86th AW history: The Berlin Airlift

  • Published
  • By Shannon Murphy
  • 86th Airlift Wing Historian

What does (American) football, a camel, a fighter squadron, and humanitarian airlift have in common?

The Berlin Airlift!

The newly established U.S. Air Force launched Operation VITTLES June 24, 1948, which was later known as “the Berlin Airlift,” in response to the Soviet Union’s blockade of Berlin. Six days later, the 86th Fighter Wing was established and activated at Neubiberg AB, 9 kilometers south of Munich.

Formally, the 86th Fighter Wing’s mission was to provide air defense for the Berlin Airlift cargo flights, in addition to providing general air defense for the American Occupation Zone (Bavaria, Bremen, Hesse, and Wurttemberg-Baden). Informally, the 86th Fighter Wing positively influenced cultural and social connections with citizens of Berlin, thanks to Clarence the Camel. 

As the closest operational U.S. Air Force unit to the “Iron Curtain,” (the political boundary line of Europe that ignited the Cold War), the 86th Fighter Wing included the 525th Fighter Squadron (a World War II unit), who flew P-47 Thunderbolts at the time Operation VITTLES began. In response to Lt. Gen. Curtis LeMay’s infamous declaration “we [the Air Force] can deliver anything,” thousands of World War II pilots were recalled for service, and thousands of civilian pilots were trained. Various personnel from the 86th Fighter Wing went on Temporary Duty (TDY) to Wiesbaden AB, Germany, an American hub where food and supplies were flown to Berlin in support of Operation VITTLES.

In August 1948, then-Lt. Donald Butterfield flew a gunnery mission to Tripoli, Libya (home of then-active Wheelus AB, Libya), where he purchased a young camel for $45 (about $565.00 in 2023). Named “Clarence,” the camel immediately became the mascot for the Neubiberg AB football team. As Operation VITTLES continued to increase in visibility and demand, the Neubiberg AB community started a charity drive for the children of Berlin, sponsored by the base.

People donated their own items to be delivered to the citizens of Berlin, and Clarence the Camel stored candy and small items in his saddlebags. Clarence the Camel collected gifts at the local football games and was flown back and forth from Wiesbaden to Berlin as a treat for the children. Publicity for Clarence the Camel became so widespread that the one of the C-47 Skytrains from Neubiberg AB used in the operation was painted with “Camel Caravan to Berlin.”

The “Camel Caravan to Berlin” became a symbol of hope and joy for children and a post-war world, as the U.S. and their allies and partners raced to keep a war-torn city alive in an increasingly fraught political climate.