Operation vittles: a name for the Berlin airlift.

Author:Miller, Roger G.


It may seem an item of little import, or possibly a reflection of excessive obsession with military trivia, but the story of how the American effort on the Berlin Airlift of 1948-1949 received its name, "Operation Vittles," is of historical interest.

The traditional story is well known to those familiar with the airlift. The name has always been attributed to the first commander of the operation, Brig. Gen. Joseph Smith. 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. On June 24, 1948, when the Soviet Union established a blockade of the surface routes into the city of Berlin in occupied Germany, General Smith was the commander of Wiesbaden Military Post in the American Occupation Zone. On June 26, the U.S. and Great Britain resorted to airlift to supply the blockaded city with necessities, and on June 29 Lt. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, commander of the United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE), appointed Smith temporary commander of the "Berlin Airlift Task 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. During his month as temporary commander, Joe Smith established many of the regulations and procedures that ultimately made the airlift successful. (1)

Among the decisions attributed to General Smith was the selection of the name Operation Vittles. This story appeared in print for the first time in an article on the Berlin Airlift in the fall 1948 issue of The Bee-Hive, the official magazine of United Aircraft Corporation. In this account, Paul Fisher, the corporation's head of public affairs, wrote that during the first few days of the airlift someone had suggested that the operation be called "Operation Lifeline" or "Operation Airlane." However, General Smith found those suggestions pretentious. Fisher attributed to the general a blunt, off the cuff response: "Hell's fire,' said General Smith, "we're hauling grub, I understood. Call it Vittles if you have to have a name.' And Vittles it became. The British were equally in character; they named their part of the show Operation Plane Fare." (2) The implication of The Bee-Hive story was that General Smith informally named the airlift, and that he casually pulled the name off the top of his head.


Fisher's article lacked citations, thus the source for his account of the Smith story is uncertain. When he visited the airlift sometime in late August or early September 1948, Fisher interviewed several individuals, but these were specifically identified in the article. He was vague about General Smith. Two words quoted above, "I understood," could be read in a manner that suggested that he heard the story directly from the general, but the wording of the rest of the article casts some doubt that a face-to-face interview took place. Fisher did talk to at least one officer in Smith's headquarters, a Maj. Edward Willeford, thus the account may be second-hand. No matter. It was a neat, concise, vigorous story, and proved irresistible. (3)

In 1964, Lt. Gen. William Tunner's autobiography, Over the Hump, paraphrased the Smith story in Bee-Hive closely: "During those first early days an attempt was made to glamorize the airlift with a fancy name: 'Hell's fire,' Smith said, 'we're hauling grub. Call it Operation Vittles.' The British sneaked in a pun on their title: Operation Plain Fare." (4) The story as presented in the Tunner book failed to mention any other code names and omitted a source, but the similarity in language verifies that it was taken from Fisher. Over the Hump was a well-written, colorful account of Tunner's experiences with Air Transport Command in the early days of World War II; the Hump airlift in the China-Burma-India Theater later in the war; the Combined Airlift Task Force during the Berlin Airlift; and Combat Cargo Command during the Korean War. The book rapidly became a classic in air power history and a popular source of information on the development of military air transportation. (5)


Virtually every subsequent history of the Berlin Airlift that addressed the origin of the term Vittles used a variation of the account as it appeared in Fisher's article or as presented in Tunner's narrative. Among the most prominent, Frank Donovan's 1968 Bridge in the Sky drew extensively on Tunner, though in his particular case he did not credit anyone with naming Vittles. Ten years later, Richard Collier in Bridge Across the Sky quoted Smith's response verbatim as it appeared in The Bee-Hive. Thomas Parrish's 1998 account, Berlin in the Balance, varied slightly from previous versions, but cited Tunner as its source. Seemingly out of the blue, however, Parrish added "Operation Manna" to the list of alternative names for the airlift, a name that did not appear in Over the Hump. Michael Haydock's City Under Siege, published in 1999, quoted Smith word-for-word as in Tanner. Oddly enough, one of the most detailed and respected histories of the airlift, Ann and John Tusa's The Berlin Airlift, failed to give any account of how the operational names originated, and completely ignored General Smith's contributions to the airlift. (6)

In summary, the traditional story of the origin of the name Vittles dated from one publication, The Bee-Hive, but that account might be accepted with some reluctance given the author's failure to identify the primary source of the information. The well-respected Over the Hump repeated the story in a slightly altered form later and helped spread it widely. The story was accepted uncritically by subsequent authors and restated often, albeit with minor variations in wording. As for the primary actor, General Smith himself apparently said little for the written record. During an oral history interview in 1976, the general affirmed parenthetically that he had called the airlift Vittles, but he provided no details to the interviewer. (7)

When I began research for To Save a City in 1996, I had no reason to doubt common knowledge concerning the origin of the name Operation...

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