(See photos at end of story)

It’s hard to celebrate the biggest airlift operation of all time without a plane. But on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, the American DC-3 scheduled to take part in Thursday’s ceremonies broke down in Berlin.

In the end, Germany pitched in one of its own vintage aircraft — a Junkers 52, which the French used for a short time during the airlift — and saved the day. It’s good to have friends.

But if it hadn’t been for the airlift, it’s unlikely we would be, said Germans taking part in Thursday’s anniversary events in Wiesbaden and Frankfurt.

The airlift, which began June 26, 1948, was a bold Allied and German effort to overcome the Soviets’ Berlin blockade, which choked off food and supplies to the war-ravaged city in an attempt to prop up the weak puppet government in East Germany.

The Germans had been wary of the Americans, French and British, who, three years after the war, were considered occupiers and enemies, not saviors. The airlift was the beginning of friendship between Germany and its former enemies, said Roland Koch, the minister-president of the German state of Hessen.

"To give that signal of sympathy, of identification and solidarity with the values of freedom and peace, is a very important point of history in the last century," he said.

For 15 months, American, British and French planes airlifted food, medicine and other supplies to the roughly 2.5 million Germans stranded in Berlin. By the time it was over, they’d flown roughly 280,000 missions, carrying some 2.3 million tons of cargo to the city.

Johnny Macia was an Air Force mechanic stationed at RAF Celle in the British sector of post-World War II Germany during the airlift.

"At the time we just thought, you know, it’s a job. You got a job to do and you get it done," he said.

Macia didn’t realize the full impact of the airlift until the base started getting newspapers, which reported how many tons of supplies were flying out of each base in Allied-held territory to the blockaded city. Soon after, bases in the British zone — RAFs Celle and Fassberg — started trying to outdo one another.

"We were glad that we were able to really make an effect as far as people went, because the Russians had control of the city there, and we had to help the starving people," Macia said.

The airlift is considered the first major battle of the Cold War, and even though there was no actual fighting, there were casualties nonetheless — "101 men and women from Great Britain, Germany and the United States gave their lives during this historic operation," said Gen. Roger A. Brady, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, during a speech at the Berlin Airlift Memorial in Frankfurt.

"One thing we can say with certainty — without the Berlin Airlift, the reunification of Germany and Europe would not have been possible," said Dr. Helmut Mueller, Wiesbaden’s lord mayor.

More about the Berlin Airlift from Stripes' archives

June 27, 1948, story: Planes ease siege in Berlin

Stories about the Airlift's 35th anniversary

Story about Gail Halvorsen's 1974 return to Berlin

Photo gallery: Coal for Berlin

Photo: Airlift-related Jeep accident

Photo: Martha Raye visits "Operation Vittles" servicemembers

Photo: Aftermath of first Airlift crash

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