Irving Berlin’s “Operation Vittles” Anthem for the Berlin Air Lift, 1948
Written by Todd DePastino
The Berlin Air Lift of 1948-1949 owed its enormous success not only to the skill, determination, and courage of its air crews but also to good old American hoopla that publicized it.
The Cold War, among other things, was a battle of messaging, as the United States and the Soviet Union competed for the world’s allegiance. This was especially true in 1948, when Europe, still in rubble for the devastation of World War II, deliberated between the liberal, democratic capitalist vision of the US and the command-driven Communist system of the USSR.
Stalin’s side was expert in delivering mass propaganda to the global population. But the US was equally expert in promotion and publicity, propaganda’s softer, less direct cousins. During the Air Lift, American supporters pulled out all the stops to advertise to the world how the United States was keeping the city of West Berlin alive through its round-the-clock delivery of food, fuel, medicine and other supplies.
VBC member Jack Reid passed along this great artifact of Air Lift publicity: a December 23, 1948 edition of The Task Force Times, autographed by Irving Berlin, as well as Bob Hope and Jinx Falkenburg.
Jack’s wife’s uncle, Lt. Vincent J. Lynch, Air Lift was an Air Lift pilot in 1948. This signed bulletin was among his few saved possessions. It contains the lyrics to Berlin’s new song, written for the Air Lift, and performed the next day at a “Christmas Caravan” Show at Wiesbaden Opera House on Christmas Eve. Wiesbaden Air Base was one of four bases hosting the Christmas spectacular. Also on the schedule were shows in Berlin, Celle, and Fassburg.
Lt. Vincent J. Lynch
The Task Force Times was one of many morale boosting efforts dreamed up by the supreme commander of the airlift, Major General William H. Tunner. Every member of the Air Lift got a copy every week. It contained air base news and stories and was designed to motivate personnel to keep those planes flying round the clock.
Irving Berlin penned the lyrics and the music while in flight aboard a C-54 Skymaster as he traveled from New York City to Wiesbaden. The famed newsman, publicist, and Air Force veteran Tex McCrary had briefed Berlin about the Air Lift, known as Operation Vittles, which inspired the songwriter to craft a composition in tribute to the Airmen in Germany.
Not long ago
A group we called the Air Corps
Helped win the war and took a bow
Not long ago
we cheered the fighting Air Corps
Let’s see what happened to them now.
We’ll soon be on our way
With coal and wheat and hay
And everything’s OK
As in the sky we go
We won’t forget to blow
A kiss to Uncle Joe
We’re growing fonder
Of the wild blue yonder
Making a break
Flying a truck
No one here belittles
The job that must be done
Although the war was won
We’ll be there
Earning stripes and bars
In our old freight cars
Till the airlift gets the air
You can watch Irving Berlin sing the song himself with Airmen back up here:
It’s hard to imagine Stalinist propaganda achieving an equal level of fun and folksy humor while promoting its cause in Cold War Germany.