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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press Retired Col. Gail Halvorsen attends a ceremony to dedicate the baseball and softball field of the Berlin Braves as Gail S. Halvorsen Park.

Monday, May 13, 2019 1:00 am

70 years later, Berliners laud airlift, famed pilot

KIRSTEN GRIESHABER | Associated Press

BERLIN – Berliners on Sunday celebrated the 70th anniversary of the day the Soviets lifted their blockade strangling West Berlin in the post-World War II years with a big party at the former Tempelhof airport in the German capital.

Among the invited guests of honor was 98-year-old U.S. pilot Gail Halvorsen, who dropped hundreds of boxes of candy on tiny parachutes into West Berlin during the blockade.

Halvorsen came to Berlin from Utah with his two daughters on Friday, the German news agency dpa reported.

On Saturday, a baseball field at Tempelhof airport was named after him – the Gail S. Halvorsen Park – Home of the Berlin Braves in honor of his help for Berliners during the Cold War.

Dressed in a military uniform, Halvorsen told Berlin's mayor Michael Mueller that “it's good to be home.”

The airlift began on June 26, 1948, in an ambitious plan to feed and supply West Berlin after the Soviets blockaded the city in an attempt to squeeze the U.S., Britain and France out of the enclave within Soviet-occupied eastern Germany.

Allied pilots flew a total of 278,000 flights to Berlin, carrying about 2.3 million tons of food, coal, medicine and other supplies.

On the operation's busiest day, April 16, 1949, about 1,400 planes carried in nearly 13,000 tons over 24 hours – an average of one plane touching down almost every minute.

Finally, on May 12, 1949, the Soviets realized the blockade was futile and lifted their barricades. The airlift continued for several more months in case the Soviets changed their minds.

Halvorsen is probably the best known of the airlift pilots, thanks to an inadvertent propaganda coup born out of good will. Early in the airlift, he shared two sticks of gum with starving Berlin children and saw others sniffing the wrappers just for a hint of the flavor.

Touched, he told the children to come back the next day, when he would drop them candy, using handkerchiefs as parachutes.

He started doing it regularly, using his own candy ration. Soon other pilots and crews joined in what would be dubbed “Operation Little Vittles.”