Seventy years later, reflecting on the Berlin Airlift and the end of the Soviet blockade

On Sunday, May 12, tens of thousands poured into Tempelhofer Feld to commemorate the Berlin Airlift and the end of the Soviet blockade of the city. But what was it like to live in Berlin during 1948-1949? We asked a few of the people who were there 70 years ago to tell us.

 

 

A piece for Omnified written by Emma Krupp with reporting by Nikki Motson, Sylvia Cunningham and Monika Müller-Kroll

From June 1948 to May 1949, Soviet forces shut down the borders of West Berlin, isolating the city and blocking access to food and supplies from the rest of West Germany.

In response, Allied forces launched the Berlin Airlift, a massive, multinational air mission that ultimately delivered more than 2.3 million tons of food and supplies via three narrow air channels to millions of German citizens living inside the city’s borders.

Seventy years to the day after Soviet forces lifted the blockade, hundreds gathered at the Platz der Luftbrücke on Sunday to commemorate the massive effort by Americans, British, French, Germans, and several other nations to aid the people of West Berlin as well as to honor those who had lost their lives during the mission.

A plane parked at the former Tempelhof airport. Photo by Monika Müller-Kroll.

With the Airlift Memorial as a backdrop politicians, including Berlin Mayor Michael Müller and Justice Minister Katarina Barley, spoke about the lasting legacy of the airlift before heading to the main grounds of Tempelhof. There an estimated 50,000 visitors poured in over the course of the day to view exhibitions on the history of the effort. The day-long festival offered guests the opportunity to tour the hangars of the former airfield, browsing historical exhibits from institutions including the Allied Museum and the German Museum of Technology.

Commemoration efforts illuminated the sheer efficiency of the airlift efforts: Planes delivered more than 4,500 tons of cargo every day, increasing the tonnage over the nearly 11-month blockade. At its peak, planes landed at Tempelhof and surrounding airfields every few minutes. Over a 24-hour period in Easter 1949, 1,398 flights landed in total (amounting to one plane approximately every 62 seconds). But beneath the numbers, for Berlin residents and Allied soldiers alike, memories of that year remain vivid even seven decades later.

“I was always hungry,” recalled Christel Jonge Vos when reached by phone in Oregon. She’s lived in the United States since 1972, but during the Soviet blockade she was 11 years old and living in the American sector. “Hungry, hungry.” She described foraging in the streets with her cousin and looking for food amid the ruins — eating scraps and unripened fruit.

“We ate everything we could find,” she said.

Col. Gail S. Halvorsen explaining how Operation Little Vittles, his mission to deliver candy and chocolate to the kids of West Berlin, started with just two pieces of gum. Photo by Monika Müller-Kroll.

And yet despite adversity, for many West Berliners, the airlift also provided a concrete symbol of hope amid the impending threat of starvation and seemed like a tangible lifeline to freedom.

Barbara John was 10 during the time of the blockade. Her family started a vegetable garden in a park near their home in Kreuzberg, sending the children out to gather horse excrement to grow tomatoes and flowers.

“We really loved and understood the words ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ and fighting for it and sacrificing for it,” John said, who went on to become the first Ausländerbeauftragte (Foreign Affairs Commissioner) of the Berlin Senate. “You have to have a sacrifice in order to keep up such a way of living.”

The honored guest at Sunday’s ceremony was Col. Gail S. Halvorsen, fondly referred to as the Candy Bomber. During the airlift, he collected candy rations from fellow pilots and dropped makeshift parachutes over Berlin to crowds of eager children waiting below. Halvorsen, who is approaching 99 years old, flew from his home in Utah to Berlin for the commemorative events.

He addressed the crowd, ending his speech by saying “Berlin ist meine zweite Heimat” (“Berlin is my second home”) and received a standing ovation at Sunday’s ceremony. After starting runs from the Allied base, Halvorsen remembers feeling impressed by the toughness of West German children, who would often wait for and wave at Allied pilots overhead.

On May 13, 2019, Col. Gail S. Halvorsen was honored with a cap and gown at a school in Dahlem that was renamed for him in 2013. Pictured to the right is Mercedes Wild, one of the “Berlin kids” who went to Tempelhof during the time of the Berlin Airlift. Photo by Sylvia Cunningham.

“Kids would be at the end of the runway, beside the barbed wire, and waving at all the airplanes coming in,” Halvorsen said to KCRW Berlin in an interview. “There comes our next meal. It was incredible to be part of that.”

Wanting to provide the children with something special outside of their normal rations, Halvorsen decided to start dropping candy at coordinated times. When he got low enough, he would wiggle his wings to signal to the children, earning him the nickname “Uncle Wiggly Wings.”

“We were able to see Gail Halvorsen wiggling his wings and dropping little parachutes with chocolates,” said Jonge Vos. “I never caught one, the boys were always faster, but this was of no importance to us. Important was, at that time, there was someone who cared.”

In some ways, these memories — the brief connections shared between German children and American troops — feel emblematic of the airlift’s legacy. Speakers at the opening ceremony noted the lasting diplomatic effects of the airlift efforts, effectively cooling postwar tensions. Halvorsen, who described the horror of cruising over a destroyed Berlin, echoes a similar sentiment.

“I didn’t know one guy that complained about flying so much to feed his former enemy,” Halvorsen said. “So it was a good attitude, [a] change in people and hatred for each other in the war. And then to make that change right after war was a great feeling.”

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