Gail "Hal" Halvorsen was among a special group of Americans who changed the course of history 60 years ago this summer.
Halvorsen was a U.S. Air Force pilot who flew food and supplies into Berlin in 1948 and helped break the Soviet blockade of the beleaguered German capital.
"If the airlift had failed, those people would have been speaking Russian in West Berlin, and West Germany was next," the 87-year-old Halvorsen said in an interview.
|Gail "Hal" Halvorsen gives a thumbs at the U.S. military airbase in Frankfurt, Germany, in October 2005.|
Germany after World War II was divided between the Allied forces – the United States, Great Britain and France - in the West, and the Soviet Union in the East. Berlin, located in the eastern, Soviet half of the country, was divided into four sectors, with West Berlin occupied by the Allies and East Berlin occupied by the Soviets.
In one of the first major international crises of the Cold War, on June 24, 1948, Soviet forces began blocking highway and railroad access to West Berlin. The Soviets hoped to force the Western powers out of Berlin and seize control of the city for themselves.
The Allies responded by launching the Airlift.
On July 12, less than two weeks into the blockade, Halvorsen made his initial cargo flight into Berlin.
"It was like a moonscape," he said. "Below my wings were splintered buildings, gaping to the sky with open roofs. I just couldn't understand how over 2 million people could live in rubble like that."
|Getty Images file|
|Children on a tree near the Brandenburg Gate watch a U.S. four-engined cargo airplane arrive during the Berlin Airlift in 1948.|
What's more, he said, there were still hard feelings from the war between American occupation forces and the German people.
"Germany was a conquered nation, and they still had the wounds of war pretty deep in them, and of course our guys had the same feelings about them," Halvorsen said.
All of that changed with the Airlift and a brainstorm Halvorsen had one day to drop candy in tiny parachutes to German children watching the planes land at Berlin's Tempelhof Airport.
"That's the smartest decision I made in my life," he said, "and it had a lifelong impact."
Hundreds of letters of gratitude came pouring in from Berliners, both young and old. One little girl insisted on giving Halvorsen her only surviving possession, a well-worn teddy bear.
"'I want you to have it to keep you and the other fliers safe on your trips to Berlin,'" she told him. "I tried to refuse it, but her mother said words to the effect that I must accept it."
Halvorsen still has the teddy bear.
The "Candy Bomber" captured the hearts of the Berliners, and the airlift saved them from the Soviets.
In the end, the Allied Forces delivered over 2.3 million tons of goods on 277, 569 flights to Berlin. At the height of the Airlift, planes were taking off and landing in West Berlin every 90 seconds, delivering everything from food and powdered milk to fuel and medicine.
"People were hungry for food and for freedom," Halvorsen said. "We were giving them both, and they were most grateful."
On May 12, 1949, the Soviets finally backed down and lifted the blockade, allowing land access once again into Berlin.
Today Berlin is the capital of a free and unified Germany, allied with America and the other Western democracies, thanks in large part to Gail Halvorsen and his fellow pilots of the Berlin Airlift.