Vittles, the only dog to log more than 130 missions during the Berlin airlift, proved also to be a great morale booster during the allied relief effort.
By Don Vaughan
Lt. Clarence “Russ” Steber, a former Air Force pilot, may hold the record for the most missions flown during the Berlin airlift, but it’s his boxer, Vittles, that most people remember.* And with good reason. Vittles was the only dog to log more than 130 missions from Erding, Germany, to Berlin and back. He even had his own parachute, on orders from Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay.
Steber, who received the Distinguished Flying Cross for flying a record 415 missions during the 318-day allied relief effort to West Berlin, bought Vittles from a German friend when the dog was 1 year old.
But after I got him, I realized I didn’t have any place to leave him, Steber recalls. I couldn’t leave him in the bachelor officers’ quarters all by himself because sometimes I would be gone for two or three days at a time. So I started taking him in the plane with me.
Vittles quickly was adopted by Steber’s fellow pilots, who came to adore the affectionate pooch. If I had to take off without him for some reason, Vittles would get aboard another plane, and the crew would take care of him until we ran into each other again, says Steber, 86, of Melbourne, Fla. Vittles flew a total of 131 missions with me and many more missions with other pilots that were not recorded.
One day, Steber was instructed to see LeMay, who commanded the airlift at the time. I thought, “Oh boy, I’m in trouble now,”Steber recalls with a laugh. But much to Steber’s relief, LeMay wasn’t upset just concerned.
“Are you the pilot who owns the dog that’s flying in our planes to Berlin?” LeMay asked Steber.
“Yes, sir,” Steber replied.
“He’s flying without a parachute?” LeMay asked.
“Yes, sir,” Steber said. “Vittles doesn”t have a parachute.”
“That dog is the greatest morale builder to my pilots and crew than anything I can think of, so I want a parachute made for him,” LeMay said.
On the general’s orders, Vittles was outfitted with a special harness and parachute that attached to Steber’s chute via a tether. “If I bailed out with him, my chute would open first and pull the rip cord on Vittles’ chute,” Steber explains.
“That dog is the greatest morale builder to my pilots and crew than anything I can think of, so I want a parachute made for him.”
Gen. Curtis LeMay, USAF
Vittles’ parachute is the only one ever made by the Air Force for a dog now is on display as part of the Berlin Airlift Exhibit at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. “Throughout the history of the Air Force, animal mascots have provided unit identity and made valuable contributions to esprit de corps, says Senior Curator Terry Aitken. “The parachute allows us to tell the story of the Berlin Airlift’s mascot and the special bonds between Vittles and the pilots that he flew with as a “crew dog.” It’s a wonderful story and already a special hit with our visitors.
Vittles never had to use his parachute but Steber wasn’t so lucky. During one harrowing mission, in which Vittles did not participate, Steber lost his engines and had to bail out at a low altitude over Soviet territory. The landing knocked him unconscious, and he awoke to find himself in Soviet custody.
The Soviets interrogated Steber for several days, but all he would tell them was his name, rank, and serial number. “I was a young American, and I gave them a hard time,” he says. “Everywhere I went, they had a bust of Stalin on the desk and a picture of Stalin on the wall. One day I got tired of their questions, so I reached over and grabbed a bust of Stalin and pulled it toward me. “Who’s this?” I asked the interpreter. “Napoleon?
That insolent question earned Steber a beating at the hands of his angry captors. “It turns out that [everyone else in the room] could speak English and understand it too,” he recalls with a chuckle. Steber eventually was released and allowed to return to Erding, where he continued flying missions to Berlin.
Even though Vittles never had to bail out during a mission, he was aboard when Steber made a few hard landings. During one mission, the hydraulic pump on Steber’s C-47 burst and caught fire, forcing him to land with no flaps or power other than engines. “We crashed at the end of the field and struck an MP building, Steber says. Luckily, none of the crew including Vittles was injured.
Another time, Steber’s C-47, which he later learned had been overloaded, crashed at the end of a runway in Berlin, but again no one was hurt. And in a third hair-raising incident, Steber was forced to land with zero visibility because of fog.
“I was flying blind,” he recalls. “So using the ground control approach, I touched down on the runway as best I could. I couldn’t see a darned thing, but I kept hearing a blump, blump, blump noise. I got the plane stopped and we found that I was a little bit off the runway and had run over the runway lights.”
Between missions, Vittles was just part of the gang. “Everyone loved him because he brought a smile to their faces, Steber says. “The other guys enjoyed taking Vittles into the officer’s club and giving him pans of beer. Sometimes he got so drunk that I had to carry him home.
Vittles became a celebrity at home and abroad. In fact, his popularity was such that he became known as “the world’s most photographed dog. His picture appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, as well as in the comics. In one cartoon, Vittles is sitting at a table in the officer’s club with a fork and knife in his paws. The chief cook is behind him, yelling: “I don’t care how many missions he’s got, he’s not eating in my dining room!”
When the Soviet blockade of Berlin ended in 1949, Steber and Vittles were sent to Biggs AFB, Texas. At the age of 6, Vittles contracted heart worms from a mosquito bite and fell ill. LeMay, upon hearing the news, arranged for a veterinarian to care for the dog, but nothing could be done. When Vittles died, the news was reported on the front pages of the El Paso Times and the Air Force Times, as well as on the local television news. The beloved mascot of all who participated in the Berlin airlift was buried on the grounds of Biggs AFB.