The blockade of Berlin and subsequent airlift was one of the opening salvos of the Cold War, and for a young orphan from a small town in Wisconsin, it was an eye-opening experience that changed his life.
Bob Blackbird enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1949 and was sent to Germany to work as a plane mechanic at Celle Air Base, a critical location because it was the closest large airfield to Berlin. Planes could take off loaded with lifesaving food, coal, medicine and other cargo every few minutes.
Keeping those planes in operation was an important and busy job, but Blackbird found time for chess and romance. In that order.
Blackbird died at the age of 91 on March 19 of coronavirus. He was the first COVID-19 death in Wisconsin.
Blackbird spent three years in a memory care facility in Grafton. Even as the effects of dementia worsened, Blackbird’s recollections of his two years in the Air Force remained vivid.
“Until his dying day he was so proud of that,” said his daughter, Haly Besaw. “He felt so fortunate to have the opportunity and the training.”
Besaw’s mother Stephanie lived near the air base and could speak English, so she was hired to work in the base union where troops could watch movies and relax. She sometimes asked the American GIs if anyone wanted to play chess.
Blackbird raised his hand.
“How do I say this? He wasn’t really savvy in landing a woman. He would take my mom’s little brother to the movie theater to get closer to my mom. Isn’t that cute?” said Besaw.
Love eventually bloomed. He asked for her hand in marriage. She said yes. They said their “I do’s” three times — in wedding ceremonies with the American and German governments and then in a church. They would have celebrated their 69th wedding anniversary on Sept. 1.
Blackbird had grown up in the small community of Eden, raised by a cousin after his parents died. When he returned home from Europe with a German bride it was pretty exciting for the rest of Blackbird’s family, Besaw said.
The couple started out in Milwaukee but soon settled in the Green Bay area where Blackbird was hired as a machinist at a paper company. He ensured the machines that made toilet paper were in running order and enjoyed his job and his co-workers so much he didn’t retire until he was in his 70s.
Blackbird and his wife raised three children. He loved living in Titletown and was naturally a big Green Bay Packers fan. He loved animals, he loved to fish, he enjoyed tinkering and making things with his hands.
Though he never ran for office, he was keenly interested in local politics, frequently attending meetings and voicing his opinions. When Elvis Presley’s favorite roller coaster, called the Zippin Pippin, relocated from Memphis to Bay Beach Amusement Park in Green Bay in 2011, Blackbird wanted to go on the first ride.
“Mom said ‘Only if you go with Haly.’ I’m like ‘What? I don’t even like roller coasters.’ So I paid my daughter $20 to ride with him,” said Besaw.