.

Through the years, Zillmer never forgot the heroic effort in Germany. He belongs to the Berlin Airlift Veterans Association and has attended two airlift reunions in Germany.

“People are alive today because of what happened there,” Zillmer said, with tears in his eyes. “We were part of history.”

Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email [email protected].