June 24, 2019

THE BERLIN AIRLIFT: After WWII, Churchill declared that an “iron curtain” had descended across Europe, separating Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe from the free world.  Berlin, which had been reduced to rubble, was an anomaly. Located deep inside East Germany, it was nevertheless not wholly under Soviet control. Rather, under the agreement reached at Potsdam, it was divided into four sectors, with each under the control of one of the allied powers—France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States. The French, British and American sectors formed West Berlin, which was … well… the part you’d want to be in.

Westerners wondered how long could such an arrangement could last. How long would it be before the Soviet Union moved to gain full control? They got their answer in this day in 1948 when the Soviet Union blockaded the roads and railroads leading from West Germany to West Berlin. The Soviets were hoping to strangle this little enclave of freedom, which had only a few weeks worth of food and a month’s worth of coal.

Sensible people thought a city the size of Berlin couldn’t be supplied with food and necessities by air. That’s what freight trains and big trucks are for. But other than to surrender the city, the allies had no choice. Beginning on June 26, the air forces of France, Great Britain and the United States, along with those of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa executed the Berlin Airlift. According to Wikipedia, they flew 200,000 sorties in a single year. That works out to one every two or three minutes.

The Soviets did nothing to stop it. They knew they’d be risking war if they tried.

There were lots of heroes in this story. But the special hero was an American pilot named Gail Halvorsen. One day after flying a cargo plane into Tempelhof air field, he noticed a group of about 30 ragamuffin children watching from behind a barbed wire fence, so he went over to talk to them. They told him that if at some point the weather gets too bad to continue the airlift, they would be okay. “We can get by on a little food, but if we lose our freedom, we may never get it back.”

Lt. (later Col.) Halvorsen reached into his pocket and came up with two sticks of Wrigley’s gum, which the children excitedly broke into tiny pieces and shared as best they could. Some only got to smell the wrapper.

A light went on in Halvorsen’s head. Next time he and his crew would airdrop candy tied with handkerchiefs as tiny parachutes. The children were delighted. Each time he dropped a load of candy he noticed the crowd of children was larger than before.

The higher-ups in the Air Force noticed too. Soon Halvorsen’s project was made official and greatly expanded to include many pilots and their crews. All told, it is thought that more than 23 tons of candy—much of it contributed by candy manufacturers—were dropped from over 250,000 little parachutes to many thousands of children who needed a bright spot in their lives. Let freedom ring.

By the way, as far as I can tell, Gail Halvorsen is still alive, one of the last of the Greatest Generation.  Here’s to you, Colonel! You are a better Gail H. than I.

 

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