Berlin Airlift veterans hold reunion in Montgomery, Ala.
Montgomery Advertiser, Ala.
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Gail Halvorsen remembers it like it was yesterday, those 11 months in 1948 and 1949 when the only thing keeping a city of 2.5 million from starving was a constant stream of aircraft bringing in everything from flour to coal to butter and lard.
Three years after World War II ended in Europe, the world was yet again on the precipice of war as the Soviet Union blockaded Berlin. Operation Vittles, the Berlin Airlift, used American, British and French military aircraft to fly in 6,000 tons of supplies a day into the cut-off city.
During the airlift 31 American airmen died flying and supporting the relief effort. About 100 airlift veterans, their wives and family members are in Montgomery this week as part of the annual Berlin Airlift Veterans Association Reunion.
Halverson, 93, was an Air Force 1st Lt. when he flew one of the C-54 cargo planes in the effort. He retired as a colonel after serving in the Air Force for 31 years. He will forever be known as the “Candy Bomber” after he starting dropping candy bars fastened to makeshift handkerchief parachutes to children in the city. He lives today in Spanish Fort, Utah.
The idea came about after he flew into Berlin at Templehof Airfield as an observer on one of the flights.
“We were flying to Berlin three times a day, and I hadn’t seen the city,” he said. “I had seen it from the air, but I wanted to see the city. I walked around the airfield, and I noticed about 30 children standing on the other side of the barbed wire. They never asked me for anything. I was getting back into the Jeep, and I decided I had to give them something.”
He had two pieces of gum in his pocket. He tore the pieces in half and gave the gum to four lucky children.
“They tore those half pieces into strips,” he said. “The ones that didn’t get any gum just smelled the paper. I knew I had to do something.”
When the candy campaign got rolling, it garnered international media attention. The American Confectioner’s Association got involved and donated candy, and Halvorsen and his buddies dropped more than 20 tons of candy bars to the children of Berlin during those tense times. The drops were made on final approach to the airfield.
But candy was just small potatoes compared to what was flying into the city each day. On average, an airplane landed every three minutes with supplies. The hectic pace was kept up from Aug. 10, 1948, to Aug. 5, 1949.
“We had to keep the supplies coming in, we were the only lifeline they had,” said Mel Jenner of Okoee, Fla. At the time he was a staff sergeant serving as a flight engineer on the C-54s. He made 69 flights into Berlin. “The Russians weren’t letting anything come by land. It was 150 miles or so to Berlin from the American sector in Germany.”
Montgomery was an easy pick for the reunion, said Fred Hall of Corinth, Md., the reunion director. He also served as a flight engineer during the airlift.
“Many of the guys had their basic training at Maxwell,” he said. “And Maxwell has a portion of its enlisted man’s museum dedicated to the airlift. So it was a good idea to bring them back here to reconnect with Montgomery.
“I tell you, we’ve had these reunions all over the country, and we have never been treated as well as we’ve been treated here in Montgomery. Everybody has been very welcoming and just great.”
The veterans will be reunited today with an old friend. The Spirit of Freedom, a C-54 operated by the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation out of Tom’s River, N.J., touched down at Dannelly Field on Thursday afternoon. Tim Chopp, president of the association and pilot in command, and Bill Starr, the flight engineer, touched down in Winchester, Va., to take on fuel for the last leg to Montgomery.
“It was about a four-hour flight here from Winchester, all in all, it was a beautiful trip,” Chopp said.
The four-engine aircraft built by Douglas is 94 feet long and can carry a maximum load of 10 tons. To keep Berlin supplied with 6,000 tons of material per day, took 600 trips.
The Spirit of Freedom is one of four C-54s in the country left in flyable condition, Chopp said. The aircraft is a flying museum dedicated to the airlift.
“Not much is taught about this great humanitarian effort,” Chopp said. “So we thought it would be a grand idea to have a museum inside an airplane to teach people what the airlift was all about.”
The Spirit of Freedom will be open to the public today through Sunday. It’s parked on the tarmac at Montgomery Aviation at Dannelly Field.