On June 23, 1948, the Soviet Union blockaded ground access to West Berlin, at that time occupied by the United States, Great Britain, and France. All road, rail, and barge traffic was shut down. President Harry S. Truman and Gen. Lucius D. Clay, the American Military Governor of Germany, resolved to keep the city supplied by air. The resulting “Operation Vittles” – also known as the Berlin Airlift – was a massive combined effort of all the U.S. armed services and the Western powers.
American, French, and British cargo planes delivered over 2.3 million tons of food, coal, and other supplies to the citizens of Berlin from June 1948 to September 1949, even though the blockade was lifted in May.
One airlift pilot, U.S. Air Force Lt. Gail S. Halvorsen, equipped chocolate bars with tiny parachutes made from handkerchiefs and threw them from his cockpit as he landed. Halvorsen earned many affectionate nicknames for his endeavor, including the Candy Bomber, the Chocolate Pilot, and Uncle Wiggly Wings. He still receives letters and Christmas cards from grateful Berliners.
Germany has initiated a celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the Berlin Airlift to pay tribute to U.S./German friendship. Dubbed “Friends Forever,” the celebration includes a traveling exhibit, “The Berlin Airlift – a Legacy of Friendship,” which will be on display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, until July 23.
German Ambassador Klaus Scharioth will join Museum director Gen. John R. Dailey in cutting the ribbon of the exhibition during an opening ceremony at 10:30 a.m. on June 20. The ceremony is part of the 5th annual Become a Pilot Family Day and Aviation Display at the Udvar-Hazy Center.
Visitors will have a chance to meet Airlift pilot Gail Halvorsen, and see the C-54 Spirit of Freedom, an American aircraft deployed during the Airlift which now serves as a “flying museum” run by the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation.
More than 80 other aircraft will be on hand for the event, in addition to a host of activities inside the Center.
Kathleen Hanser is a Writer-Editor in the Office of Communications at the National Air and Space Museum.