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503rd Engineer Company (LE)

This is an excerpt of the 503rd's unit history which is available on the 503rd Engineer website (link at bottom of this page):

In early March of 1949 a group of 85 engineers of the 7742nd Engineer Base Depot at Hanau were selected for duty in Berlin based on their skills as heavy equipment operators and maintenance specialists.

The group was delayed in departing Hanau by the heaviest snowstorm of the winter, but eventually arrived in Berlin by air on March 20th.

Once in Berlin the engineers were assigned to quarters in the Napoleon Boneparte Kaserne in the Wedding area of the French Sector. The group immediately took up the work on the second runway at Tegel in order to provide a base for the further expansion of airlift operations.

Some of the equipment used in the earlier construction at Tegel was available, but a large number of additional pieces were brought in using the now well known Lacomb system of disassembly and reassembly. The Berliners continued to gather rubble and deliver it to the construction site for use as a base course material. Only about 300 laborers were engaged in the second runway project, however. This significant work force reduction was made possible by the greatly improved inventory of military heavy equipment.

During the course of the Tegel project the engineers involved were given an identity. In 1946 the 683d Engineer Company (Light Equipment) had been deactivated following postwar service in the Pacific. On 25 Jun 49 this company was redesignated the 503d ENGINEER COMPANY (LIGHT EQUIPMENT) and assigned to the Berlin Military Post. The engineers on duty were assigned to the new company and organized accordingly.

The Service Platoon performed maintenance duties, and worked three shifts around the clock in order to keep the equipment running. The two line platoons worked two shifts. All of the company put in a seven day week, matching the performance of the airlift crews.

Taxiways connecting the Tegel terminal, the first runway, and the new second runway (located beyond the first) were required. These were constructed by the 503d while the field was in full operational use. The equipment operators reported that the arriving and departing aircraft would nearly brush the overhead frames of the bulldozers with their landing gear as they passed over the taxiway intersections.

The second runway at Tegel was built to a 200 foot width and was 6500 feet long. The grading and base course was however, extended to allow for operations by future advanced transport aircraft which would require 8,000 feet of runway. The amount of material moved and placed in the second runway project was significant:

  • Earthwork 600,000 Cubic yards
  • Rubble Base 350,000 Cubic yards
  • Asphalt 570,000 Gallons
  • Crushed Stone Surface 36,000 Cubic yards

With the arrival of the 503d the continuing full commitment to the airlift by the Allies was apparent. Even the Soviets realized at that point that the Western Powers would never give up or give in on Berlin.

The Soviets lifted the blockade on 12 May 49, allowing traffic to and from Berlin to resume on the autobahn, railway, and canal routes. The allies, however, had sufficient reason to distrust the Soviets, and therefore continued airlift operations until 30 Sep 49. A total of 2,323,067 tons of supplies had been delivered to Berlin on 276,926 flights by that time.

The 503d continued to work on the second runway at Tegel following the lifting of the blockade, and completed the task by July 24th. At that point the unit immediately left Berlin by rail with their equipment for other assignments in the Western occupied zone.


The men of the 503d had worked around the clock for four months without a break in pushing the Tegel project to completion. Now, with the construction complete there was time for celebration and "letting go." As might be expected, some consumption of alcohol and significant carousing occurred at that point.

As the 503d prepared to leave Berlin a "parade" involving both French and U. S. military participants was scheduled. Somehow, during the striking of the colors, the U. S. Flag dropped to the ground and was trampled by a French officer. The American Commander subsequently requested the flag for the purpose of disposing of it properly by burning. The French refused this request.

That evening the men of the 503d embarked on their own mission, which was designed to seize the French Flag and accord to it equal treatment. The result was a riot of relatively significant magnitude.

A full company of Military Police were summoned to quell the disturbance, which had a way of smoldering and erupting throughout the night. The next day the MP's escorted the 503d to their waiting rail cars, whereupon they departed in relatively peaceful fashion.

The French had no aircraft involved in the airlift operation, and contributed very little to the development of Tegel as a first class airport facility. Perhaps some latent resentment within the American ranks was destined to surface for these reasons. Then too, after four months of continuous labor, the American engineers might have been entitled to celebrate the completion of their work. Under the circumstances the release of pent up energy which occurred might well have been expected.

In any case the departure of the 503d from Berlin was notable, and is well remembered to this day by the men involved.