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he saved Berlin, Germany, from disaster twice
Lucius DuBignon Clay was born in Marietta, Georgia, on April 23, 1897, the son of Sarah Francis Clay and Senator Alexander Stephens Clay. He graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1918, and then spent the next twenty-two years rising through the ranks and amassing an impressive service record.
World War II
Clay spent the pre-war years with the Army Corps of Engineers and as a teacher at various army schools. In 1940 he was appointed to the Airport Approval Board, in which capacity he was in charge of constructing or improving almost 500 airports around the world. During the war he served as director of materiel under General Dwight David Eisenhower, in which capacity he showed exceptional ability.
After the war Clay was appointed Deputy Military Governor and then Military Governor of the American section of occupied Germany. These jobs placed Clay on the front line of the emerging Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. It also put him in the unenviable position of having to "rescue" West Berlin from attempts by the Soviet Union to starve the city into acceptance of Communism.
On June 23, 1948, after the Allies issued the Deutsche Mark in a move toward establishing a West German state, the Soviet Union stopped all road traffic into West Berlin and ended the delivery of coal and electricity into the city. In response, Clay secured permission to use U.S. aircraft to airlift supplies into the city. C-47's and other Allied aircraft began flying around the clock on June 25 -- the Berlin Airlift had begun.
Over the next eleven months Tempelhof Airfield saw almost non-stop action, with planes coming and going at a rate of up to one every three minutes. Although the Soviets challenged some of the planes, none were ever directly attacked. Thanks to Clay's initiative, the people of West Berlin were saved from possible disaster and the Soviet Union was eventually forced to back down. The Berlin blockade officially ended on May 12, 1949, although Allied flights continued until September.
Clay retired from the Army as a Four-Star General on May 26, 1949, and entered the business world. In 1950 he became Chief Executive Officer of Continental Can Company, which expanded well beyond its original product line under Clay's leadership. He encouraged Eisenhower to run for President in 1952, and then became an adviser to him on issues regarding Germany.
In 1961, when the Berlin Wall was built, President John F. Kennedy sent Clay to serve as his representative in West Berlin, where Clay worked to raise citizens' morale. When East German troops refused to let an American official back into West Berlin through a checkpoint, Clay ordered U.S. tanks to the site; Soviet tanks quickly took up station on the other side of the wall. News photos of American and Soviet tanks facing each other across the checkpoint became a famous symbol of Cold War tensions, but Clay eventually triumphed and the American official was allowed to pass through. Before he left in 1962, 750,000 West Berliners attended a farewell rally in his honor.
Upon his return to the United States, Clay continued to serve President Kennedy as an adviser. He retired from Continental Can, but continued to serve in various capacities with numerous other businesses.
General Lucius D. Clay died in Chatham, Massachusetts, on April 16, 1978. At his gravesite at West Point is a memorial from the people of Berlin that reads: "Wir danken dem Bewahrer unserer Freiheit" ("We thank the defender of our freedom").
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This page was last updated on September 18, 2018.