Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Berlin Airlift and the Candy Bombers

The Berlin Blockade
At the end of World War II, Germany was divided into four zones, each occupied by the Allied nations of Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States. The German capital of Berlin, which lay one hundred miles inside the Soviet zone, was also similarly divided. 

The first confrontation of the Cold War began on June 19, 1948 when the Soviet Union attempted to force the other Allied nations out of Berlin. Soviet guards halted all traffic on the autobahn, delayed freight shipments, and passed strict requirements for water transport into Berlin. 

On June 24, 1948, the Soviets initiated the Berlin Blockade in an attempt gain control over the entire city. The blockade was designed to force the Allies to allow the Soviet zone to supply food and fuel to the entire city. Soviet guards halted the Allie’s land and sea access, stopped supplying food to civilians, and cut off all electricity to the sectors of Berlin under Allied control. Because the Soviet forces greatly outnumbered those of the Allies, the choices appeared grim: abandon the city to the Soviets, allow the citizens of Berlin to starve, or start World War III.

Operation Vittles
In response, the Allies ordered a massive airlift to carry much needed supplies to the people in West Berlin, the area under Allied control. On June 26, 1948, Operation Vittles, more commonly known as the Berlin Airlift, had begun as planes from bases in Germany and England landed in West Berlin. Although the task of providing food, water, clothing, medicine, and other necessities for the enormous population of Berlin was daunting, by the spring of 1949 the airlift was an obvious success.  In that time, the United States Air Force and the British Royal Air Force flew over 200,000 flights, providing nearly 4700 tons of necessities to the city each day. The blockade was lifted in May 1949 and the Berlin airlift became known as the most successful humanitarian action of all time. 

Operation Little Vittles
Gail Halvorsen, a U.S. Air Force pilot who flew supplies into Berlin as a part of Operation Vittles, arrived at Tempelhof airport in the American sector of Berlin on July 17, 1948. While filming with his hand-held camera, he noticed a group of children watching through the barbed wire as the airplanes landed. The children were polite and only asked that the Americans not abandon the airlift when the weather worsened. Moved by the children’s demeanor, Halvorsen handed them the two pieces of gum he had in his pocket and promised to return the next day with more candy. When the children asked how they would know it was him flying over, he replied that he would wiggle his wings. Halvorsen improvised parachutes for candy bars using handkerchiefs and released them as he flew into Tempelhof airport. The crowd of eager children grew as Halvorsen made several more drops over the weeks and soon there was a stack of mail addressed to “Uncle Wiggly Wings” and “The Chocolate Flier” back at base. 

When his colonel became aware of the candy drops, which violated Air Force regulation, Halvorsen was expecting to be reprimanded for his behavior. But publicity surrounding these kind actions was growing as Berlin newspapers had already picked up the story, and Airlift commander General William Tunner approved the continuation of what was labeled “Operation Little Vittles.” Soon twenty-five pilots in Halvorsen’s squadron alone were participating, and when the news reached the U.S. children and manufacturers joined in the cause. Public support through donations enabled Halvorsen and his crew, known as “the Candy Bombers,” to drop over three tons of chocolate, chewing gum, and other candies over Berlin. By January 1949, approximately 250,000 parachutes had been released. 

By the spring of 1949 the Berlin Airlift was succeeding and the Berlin Blockade was lifted in May. The Metal for Humane Action was established on July 20, 1949, which was awarded to anyone who served in or with the Armed Forces of the U.S. during the period of June 26, 1948 through September 30, 1949. The museum proudly displays the Metal for Humane Action, which reads “For humane action to supply necessities of life to the people of Berlin, Germany.”

Friday, October 29, 2010

Boy Scouts of America Nuclear Merit Badge

Back in the late 1960s, I was a proud member of Troop 210, Boy Scouts of America. On Wednesday evenings, my friend Stan and I would don our green uniforms and walk over to the old San Jacinto Baptist Church, then on 6th Street in Amarillo, Texas. There in the church’s basement was where our troop would meet. We spent a tremendous amount of time in earning, and arranging to earn, merit badges.

Merit badges have been an integral part of the Scouting program since the start of the movement in the United Kingdom in 1907. Scouting came to the United States in 1910. The BSA quickly issued an initial list of just 14 merit badges, but did not produce or award them. In 1911, the BSA manufactured the first official 57 merit badges and began awarding them. The number of badges available has been as high as 140 and, as of late 2010, is 126.

