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Kentucky Air Guardsman continues grandfather's WWII legacy

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Vickly Spesard
  • 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs

WUNSTORF AIR BASE, Germany -- Standing on the Wunstorf Air Base flight line, Maj. Matthew Skeens, a 123rd Airlift Wing logistics readiness officer, scans the horizon to soak in the moment.

Nearly 75 years ago his grandfather, U.S. Air Force pilot Kenneth Skeens, flew above that same flight line during the Berlin Airlift in 1949.

Skeens, an LRO with the Kentucky Air National Guard's 123rd Contingency Response Element, arrived in Germany in early June on his own historic airlift mission, Air Defender 2023.

Air Defender 2023 is a German-led, multinational exercise with 25 NATO and partner nations participating. Approximately 100 U.S. aircraft from 42 states deployed to the European Theater for the event, which is the largest air forces redeployment exercise since NATO was founded.

Aside from logistics, Skeens' role here is integrating with foreign air forces on the base, learning their processes much like his grandfather did during the joint airlift with the Royal Air Force all those years ago.

In 1949, two and a half-million Berliners, spread between four zones of occupation, faced profound privations: Allied bombing had reduced the city to rubble; shelter and warmth were scarce, the black market dominated the city’s economic life, and starvation loomed.

The Berlin Airlift began when Soviet forces blockaded rail, road, and water access to Allied-controlled areas of Berlin in June of 1948, further endangering its citizens. The United States and United Kingdom responded by airlifting crucial supplies and dropping them across the city -- a flying mission that Skeens’ grandfather was very skilled at.

“My grandfather was a B-24 pilot and flew combat bombing missions in Italy, then went to the Pacific where he flew cargo aircraft,” Skeens said. “He then became a DV pilot for an officer in the Pacific before being transferred back to cargo flying which is how he ended up here.”

Although his grandfather played a pivotal role in the Berlin Airlift operation, Skeens does not remember him sharing his war experiences with his family, but was more comfortable and open with fellow service members.

“I remember veterans in town coming out to meet him and they would tell stories about the war, go hunting together, and go to the local American Legion,” recalled Skeens. “But he was generally a quiet man.

“We had a local festival in town to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the ending of the war, and my grandfather’s service record was read to the crowd,” he continued. “I had never heard before that he had been awarded four flying medals and the Distinguished Service Cross.”

Later this fall, the air base and the town of Wunstorf will be celebrating 75 years since the Berlin Airlift, which is still highly significant to the people here, according to Oberstleutnant Ehler, the German Luftwaffe liaison officer from Wunstorf Air Base where Skeen’s contingency operations were set up to support Air Defender 23.

“We will have a large air show here, and there will be celebrations in the local town,” explained Erler. “The Berlin Airlift happened at a time when it most affected the future of our country.”

By May 11, 1949, Moscow had lifted the blockade of West Berlin and within two weeks the state of West Germany was established, soon followed by the creation of East Germany.

Shortly before the blockade’s end, the Western Allies created NATO, an organization that Skeens and the 123rd CRE are currently supporting through AD23.

Little did elder Skeens know that as he was taking off in his C-54 Skymaster from Wunstorf Airfield in 1949, his mission then would have a significant impact on his grandson 75 years later.

“My Grandfather was my reason for joining the military…he inspired me,” said Skeens. “But, if he could see me here now, in the same place he was at, he would probably laugh and tell me to drink a beer.”