June marks the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the Berlin Airlift, an extraordinary, 11-month effort by the United States, Great Britain and France to defy the Soviet Union's blockade of the former Nazi capital. By flying in enough food, coal, and other essentials for the city's two million-plus inhabitants, the Berlin Airlift helped avert a humanitarian disaster and kept hope alive in a city nearly destroyed by Allied bombing. To understand the sheer scope of this effort, some historical background is necessary.
In May 1945, with Berlin in ruins, Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allied forces. The occupying victors (the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union and France) divided Germany into four zones. The same powers also divided the city of Berlin – which was inside the Russian occupation zone – into four sectors. Each ally was responsible for administering its own part of Berlin. But given the city's post-war condition, that was not an easy job.
"It was a city just living with the barest of essentials, with rations far below what the United Nations said was needed to prevent starvation," says Andrei Cherny, author of The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America's Finest Hour. "Only one quarter of the housing in the city was seen as a place where people could live," he adds. "There were packs of wolves roaming in the streets."
The Allies began bringing in at least subsistence quantities of food, coal and other necessities into Berlin by truck, train and barge. Still, both hunger and crime were common, and the Western democracies seemed to be losing the ideological struggle with the Communists. In a 1947 survey, 70 percent of Berliners said they preferred economic security to freedom and democracy.
Meanwhile, the Soviets were sponsoring Communist revolutions in the East. By 1948, Hungary, Romania, Poland and Czechoslovakia were under Soviet domination and Germany seemed to be the next logical place. Stalin wanted the Allies out of Berlin.
On June 25th 1948, citing technical difficulties, the Soviets closed off all road, rail and river access to the city from the West. The Allies, whose own troops were outnumbered by Soviet troops 62-1, realized the high potential for armed conflict, and knew they had few options for responding to the Berlin blockade.
"So, almost by accident, there was a decision made to start flying a small amount of food into Berlin," says Cherny. "We only had a handful of planes available. Each of them was about the size of a school bus."
But within months, the trickle turned into a torrent. The Allies were able to increase shipments to about 90 metric tons per day at the start of the Airlift to about 5000 metric tons per day.
"In school, all of a sudden we had food. It tasted delicious!" recalls Helga Johnson who was a hungry 11-year-old Berliner at the time. "And all of a sudden we had coal and could heat our house a little bit. My heart was so full of thankfulness for this deed of a former enemy."
Nevertheless, many of the Allied airmen who actually flew the airlift still felt bitter anger toward the German people. But that changed for Air Force aviator Lt. Gail Halvorsen the first time he met the German laborers who boarded his plane at Berlin's Templehof airport to unload it.
"They looked at that flour and at us like we were angels from heaven and they put out their hands in gratitude," he recalls. "When somebody is grateful to you, you want to do something for them. That personal connection just sealed the whole thing with me."
But what really moved Halvorsen was a July 17 conversation with some German children who'd come to the airport to watch the planes landing and being unloaded. None of the children begged him for candy or money as in other places, Halvorsen recalls. After one of the more outspoken children said to him, "Don't worry about us. We can live on rations. But if we lose our freedom, we'll never get it back," Halvorsen decided to give two sticks of gum to the children who had been translating. Most were born during the war, and had never had such a treat.
"I thought 'I hope they don't fight,'" he recalls. "And they didn't. The kids with a half a stick carefully tore off the outer wrapper, the tinfoil, and handed it to those that didn't get any gum."
He watched as those with a piece of paper then put it up to their noses and smelled the aroma and smelled and smelled it and their eyes got big. And I decided then that I had to do something more.
Halvorsen promised to drop more gum and some candy bars for the children on his next day's run. Soon, he and some comrades were making daily drops of candy bars wrapped in handkerchief parachutes every day. The number of children grew. This activity was against the rules, and Halvorsen got into serious trouble when word first leaked out to his superiors. But soon, he was given permission to drop the candy.
When word spread to the U.S. of what the so-called Candy Bombers were doing, thousands of American children began sending in their own candy for German children, and American candy manufacturers began donating sweets.
Perhaps because of the success of the Allied airlift, the Soviets ended the Berlin blockade in May 1949, 11 months after it began. But the success of the effort was about lots more than fuel, food or the 18 metric tons of sweet treats the Candy Bombers dropped inside their so-called hankerchutes. As one 60-year-old German man who had received a chocolate bar as a child told Halvorsen, what was important was that people in America knew we were in trouble, and someone cared.