Review: Richard Reeves' 'Daring Young Men' chronicles Cold War heroes in U.S.-British airlift to Berlin

Fading into history is one of the most audacious actions of the Cold War, the Berlin Airlift. In late spring 1948, the Soviet Union was in a snit over Western plans to introduce a new German currency. It blocked road and rail access to the western sectors of Berlin, but it couldn't block airplanes because of prior agreements.

And so, on June 26, 1948, the United States and Britain began supplying Berlin by air. By the end, 2.3 million tons of cargo had been delivered.

In Daring Young Men, presidential biographer and historian Richard Reeves credits President Harry Truman's push-back response with a significant role in his upset election victory. Reeves re-creates with grace and perception the tightrope the West walked in facing down the Soviets. He contrasts this with the quiet heroism of crews on the ground and in the air, where pilots were "lucky if they got seven hours sleep out of 32."

By the time the Soviet Union backed down and the airlift ended, postwar Germany had transformed from an occupied country into two rival nations. It would be 40 years before the Iron Curtain collapsed.

The airlift cost at least 80 people their lives, 32 of them American. Reeves describes each crash and names all the Americans who died to feed, clothe and heat Berlin.

To prevent the collapse of the "cowboy adventure," the military brought in Maj. Gen. William Tunner, who reallocated the three air corridors. Planes flew directly in, but if a plane missed its approach, it had to return, full, to the west. Landings were on instruments and increased from six an hour to 20. Turnaround was cut to an average of 30 minutes. By mid August, the airlift was unloading 7,272 tons from 895 flights in 24 hours.

As 1949 began, Josef Stalin capitulated. Tensions remained high as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created, American troops began arriving, and the Cold War grew colder.

Jules Wagman was among the troops deployed to West Germany in the wake of the Berlin Blockade.

Daring Young Men

The Heroism and Triumph of the Berlin Airlift

By Richard Reeves

Simon & Schuster, 336 pages, $28

Review: Richard Reeves' 'Daring Young Men' chronicles Cold War heroes in U.S.-British airlift to Berlin 01/30/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 30, 2010 3:30am]

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