ABC in KMC: Berlin Airlift

by Gina Hutchins-Inman
86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
The people of Berlin celebrate the end of the Berlin Blockade in May 1949; the sign reads, “Hurray! We are still alive.” Photo from the USAFE Archive

Berliner Luftbrücke

Berlin in the post-war era, a city and a whole country divided into four occupation zones, each controlled by the Allied powers: the United States, the United Kingdom, France and the Soviet Union. The city located in the middle of the Soviet zone was only accessible by three transit routes. Tensions soon escalated between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union and on June 24, 1948, the Soviets blocked all three rail and road transit routes to West Berlin, leaving 2.2 million people facing the threat of starvation and isolation.

As we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, it is imperative to revisit the historic event that showcased humanitarianism over hostility. 

Responding to this dire situation, the Western Allies launched Operation Vittles, famously known as the Berlin Airlift, on June 26, 1948. Led primarily by the United States and supported by the United Kingdom and other Western nations, this unprecedented humanitarian mission aimed to supply the people of West Berlin with essential provisions by air.

Over the course of the airlift, which lasted for 15 months until September 1949, Allied cargo planes made more than 278,000 flights, delivering approximately 2.3 million tons of food, fuel, and supplies to the beleaguered city. 

Flights to Berlin were dangerous and planes could only use three air corridors. Many flights occurred at night, Tempelhof airfield was located right in the city center and pilots had to fly very low over buildings to reach their destination. Soviet pilots also buzzed the transport aircraft, used tethered balloons, radio interference and searchlights in the pilots’ eyes to deter the flights. Between Aug. 10, 1948 and Aug. 15, 1949, there were 733 incidents of harassment. 

Although no plane was actually shot down, 78 pilots lost their lives when their planes crashed as they approached the airfield. In one instance, an aircraft carrying 35 people crashed because of Soviet harassment. In total 17 U.S. and eight British aircraft crashed during the airlift, amounting to 101 people dying while supplying Berlin. 

The Berlin airlift monument, established in 1951, commemorates their sacrifice. Its three pillars also symbolized the three air corridors, and Berliners colloquially refer to the monument as the “hunger claw.” 

The blockade was lifted May 12, 1949, however the airlift continued until September and at its peak, an aircraft landed in West Berlin every 30 seconds, showcasing the remarkable logistical prowess and unwavering commitment of the Allied Forces. 

The success of the Berlin Airlift not only prevented a humanitarian catastrophe but also symbolized the resolve of the Western Allies to defend freedom and democracy in the face of Soviet aggression. It became a powerful symbol of unity and solidarity, inspiring hope not only among the people of West Berlin but also around the world.


Uncle Wiggly Wings 

In the annals of the Berlin Airlift, one name shines brightly amidst the collective heroism: Gail Halverson, affectionately known as the “Berlin Candy Bomber” or “Uncle Wiggly Wings.” A young pilot in the United States Air Force, Halverson’s story adds a heartwarming dimension to the already remarkable narrative of the airlift.

It was during the early days of the operation when Halverson, stationed at Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, noticed a group of children watching the planes take off and land from a nearby fence. Touched by their curiosity and longing for a taste of normalcy amidst the turmoil, Halverson decided to share his rations of candy with them.

Using handkerchiefs as makeshift parachutes, Halverson and his fellow pilots dropped chocolate bars and chewing gum from their planes as they approached the airport. The sight of these sweet treats drifting down from the sky became a source of joy and comfort for the children of Berlin, earning Halverson the enduring gratitude and admiration of countless individuals.

Halverson’s spontaneous act of kindness soon captured the imagination of people around the world, turning him into a symbol of hope and compassion amid the bleak backdrop of the Cold War. His simple gesture transcended boundaries and ideologies, demonstrating the power of empathy and generosity to bridge divides and uplift spirits.

In addition to his candy drops, Halverson played a crucial role in boosting morale among both Berliners and fellow airmen. His unwavering optimism and spirit of camaraderie inspired those around him to persevere in the face of adversity, embodying the indomitable resolve of the Allied forces during the airlift.

Today, Gail Halverson’s legacy endures as a shining example of the impact that individual acts of kindness can have on the lives of others, even in the most challenging of circumstances. Halverson passed away as a centenarian Feb. 16, 2022, and will always be remembered as a hero by Berliners. 

As we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, let us not forget the extraordinary contributions of individuals like Halverson and his comrades, whose compassion and generosity helped to alleviate the suffering of a besieged city and inspire a world in need of hope. 

The U.S. Army Garrison Wiesbaden is hosting a commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the airlift in conjunction with the State of Hesse. Visitors can view static displays of historic aircraft and get a hands-on experience of the heroic venture. More info at