Halvorsen, Comrades Recall Berlin Airlift | Community Spirit
Air Force Times--Three years after the end of World War II, the men of the Berlin Airlift found themselves face-to-face with their former enemy.
Col. Gail Halvorsen had lost a fellow pilot and friend to the Germans. Now here he was, helping to keep 2 million people alive after the Soviet Union cut off supply routes in June 1948.
From the air, that ravaged city looked like a moonscape, Halvorsen, 91, said. Only one in five buildings was livable, and women and children suffered most.
“That changed my perception,” he told an audience of airmen at the Air Force Association’s Air and Space Conference outside Washington on Sept. 18. “Hitler’s past and Stalin’s future was their nightmare. Freedom was their dream.”
W.C. “Dub” Southers, a C-54 flight engineer and crew chief, recalled being unhappy when told he was going to Germany. “I really didn’t know how important it was.”
Neither did Fred Hall, a mechanic and flight engineer.
Gas and electricity worked sporadically. Berliners covered windows with rags and cardboard to keep out the cold. Southers said he still wonders how the people survived it.
Getting supplies into the city is considered the first major effort by the U.S. Air Force, which became an independent service in 1947; it had been part of the Army until that point.
Allied forces delivered flour, wheat, cereal, meat, fish, potatoes, sugar, coffee, powdered milk, whole milk, salt, cheese and dehydrated vegetables — 1,534 tons of rations a day, according to Spirit of Freedom, the Berlin Airlift’s historical association. That didn’t include coal and fuel.
“These were all hand-loaded in duffel bags,” Hall recalled.
During one of the drops, Halvorsen met a group of children near the base. They told him they needed freedom more than food. On his next visit, Halvorsen, touched by their words, dropped chocolate bars to the children. He did it as often as he could. The crowd of children grew. Other pilots pitched in. Soon, candy companies were donating chocolate to the effort — thousand of pounds of it.
Halvorsen became known as the “candy bomber.”
Fifty years later, he met one of the recipients, who told him how, at age 10, he’d been on his way to school when “suddenly, out of the clouds, came a parachute, and a Hersey bar dropped at my feet. It took me a week to eat that candy bar,” Halvorsen said the man recalled.
“It’s not the candy bar that was important. What was important was that somebody in America knew I was in trouble and cared,” the man told Halvorsen.
Hall returned to Berlin for the airlift’s 50th anniversary. While he was at a restaurant, a waiter brought over cognac, a gift from a man who had witnessed the July 28, 1948, crash that killed two U.S. pilots. The plane had been carrying flour, the man told Hall, and it covered the wreckage like snow.
Other witnesses began to cry — not because of the loss of supplies, but the loss of the men who’d been trying to help them.
The blockade ended nearly 11 months after it began, in May 1949.
“We were a unique group,” Hall said. “We didn’t kill anybody. We kept people alive. That’s something very few people can say.”