Pilots return for 60th Berlin Airlift anniversary

US, British and French veterans joined German leaders on Thursday to mark the 60th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, a colossal operation to rescue the western sector of the city from a Soviet blockade.

Pilots return for 60th Berlin Airlift anniversary
Photo: DPA

Germany has rolled out the red carpet for a few of the former flyers, now in their 80s, who saved West Berlin from being starved into submission by Josef Stalin in the first major salvo of the Cold War.

As the Soviets put the western sector of the still bombed-out city in a stranglehold in June 1948, Germany’s western wartime enemies began an unprecedented mobilization to ensure West Berlin did not succumb.

“The Airlift turned foes into friends, and occupiers became helpers,” German Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung said at a wreath-laying ceremony at Frankfurt’s international airport, where many of the aid flights took off.

Tensions between the Western powers – Britain, France and the United States – and the Soviet Union steadily mounted in the postwar years and threatened to come to a head when the Deutsche mark was introduced in West Germany and West Berlin.

Seeing the new currency as part of a power grab by the West, Stalin closed off all roads and supply routes to West Berlin, aiming to surround and conquer the free enclave in the Soviet-occupied zone.

US president Harry Truman then gave General Lucius D. Clay the green light to launch the Airlift, ensuring that crucial provisions reached the panicked population of 2.5 million people.

Operating almost non-stop and through the harsh German winter, the Airlift carried over two million tonnes of supplies in more than 270,000 flights, mainly into Tempelhof Airport just outside Berlin’s city centre.

Thirty-nine British and 31 US pilots lost their lives before the operation wound down in May 1949 when the Soviets called off the blockade. But shipments continued until September of that year to build up a surplus in case of another attempt by Stalin to cut off the West.

“The Airlift was a great success. But it also required sacrifice. We must honour the memory of those who lost their lives so that the free part of Berlin could survive, in liberty,” Jung said.

Guests at the Frankfurt ceremony included General Roger A. Brady, commander of the US Air Forces in Europe, US Ambassador William Timken and former US Air Force Colonel Gail Halvorsen.

Halvorsen because an instant celebrity during those dark days in West Berlin when, on an aid delivery flight, he dropped tiny bundles of sweets with handkerchief parachutes for children waiting below.

Fans nicknamed him “the candy bomber” and “Uncle Wiggly Wings” for the way he manoeuvered his plane so the youngsters below would know to look out for incoming chewing gum and chocolate bars.

“These kids had so much gratitude, silent gratitude, that they wouldn’t beg,” he said. “Who wouldn’t give them the shirt off their back?”

Now a genial 87-year-old who still has a twinkle in his eye, Halvorsen has been a frequent visitor to united Germany. He will open a museum exhibition with French and British veterans of the Airlift later Thursday and speak to schoolchildren in Berlin Friday.