A Piece of History: The Story of Dick Kramer's Berlin Airlift Mural
On June 12, 1987, a vast crowd had assembled before the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, to hear President Ronald Reagan challenge Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall in the name of peace and prosperity. The people cheered the President's words and the hope they brought for the future; a future in which Germany would be reunited.
That day was the 750th anniversary of the founding of Berlin in the 13th century, and also the 40th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift. Dick Kramer, his wife Ginny, and their youngest son Stephen were in attendance. It was a special occasion for everyone, but Dick had a very specific reason to be there: He had been commissioned by ITT to paint an 8 foot high, 16 feet wide mural commemorating the Berlin Airlift to be presented to President and Mrs. Reagan as a gift from the American people to the people of Berlin.
The Reagans listened as Dick gave them a quick explanation of all the various parts of the mural, some of which were symbolic, others of which were portraits of individuals who had made a difference.
The airplane at the top is a DC-3, the plane used in the airlift during a harrowing time in which a plane would take off and land every 30 seconds and have to fly perilously low during rough weather. The man seated at the radar screens at the bottom represents the first use of radar for bad-weather landings. The two men below the airplane represent the people of West Berlin who were helped by the vital supplies delivered by the fearless airlift pilots. These supplies included foods like flour, meat, potatoes, milk, sugar, coffee, and more, and fuels including coal and gasoline. The population of Berlin was over 2 million people and every day, 1,534 tons of food items and 3,475 tons of fuel had to be flown in to sustain them under the Soviet blockade.
The smiling man in the lower left of the mural is Colonel Gail Halvorsen of the USAF. During one of his trips to Berlin, he met some children that, although they were on the verge of starvation and had nothing, inspired him with their bravery and selflessness. The children told him not to worry if he could not land sometime because they could survive on very little and their freedom was more important to them. The very next day, Halvorsen dropped candy from his plane, attached to tiny parachutes, which soon grew into an official program called Operation Little Vittles. He became known as the Candy Bomber and the top right of the mural depicts his plane while dropping candy to the children. He told them he would "wiggle his wings" so they could recognize his plane.
Colonel Halvorsen was present during Dick's presentation of the mural to President and Mrs. Reagan and was delighted to see himself immortalized in the mural. Dick met him again years later, at a reunion.
40% of the airlift was handled by the British, and Dick wanted to make sure history remembered their contribution. The man depicted in the lower right of the mural is a British soldier making repairs to a DC-3 engine. Directly above him are British 4-engine seaplanes on Lake Wannsee. These British planes had become a lifesaver because, as seaplanes, they were not damaged by salt and could transport salt during the airlift, while the American planes could not.
To the right of the British soldier are German mechanics taking a much-needed coffee break, and above them is a man stenciling the symbol of the Airlift, the Berlin Bear breaking chains. This symbol was put on all the boxes that left the city. The central figures in the mural are a little girl giving flowers to an American pilot, based on a photo Dick found at the Royal Air Force Archives in London. Dick met both the pilot and the little girl years later.
The mural is now on permanent display at the Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, which was the hub for all incoming air traffic. In March 2007, Dick and Ginny went to re-visit it and discovered that 8 to 10 groups of school children were brought every day to see the mural and learn the history of the Airlift. Dick and his family are enormously proud that he had a role in preserving this piece of history and proud of the part America played in helping the German people.