Merit badges exist to encourage Scouts to explore areas of interest and to teach valuable skills. The award of merit badges sometimes leads to careers and lifelong hobbies. Scouts earn merit badges by satisfying specified criteria. A Court of Honor is then held to present the badge.

With many parents in Amarillo working at the local Pantex Plant, one of the more popular merit badges was the Atomic Energy Badge. Approved by the BSA in 1963, it was the 104th in their series of merit badges. In 2005, the badge was renamed the nuclear science energy badge.

The badge has seven main criteria. Scouts are asked to describe the biological effects and hazards of radiation to humankind, the environment, and wildlife. The scout must be able to describe the radiation hazard symbol and explain where it should be used. He must be able to define appropriate scientific terms, name five individuals important to the field of atomic energy, and use models to explain the difference between atomic number and mass number.

The fifth criteria allows the scout to choose three projects from a list of ten, including possibly building an electroscope, a cloud chamber, or learning to detect radon. He also learns about current nuclear power plants, nuclear medicine, space exploration, and radiation therapy. The scout is also asked to investigate career opportunities in the nuclear science field.

 For those desiring more information about the nuclear science energy badge, a detailed pamphlet, Stock Number 33275A, can be obtained from the Boy Scouts of America.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Civil Defense Collection

I still remember it attached to one of the exterior walls of my elementary school, the yellow and black fallout shelter sign. Once inside there were other signs directing people to the basement. Once I was able to go down into the basement to help my teacher move some easels and there they were. Stacked neatly were big green barrels and boxes of supplies, some marked crackers, others marked medical kit.

When my teacher told me what they were for, I remember asking, "How is everyone going to fit in here?" I never got an answer. I thought that maybe the well behaved students got to the basement and the others would have to make due by hiding under their desks.

Most of those supplies were certainly placed in my school during the early 1960s, the zenith of the civil defense program during the John F. Kennedy administration. Prior to his Presidency, the Truman and Eisenhower administrations were less enthusiastic about Civil Defense. Survivability was the key issue. Would it be worth all that money for civil defense, when few if any would survive, even within the shelters?

It was the Kennedy administration which made civil defense a priority. Kennedy urged Americans "without delay" to build backyard shelters. He requested and got $207.6 million dollars in civil defense funds to identify and mark fallout shelters and to stock them with food, water, first-aid kits and other essentials. Civil Defense would now be the responsibility of the Department of Defense, Office of Civil Defense.

There was much opposition to any civil defense program. It was thought by some that no one in or out of shelters could survive an all out thermo-nuclear war, making shelters a waste of tax payer's money. Others noted that civil defense publications seemed addressed to the suburban upper classes and less for inner city populations or the poor who may not own a home. Still others argued that it would only encourage the start of nuclear war by undermining the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine.

In light of the opposition in November 1961 a decision was made that the federal shelter program would now only apply to communities or groups, not individual shelters. A decision was also made to restrict all future civil defense activity to completing the OCD shelter survey that had been funded in 1961. Eventually, this survey would identify and place shelter signs on designated buildings

In order to be designated a public shelter, a facility had to have enough space for at least 50 people, include one cubic foot of storage space per person, and have a radiation protection factor of 100. The materials division of DOD, called the Defense Supply Agency, furnished shelter supplies to local governments, which were then responsible for stocking all shelters in their regions. By 1963, 104 million individual shelters had been identified; and of those 47 million had been licensed, 46 million marked, and 9 million individual spaces had been stocked with supplies.

The museum's collection of civil defense supplies are as varied as the places and individuals they came from. There are survey instruments, water containers, medical kits, dosimeters, sanitation kits, food supplements, generators, crackers, flashlights, radios, etc. Some of the best examples are currently on permanent exhibit.

Many of these supplies still sit in shelters undisturbed all these years. You can still see yellow and black signs when driving around town. I am sure all those supplies I saw in the basement of my old elementary school are still sitting there waiting.

 Handbook for living in a fallout shelter

 Fallout Shelter Sign

Civil Defence artifacts found in the collection.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Join the Museum for "A Science A'Fair"

The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History has teamed up with ABQ Trolley Co. to present the Museum’s next Pure Energy event entitled “A Science A’Fair” from 5:30 to 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2010. Those who wish to attend the event and enjoy an open-air trolley ride can catch the “Atomic Trolley” at the Albuquerque Convention Center, Third Street and Tijeras Avenue N.W., in downtown Albuquerque.

