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Berlin Airlift, key moment in Cold War, remembered

May 13, 2019

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Former Berlin Airlift pilot Gail Halvorsen from the US addresses guests during a wreath-laying ceremony at a memorial outside Tempelhof airport to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the rescue effort.—AFP
Former Berlin Airlift pilot Gail Halvorsen from the US addresses guests during a wreath-laying ceremony at a memorial outside Tempelhof airport to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the rescue effort.—AFP

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 honour was 98-year-old US 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 honour 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 one of the four occupying powers of a divided Berlin after World War II blockaded the city in an attempt to squeeze the US, 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.

On the ground in Berlin, ex-Luftwaffe mechanics were enlisted to help maintain aircraft, and some 19,000 Berliners, almost half of them women, worked around the clock for three months to build Tegel Airport, providing a crucial relief for the British Gatow and American Tempelhof airfields.

Finally, on May 12, 1949, the Soviets realised the blockade was futile and lifted their barricades. The airlift continued for several more months, however, as a precaution 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.

Published in Dawn, May 13th, 2019