Dover remembers Operation Nickel Grass

Released: 23 Oct 1998 by Tech. Sgt. Charles Ramey 436th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. (AFPN) -- Ken Robertson had a dream: Recognize the efforts of rapid air mobility, Dover's 436th Airlift Wing and the C-5 in helping Israel help themselves and preserving world peace.

Two years and 52 days later, the retired officer's vision culminated into reality as a two-day celebration Oct. 13-14, dubbed "Nickel Grass 25," highlighted the past, complimented the present and looked to the future of air mobility here.

The past began Oct. 6, 1973, when Egypt and Syria launch a two-front attack on Israel. The Yom Kippur War began, inflicting serious losses on the Israelis. By Oct. 13, peacekeeping initiatives had failed, the Soviet Union began airlifting supplies to Egypt and Syria, and Jordan and Iraq had troops en route to reinforce the Syrians.

President Nixon, faced with the possibility of an Arab oil embargo for his actions or the potential of Israel using nuclear weapons as a result of his inaction, said, "Send everything that can fly." That launched Operation Nickel Grass.

At 10:01 p.m. Oct. 14, a C-5A flown by members of Dover Air Force Base's 3rd Military Airlift Squadron touched down at Lod Airport, Israel, carrying 97 tons of ammunition. The landing kicked off a re-supply operation signifying U.S. commitment to preserving the balance of power in the Middle East.

During the 31-day operation, 567 missions flew into Lod, delivering nearly 23,000 tons of equipment such as tanks, ammunition and relief supplies. Dover directly supported 364 missions. The aerial port unit loaded more than 7,800 tons of cargo aboard C-5s and C-141s, and Dover's newly acquired C-5s flew 109 missions, delivering more than 8,000 tons into the country.

"The arrival of tanks and artillery shells enabled us to complete our missions," said Maj. Gen. Itzhak Hoffi, commander of Israel's northern front.

A cease-fire was issued Oct. 26, but the airlift continued until the afternoon of Nov. 14, 1973. Operation Nickel Grass came to an end when a Dover C-5 landed at Lod delivering 143,000 pounds of cargo.

"For generations to come, all will be told of the miracle of the immense planes from the United States bringing in the material that meant life to our people," Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir proclaimed at the time.

Despite the consequences of an Arab oil embargo, strained relations between the United States and its NATO allies, and the potential use of nuclear weapons escalating to a new level, Operation Nickel Grass scored many victories for air mobility.

"Nickel Grass proved the worth of the Air Force's new C-5, which had been plagued by budget overruns at the time," Robertson said. "It also brought about the need for air refueling capability in all strategic airlifters for a more rapid worldwide response. In addition, the need for more carrying capacity was revealed in the C-141 and it was 'stretched' an additional 23 feet. And finally, the operation revealed the need to align command of all military airlift under the Military Airlift Command."

Robertson, a retired Air Force officer, worked at then-Military Airlift Command headquarters at Scott AFB, Ill., when the command received orders to re-supply Israel during the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

"This was MAC's alone," he said. "It was a critical element in demonstrating the importance of airlift as an instrument of U.S. national policy. The Berlin Airlift has been remembered. Nickel Grass has not, and I hope this helps resurrect it."

To assist in the resurrection, Robertson wrote a 70-page history titled, "Operation Nickel Grass, the Airlift to Israel and Coronation of the C-5 Galaxy." He also formed a committee of base and community officials who helped plan the two-day event. It included: a reception with the unveiling of a painting by aviation artist Gil Cohen; a roundtable discussion with Nickel Grass participants; a C-5 dedication; a briefing on the future of air mobility; and a banquet. The painting, along with a Nickel Grass exhibit, is on permanent display in Dover's Air Mobility Command Museum.

"There is still controversy today on how much impact the airlift actually had, and we will never know what might have happened had it not been for Operation Nickel Grass," Robertson said. "No one really knows, but I must ask, what would have happened if the United States wouldn't have come at all?" (Courtesy of AMC News Service)

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