The Pure Energy “Science A’Fair” event has been designed as an exciting evening of kid fun – adult style. Guests will have the opportunity to “learn by playing” with hands-on science experiments that demonstrate the basics of chemistry and physics. There will also be door prizes, science trivia contests, a “visit” by a 143-year-old woman scientist, and much more.

The ticket cost for the ABQ Trolley ride is $10, which includes admission to the Science A’Fair event. To take the Atomic Trolley, riders should be at the Albuquerque Convention Center loading zone on the west side of west complex at 5 p.m.; the Trolley will depart at 5:15. Trolley riders will also have the opportunity to win door prizes on their ride to the Museum. Tickets for ABQ Trolley may be purchased on their website:

The Pure Energy membership program caters to people who are 20 to 40 years old by providing free admission to the Museum, invitations to special member events, and much more, but the Pure Energy event, “A Science A’Fair,” is open to all ages. For this night only, Pure Energy memberships will be sold for $20. Membership benefits include free admission to the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History as well as more than 300 science centers around the world.

Admission for the Science A’Fair night, for those who do not take the Atomic Trolley, is $8 for the general public and free to Pure Energy members. Refreshments will be provided and a cash bar will be available. For more information or to be informed about future events, call 505-245-2137, extension 113.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Play Reading of "Broken Hammer"

The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History will host a reading of Broken Hammer, a play written by Robert Benjamin, physicist turned playwright. In the play Benjamin blends loyalty and romance with stockpile stewardship. The staged reading will begin at 7:00 pm on September 21 and will be followed by a question and answer session with the author.

Benjamin began his career in play writing after 30 years as a research experimental physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Though his previously produced full-length plays focus on the relationships and secrets, Broken Hammer is different because of its emphasis on science, politics and policy, he said.

In a story where nuclear history is intertwined with intense family dynamics and romance, Benjamin tells a cautionary tale to our technological society of being deceived by computer simulations that are not extremely well validated by scientific experiments.

The reading of Broken Hammer will be preceded by complimentary refreshments and access to Museum exhibits beginning at 6:00 pm. Admission is $5 for Museum members and $10 for non-members. Seating is limited, so please RSVP at 245-2137, ext 114.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Senator Domenici Book Signing

Senator Pete V. Domenici will be signing the latest books on his vast Congressional career at the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History from 1 to 3 p.m. on Saturday, September 4. The Senator will also discuss highlights of his life of service, including his current participation in the Bipartisan Policy Center. According to the publisher, one of the books, “Not Just New Mexico’s Senator: Senator Pete V. Domenici’s Leadership on Four Issues Affecting Our Nation’s Future,” “takes a more focused path, discussing four complex and critical issues of national and international importance where Senator Domenici took a leadership role developing solutions to long-standing problems.”

The authors of the books have also been invited to attend and sign books. They are:
Senator Pete Domenici’s Legacy 2008 by Jon Hunner
Senator Pete Domenici’s Legacy 2009 by Vicki Taggert
Not Just New Mexico’s Senator by Martin Janowski

Domenici serves as an honorary board member of the National Atomic Museum Foundation and was the recipient of the 2008 National Award of Nuclear Science, presented annually by the Museum to a prominent person that has had an impact on nuclear issues. Domenici is recognized for his efforts as New Mexico’s longest-serving Senator and a proponent of science and technology. He pushed for passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, intended to accelerate U.S. development of clean and renewable energy resources.

“We look forward to hosting what is sure to be an informative discussion of the Senator’s passion for public service,” said Jim Walther, Director of the Museum. “The Senator’s ability to provide fascinating insights into current and important topics is not to be missed.”

Domenici is also the author of A Brighter Tomorrow: Fulfilling the Promise of Nuclear Energy, in which he argues that after weighing the costs and benefits of energy production, nuclear power must be a major contributor toward reducing the world’s CO2 emissions and overall dependence on increasingly scarce and perilously political supplies of oil and gas.

There is no additional cost to attend the event beyond the Museum’s usual admission of $8 for adults and $7 for youth and seniors. For further information, contact the Museum at (505) 245-2137, extension 114.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

NPR Story About the Museum

Check out the story on NPR about the Museum on the 65th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: