Berlin Airlift lays foundation for today’s air mobility

  • Published
  • By Theo W. Ramsey
  • Air Mobility Command Public Affairs
Sixty years ago today, the fledgling United States Air Force airlifted its first of 2.3 million tons of coal, food and supplies to the besieged city of Berlin. Stalin had cut off all ground transportation through Russian territory to the surrounded city of Berlin. The Berlin Airlift sustained a city of more than 2 million citizens for over a year, and this first confrontation of the new Cold War was a symbol of America's commitment to democracy, and a proving ground for our nation's airlift capabilities.

Air Force airlifters may not have known in 1948 the broader political implications derived from the success of the Berlin Airlift, but they knew their humanitarian mission was important. Air Force Col. (ret.) Gail Halvorson said, "We knew Stalin was the new enemy and needed to be stopped. We had been briefed for about two years about the threat so we knew the mission was important. I didn't know just how important it was at the time."

The success of the Berlin Airlift accelerated Allied plans to unite the West German tri-sector of Berlin and create the new German Federal Republic after World War II. "In my view," said Colonel Halvorson, "the Airlift saved Berlin, and along with the Marshall Plan in West Germany, it stopped Communism's spread west, eventually the Wall to come down, and finally the dismantling of the Soviet Union. It did change post war history and the rest of my life."

Colonel Halvorson, dubbed the 'Candy Bomber,' earned this nickname, along with several others, including his favorite, 'Uncle Wiggly Wings,' by becoming the first pilot to airdrop candy from his plane to the hungry and oppressed children of Berlin. The German children recognized his plane on approach because he wiggled the wings left and right before he dropped the candy -- each piece slowed by a tiny parachute that he attached to prevent injury to the children.

Airdropping candy made Colonel Halvorson famous, particularly in Germany. But the primary mission of delivering food and supplies to Berlin's beleaguered citizens moved him, and has affected his life ever since. "When I unloaded my first 20,000 pounds of flour, the look in the eyes and the hand shake of the unloaders was as if we were angels from heaven," he said. "They needed flour and freedom. We had both."

Andrei Cherny, a former White House speechwriter and author of The Candy Bombers, reported that in Germany, and especially in Berlin, Colonel Halvorson has become part of the national lore. When Colonel Halvorson and other Berlin Airlift veterans arrived at Templehof at 7 a.m. for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift in 1998, the line had already grown to more than 200 people. Cherny wrote, "The Berliners approached him all day, nodding a few words of thanks or silently, tearfully grasping his hand ... Sixty-year-old men broke down as they told him what a parachute that fell to their feet as they walked through ruined streets had meant to them as children."

The compassion of the United States and its Allies during the Berlin Airlift toward the same German people we had been at war with just three years prior, was deeply felt by a German public oppressed by Stalinist Russia. During the Cold War, Germany determined to never repeat history and slowly built up a large stockpile of food and supplies. When Germany was reunited in 1990, Cherney said, "West Berliners, imprisoned behind a wall by Russian soldiers and policies for forty years, might have been expected to look toward their defeated foes with something approaching hatred. Instead, they decided they would turn over their hoarded food and supplies, to the very people who had made that stockpile necessary."

Compassion and airlift made it happen. The impact of airlift and the Airmen who provide it is far-reaching. The Air Force, and Air Mobility Command, builds on its strong airlift heritage each day, consistently delivering combat and humanitarian capabilities with precision, speed, agility, commitment and technical skill.
The unprecedented accomplishments of the Berlin Airlift still stand as one of the greatest humanitarian and political missions in world history. The Air Force and Air Mobility Command take the lessons and insights from the Berlin Airlift and continue to apply them toward winning today's fight, taking care of our people and preparing for tomorrow's challenges.