FRANKFURT, Germany — It’s been 65 years since the children of Berlin gazed into the sky in anticipation of seeing chocolate bars tied to parachutes dropping from pilot Gail Halvorsen’s plane.
The 92-year-old Halvorsen, better known as the “Candy Bomber,” was on hand Wednesday at the Berlin Airlift Memorial on the former Rhein-Main Air Base to remember the most ambitious humanitarian airlift operation in history.
“The children were the heroes,” said Halvorsen about the gratitude of the German youth at the time. “They would not ask for more than freedom.”
As Germany was attempting to heal from its World War II wounds, West Berlin was under the control of U.S., British and French forces as the Soviet Union held watch over East Germany and East Berlin.
In 1948, the Soviets instituted a land and water blockade of war-ravaged West Berlin in an attempt to starve the more than 2 million residents of the city and thousands of Allied troops. On June 26 of that year, the first relief flight left for Berlin.
For more than a year, American, British and French planes — flying from airfields in Wiesbaden, Rhein-Main near Frankfurt am Main, Celle, Fassberg and other northern German cities — would deliver about 2.3 million tons of food, coal, medicine and other supplies in the operation known as the Berlin Airlift.
It was a big change for some pilots who first served in Germany during WWII.
“It’s a whole lot better to feed them than to kill them,” Halvorsen recalled one pilot saying about the Berlin Airlift.
More than 70 airlift personnel died during the missions.
Halvorsen’s efforts to bring joy and sustenance to the children of Berlin are the most remembered from the operation to this day. On Wednesday, adults and children scrambled to get a photo with the “Candy Bomber,” who himself has 24 grandchildren and 41 great-grandchildren.
“We could not be prouder of him,” said President Barack Obama of Halvorsen during a speech last week in Berlin that was attended by the veteran pilot.
It’s also obvious that Halvorsen’s love for children is something that has stuck with him through the years. During the ceremony on Wednesday, Halvorsen’s smile lit up the most when a group of German schoolchildren performed a medley of American, German and Russian songs.
During an interview, Halvorsen relayed a story of speaking with someone who had benefited from the airlift.
“It wasn’t the chocolate that was important, it was that somebody cared,” Halvorsen recalled being told.
The “Candy Bomber” also shared insight into being happy that goes beyond a sweet tooth. Service outside yourself, expressing gratitude and having hope are what Halvorsen says are the true ways to happiness.
Shortly before placing a wreath in memory of the fallen and living members of the Berlin Airlift, Halvorsen’s last words to the crowd at the Berlin Airlift Memorial couldn’t have been more appropriate.
“God bless the children,” Halvorsen said.