World

70 years after blockade of city by Soviet forces, Berlin Airlift is recalled

AFP-JIJI

Germany on Sunday marked 70 years since the end of the Soviet blockade that sparked the Berlin Airlift, the spectacular humanitarian rescue mission that was the first major salvo of the Cold War.

For almost a year, mainly American and British pilots created a lifeline to support war-ravaged West Berlin — encircled and blockaded by Soviet forces — with food and fuel.

The unprecedented logistical effort, with hundreds of thousands of flights to save the city from starvation, cemented the postwar German-American friendship.

But when American bombers started dropping tiny improvised parachutes loaded with candies into Berlin during the blockade, one little German girl wrote to complain.

Mercedes Wild, now 78, recalled how she protested that the constant drone of airlift planes disturbed her chickens — and during the blockade, eggs were a valuable commodity.

Then Gail Halvorsen, the U.S. pilot who dreamed up the candy drops, wrote back, enclosing sticks of chewing gum and a lollipop with his letter.

His gesture sparked a long-lasting friendship between Halvorsen, Wild and their families, she said.

“It wasn’t the sweets that impressed me, it was the letter,” she said.

“I grew up fatherless, like a lot of (German) children at that time, so knowing that someone outside of Berlin was thinking of me gave me hope.”

Halvorsen, now 98, was guest of honor at Sunday’s anniversary festivities.

He insists that the real heroes of the airlift were inside the city.

“The heroes of the Berlin Airlift were not the pilots, the heroes were the Germans — the parents and children on the ground,” he said.

“They were the stalwarts of the confrontation with the Soviet Union, not the guys bringing in the food, it was the people (of West Berlin) standing up for themselves.”

Here are three things to know about one of the greatest feats in aviation history.

Blockade of a shattered city

After Nazi Germany’s defeat, tensions between the West and the Soviet Union resurfaced to divide most of the world into two rival, nuclear-armed camps until the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

In 1945, the victorious powers — the United States, Britain, France and Russia — split up defeated Germany into four occupation zones, a division mirrored in the capital, Berlin.

This left West Berlin, controlled by the Western Allies, stranded like an island deep inside the Soviet sector, which would later become walled-off communist East Germany.

To Western powers, West Berlin became a symbolic bulwark of freedom — a sentiment U.S. President John F. Kennedy would later express with the words “Ich bin ein Berliner” (“I am a Berliner”).

Soviet dictator Josef Stalin wanted to push Western powers out of West Berlin — then a starved city of 2.2 million where entire blocks were reduced to rubble, people were scavenging for food and cigarettes were the black-market currency.

The Western Allies, instead, opted in 1948 to unite their zones into a single economic area with a new deutschmark currency, paving the way for the creation of West Germany.

In response, on June 24 Soviet troops launched a full blockade of West Berlin. Citing “technical reasons,” they closed all roads, railway lines and waterways to the city and shut off electricity.

Spectacular rescue mission

With fears rising that Europe was on the brink of World War III, the Western Allies launched an unprecedented rescue effort for the hugely symbolic city.

Starting on June 26, they launched their airlift to fly food and fuel into the besieged city — a mission scaled up soon to see a landing or takeoff in Berlin every 90 seconds.

To break the 322-day blockade, some 277,000 flights brought in more than 2 million tons of food packages and other relief goods.

The planes traveled a combined total of 175 million kilometers (108 million miles) — the equivalent of flying around the Earth 4,400 times.

During the operation, Berlin Mayor Ernst Reuter made a passionate appeal to the “people of the world,” telling them that “you should not — you cannot — abandon this city and this people!”

Berliners fondly remember the buzzing propellers and the “Candy Bombers” — those pilots who dropped packages of sweet treats including chocolate, raisins and gum attached to parachutes made out of handkerchiefs.

The first airman to do so was Halvorsen, whose signature aircraft tilt earned him the nickname “Uncle Wiggly Wings.”

The Soviets finally lifted the blockade on May 12, 1949, though the flights continued for several more months. The daring airlift claimed at least 78 lives, mostly of U.S. and British pilots.

Airport to urban playground

West Berlin used several airstrips — and a river for water-planes — but the main air hub was Tempelhof, the giant terminal of which had been designed fit for the Nazis’ “1,000-year Reich.”

It closed in 2008, replaced by two other airports, and two years later was declared a vast city park, with skaters and joggers speeding down its disused runways.

Berliners voted to keep it that way, rejecting city development plans in a 2014 referendum.

After Germany’s mass migrant influx, its buildings housed refugees from other wars, in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Today families fly kites where the planes once thundered through the sky, hipster gardeners grow organic vegetables, and a memorial honors the pilots who died to keep West Berlin alive.