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Area man helped stranded pilgrims in 1952

Don Berg displays his copy of the 1952 Life magazine article telling the story of the Beirut-Jiddah Airlift, in which nearly 4,000 stranded Muslims were brought by military aircraft from Beirut, Lebanon, to Jiddah in Saudi Arabia, as part of their pilgrimage to Mecca. Photo by Vicki Gerdes, Detroit Lakes Record

It was while Hawley native Don Berg was stationed with the U.S. Air Force in Frankfurt, Germany that he and a fellow airman were awakened at 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning in August 1952 for a special assignment.

The assignment was so secretive that Berg wasn’t given many details — all he knew was that it was his job to alert all the flight personnel of the 1602 Air Transport Wing to report for duty.

“They didn’t even tell us where we were going to go,” recalls Berg, sitting in an armchair at the Detroit Lakes residence he has called home since 1959.

Yet somehow he found himself on a USAF transport plane bound for Beirut, Lebanon.

“I went out on the last plane,” Berg says, noting that they departed Frankfort at around 5 p.m.

Berg in his Air Force uniform, circa 1952

Berg in his Air Force uniform, circa 1952

In all, six C-54 planes left Rhein-Main Air Force Base in Frankfurt throughout that day, all headed for the same destination. Another maintenance plane was sent out from Paris as well.

Berg’s plane flew throughout the night, with the passengers getting little rest as there were few seats available on the military transport plane, leaving most of them to sit on the unforgiving floor.

Arriving in Beirut at 5 a.m., Berg followed the group into the airport, where he thankfully was allowed to enter the country unimpeded.

“I didn’t have a passport,” Berg explains.

It was after his arrival in Beirut that Berg learned of his assignment. The civilian airlines in Beirut had sold more tickets than available seats for their flights to Jiddah, the Saudi Arabian gateway to Mecca — birthplace of the Muslim prophet, site of the holy Kaaba, and location of the al-Haram Mosque.

Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, is a religious obligation that every true believer is supposed to fulfill at least one time in their lives.

Thousands of Muslims had been left stranded in Beirut, unable to complete the most important leg of their journey to the holy city. Many of them were poor, and had spent their entire life savings on this once-in-a-lifetime trip for the high Muslim holiday.

The U.S. government was less than popular in the Middle East due to its role in establishing the newly — and controversially — created nation of Israel.

When a Lebanese official contacted the U.S. embassy there to ask if their government might be of assistance, the U.S. officials quickly realized the political advantages inherent in backing such a request.

And so the Beirut-Jiddah Airlift was organized. Berg’s unit was among those called in to assist in the transport of nearly 4,000 Muslims across Saudi Arabia over the next four days.

Berg recalls that the view from his office at the Beirut airport enabled him to see the pilgrims camped in the nearby desert, anxiously awaiting their turn to board a plane.

His job was “to line up the crews and coordinate the flights,” Berg says.

Pilgrims at the Beirut airport in August 1952

Pilgrims at the Beirut airport in August 1952

Every time a plane departed Beirut to make the 850-mile trip to Jiddah, Berg had to make sure to send a message back to Washington, D.C., so the State Department was kept appraised of the status of the airlift.

He recalls one day when he walked outside the office to get to the radio room and send his latest notification to Washington. A pilgrim woman had begun to fall into a gutter when he instinctively reached out to grab her.

“Muslim women were not to be touched (by non-believers),” Berg said. Quickly realizing his mistake, he released the woman and quickly walked back inside the office.

He was informed immediately that he had narrowly escaped a thrashing at the hands of a Muslim man who had witnessed the incident — and was sternly reprimanded not to repeat the mistake.

When he returned to his duties in Frankfurt, Berg really didn’t think much more about the impromptu airlift — until he began to see all the reports in the media.

“As I look back, it really was kind of a big deal,” Berg says. “They (the U.S. government) put all of this together in just a couple of days.”

He now has a book of photos and articles from the airlift that he keeps in his home, and recently obtained a copy of the original 1952 Life magazine that contained a feature article about it.

“The price on the cover of the magazine is 20 cents — I paid $30 for it,” Berg says wryly.

But he counts the expense as money well spent, because he now has an important piece of memorabilia from the moment in time where he helped to contribute a chapter in the world history books.

As he said in the closing paragraph of an article he wrote about the airlift, “Who knew that a young man from Hawley, Minnesota, would be a part of history in another part of the world!”

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454