Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Berlin Airlift and the Candy Bombers

The Berlin Blockade
At the end of World War II, Germany was divided into four zones, each occupied by the Allied nations of Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States. The German capital of Berlin, which lay one hundred miles inside the Soviet zone, was also similarly divided. 

The first confrontation of the Cold War began on June 19, 1948 when the Soviet Union attempted to force the other Allied nations out of Berlin. Soviet guards halted all traffic on the autobahn, delayed freight shipments, and passed strict requirements for water transport into Berlin. 

On June 24, 1948, the Soviets initiated the Berlin Blockade in an attempt gain control over the entire city. The blockade was designed to force the Allies to allow the Soviet zone to supply food and fuel to the entire city. Soviet guards halted the Allie’s land and sea access, stopped supplying food to civilians, and cut off all electricity to the sectors of Berlin under Allied control. Because the Soviet forces greatly outnumbered those of the Allies, the choices appeared grim: abandon the city to the Soviets, allow the citizens of Berlin to starve, or start World War III.

Operation Vittles
In response, the Allies ordered a massive airlift to carry much needed supplies to the people in West Berlin, the area under Allied control. On June 26, 1948, Operation Vittles, more commonly known as the Berlin Airlift, had begun as planes from bases in Germany and England landed in West Berlin. Although the task of providing food, water, clothing, medicine, and other necessities for the enormous population of Berlin was daunting, by the spring of 1949 the airlift was an obvious success.  In that time, the United States Air Force and the British Royal Air Force flew over 200,000 flights, providing nearly 4700 tons of necessities to the city each day. The blockade was lifted in May 1949 and the Berlin airlift became known as the most successful humanitarian action of all time. 

Operation Little Vittles
Gail Halvorsen, a U.S. Air Force pilot who flew supplies into Berlin as a part of Operation Vittles, arrived at Tempelhof airport in the American sector of Berlin on July 17, 1948. While filming with his hand-held camera, he noticed a group of children watching through the barbed wire as the airplanes landed. The children were polite and only asked that the Americans not abandon the airlift when the weather worsened. Moved by the children’s demeanor, Halvorsen handed them the two pieces of gum he had in his pocket and promised to return the next day with more candy. When the children asked how they would know it was him flying over, he replied that he would wiggle his wings. Halvorsen improvised parachutes for candy bars using handkerchiefs and released them as he flew into Tempelhof airport. The crowd of eager children grew as Halvorsen made several more drops over the weeks and soon there was a stack of mail addressed to “Uncle Wiggly Wings” and “The Chocolate Flier” back at base. 

When his colonel became aware of the candy drops, which violated Air Force regulation, Halvorsen was expecting to be reprimanded for his behavior. But publicity surrounding these kind actions was growing as Berlin newspapers had already picked up the story, and Airlift commander General William Tunner approved the continuation of what was labeled “Operation Little Vittles.” Soon twenty-five pilots in Halvorsen’s squadron alone were participating, and when the news reached the U.S. children and manufacturers joined in the cause. Public support through donations enabled Halvorsen and his crew, known as “the Candy Bombers,” to drop over three tons of chocolate, chewing gum, and other candies over Berlin. By January 1949, approximately 250,000 parachutes had been released. 

By the spring of 1949 the Berlin Airlift was succeeding and the Berlin Blockade was lifted in May. The Metal for Humane Action was established on July 20, 1949, which was awarded to anyone who served in or with the Armed Forces of the U.S. during the period of June 26, 1948 through September 30, 1949. The museum proudly displays the Metal for Humane Action, which reads “For humane action to supply necessities of life to the people of Berlin, Germany.”