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German Heritage Day honors Berlin Airlift vets

March 25, 2014
Island Reporter, Captiva Current, Sanibel-Captiva Islander

Even after 65 years, 91-year-old Mel Jenner still gets emotional talking about it; his involvement in perhaps the greatest humanitarian missions ever, and one that has sadly been overlooked throughout the years.

This year marks the 65th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, a humanitarian effort in response to the Soviets blocking the western portion of Berlin controlled by American, British and French forces on June 24, 1948, which put the lives of nearly two million West Berliners in jeopardy.

Jenner, who lives near Orlando, was among those who flew into West Berlin to bring those citizens needed provisions -the same ones who just a few years earlier he had bombed in World War II.

Article Photos

Mel Jenner speaks with Consul General Juergen Borsch at the 22nd German Heritage Day celebration at the German-American Social Club. Jenner was honored for his service during the Berlin Airlift.

"It was the most important thing our country ever did," Jenner said. "If it hadn't been for the Berlin Airlift, we would all be speaking Russian."

Jenner, along with another Berlin Airlift veteran, were honored this past weekend at the 22nd German Heritage Day celebration, hosted by the United German-American Society of Florida (UGAS) and held at the German-American Social Club in Cape Coral.

This year's event commemorated the 65th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, of which Jenner played a part.

A German contingency headed by Brigadier General Heribert Hupka from MacDill AFB CITCOM attended, as well as the Consul General, Juergen Borsch, and the Honorary Consul of Germany, Norma Henning.

"This was not about bringing a few bars of chocolate to Berlin, it was about the survival of the whole population of Berlin," Borsch said. "Imagine everyone in Berlin was dependent for food, coal and gas and everything you need for your daily life, and we were grateful to have this."

The two veterans were presented with a copy of the painting "Raining Hope" by Susanne Schuenke, depicting the event. The original is in the German Consulate in Miami.

On June 24, 1948, the Soviets blocked the western portion of Berlin controlled by American, British and French forces, one of the first acts of the Cold War.

Within two days of the blockade, the U.S. and her Allies took to the air, flying in provisions for West Berlin's more than 2 million residents, an effort that grew into the Berlin Airlift.

"They wanted to block everything out because the West had it so much better, so the Americans started flying a corridor into Templehoff Airport, into Berlin," Jenner said. "They started with the B-47 planes, but they weren't big enough. They then got the C-54s, and every three minutes an airplane landed."

The Germans, who a few years earlier had drawn guns at the Americas, now treated them as heroes the same way the French did when American troops liberated the country.

"I've been asked how it felt to do that when a couple years before we were bombing them. I said my great-grandparents were German," Jenner said.

Susie Zimmer, the marketing and public relations chairwoman of the club, said her first mother-in law, who lived in West Berlin during the airlift, told her how she loved the American soldiers because they also brought her chocolate.

"We had never had chocolate before and here were these soldiers bringing it to us," Zimmer said. "They were so grateful after years of starving. There we had candy and coffee."

Zimmer's mother lived in Dresden and was the oldest of four children. She took care of her siblings after the city was bombed during World War II because her mother was imprisoned for trying to get food. They escaped to Stuutgart.

Jenner, a 26-year veteran of the Air Force who would retire a chief master sergeant, went on seven bombing missions over Berlin during World War II, so he knew how these people were suffering. That's why he feels being a part of the Airlift was "one of the most gratifying things that ever happened."

Jenner has a message on his license tag that says "Berlin Airlift." A lady went out to her car as his wife drove the car to church and she saw the tag.

Jenner became emotional when he learned that woman was 4-years-old during the Airlift and was one of the little girls who sat near the runway as the soldiers started dropping candy bars to them.

"She was there with her brother, who was 9. The brother caught one of the candy bars," Jenner said. "She came to the U.S. and always wanted to meet one of the veterans from the Airlift.

"She got a hold of my wife, I went from my church to my wife's church in Winter Garden and met her," Jenner said, voice breaking up. "She gave me a big chocolate bar. To this day, she's a friend."

Jenner, a member of the Air Force who had fought in 45 missions during World War II, had a shop, where he would fix the engines at Selle Air Force Base, which was near Berlin, and he had seven German personnel working under him.

He later learned that four of them were fighter pilots in the German Air Force during the war and that they had been in the sky together, trying to knock him down.

"It was an experience to work with them for a good cause and talk to them," Jenner said.

American and British aircraft supplied the inhabitants of Berlin with food, fuel, industrial goods and raw materials. Supply deliveries grew from 500 to 700 tons a day in June 1948 to 12,940 tons by April 1949.

At midnight on May 12, 1949, the Soviets gave in, ending the 322-day blockade. Airlift missions finally ended that September.

The United States lost 41 servicemen during the airlift.

"You can do documentaries on this story. It's a lifetime story. It's about the people who survived and the innocents," Zimmer said.

Borsch said it was the moment the Germans realized it was the Americans who brought democracy and freedom to Germany after "a dark and shameful period in German history."

"It was the taste of Hershey's chocolate and chewing gum that made everyone see democracy has a sweet taste," Borsch said. "They realized they had new friends that would help them get over a painful past."



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