… of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House - with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” ~John F. Kennedy
On June 24, 1948, when the Soviet Union established a blockade of the surface routes into the city of Berlin in occupied Germany, the U.S. and Great Britain resorted to an airlift to supply the blockaded city with necessities, Lt. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, commander of the United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE), appointed General Smith temporary commander of the "Berlin Airlift Task Force."
The traditional story is well known to those familiar with the airlift. The name ‘Operation Vittels’ has always been attributed to the first commander of the operation, Brig. Gen. Joseph Smith. Foreshadowing the great operation that was to come, Smith dubbed the mission "Operation Vittles", because he said "We're haulin' grub."
A 1923 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Joe Smith was a plainspoken, down-to-earth airman who had begun military service in the cavalry, then traded his horse for an airplane, transferring to the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1928. He had been one of the pilots who flew the airmail in 1934 when the Air Corps had briefly undertaken that task, and later he found his niche in strategic bombardment.
During World War II, Smith had served in important staff and planning positions. He was a senior air member of the Joint War Plans Committee under the Joint Chiefs of Staff and chief of staff of XXth Bomber Command conducting Boeing B-29 Superfortress operations in the China-Burma-India Theater. He ended the war as deputy chief of staff of Eighth Air Force.
General Smith served in that position until July 28, when the permanent airlift commander, Maj. Gen. William H. Tunner, arrived from the United States.
A native of New Jersey and son of an immigrant father, General Tunner was awarded an appointment to West Point upon his graduation from Roselle High School. He was one of 77 cadets in his West Point graduating class who chose flying as his military career. He joined an Air Force which had literally no transport aircraft and no airlift strategy, planning or capacity.
During his career which spanned two wars, he created the Ferrying Command which flew new aircraft to our allies in Europe and the Middle East, and developed the Air Transport Command in its famous Hump operation over the Himalayas to China.
For 13 months, the aircrafts under his planning and direction supplied an isolated Berlin- a city under siege- with every product necessary to keep the city and its more than 2 million inhabitants alive.