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Berlin honors U.S. war veteran 'Candy Bomber'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To Berlin now, where the city is mourning U.S. veteran pilot Gail Halvorsen. He died this week at 101. Lieutenant Halvorsen was one of hundreds of Allied pilots who flew vital supplies to West Berlin during the Soviet blockade of the city. But as Esme Nicholson reports, Halvorsen stood out for adding a little something extra to his supplies.

ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: When Stalin blockaded West Berlin in June 1948, the U.S., Great Britain and France launched a massive airlift that was to last more than a year, with pilots delivering over 2 million tons of food, cold and medicine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Berlin becomes a city of darkness as all around...

NICHOLSON: That year, West Berlin's mayor Ernst Reuter appealed to the West to keep the supplies coming.

(SOUNDBUTE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERNST REUTER: (Through interpreter) People of the world, you there in America, in England, in France, look at this city and acknowledge you cannot abandon it and its people.

NICHOLSON: One of the allied pilots who refused to look away despite mixed feelings about the Germans was Lieutenant Gail Halvorsen, a farmer's son from Utah. Speaking in 2019 on his 100th birthday, Halvorsen reminisced meeting West Berliners dependent on pilots like him, who, at the peak of the airlift, were landing every 90 seconds with deliveries of food and fuel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GAIL HALVORSEN: What they said was, we want our freedom. We can live on thin rations. But if we lose our freedom, we'll never get it back.

NICHOLSON: But it was an encounter with children at the edges of the airfield at Tempelhof Airport that gave Halvorsen an idea for which he is still celebrated to this day in Berlin. Having grown up during the depression, Halvorsen saw something of himself in the children, and he started dropping candy tied to parachutes made from handkerchiefs. Vera Mitschrich was 5 years old at the time and remembers looking out for Halvorsen, who would wiggle the wings of his airplane to let expectant children know he was coming.

VERA MITSCHRICH: (Through interpreter) My older sister would climb trees to reach the candy that dropped from the airplanes, and I can still remember the taste of the chocolate that Gail sent us.

NICHOLSON: The idea caught on, and other pilots joined Halvorsen in dropping candy in stark contrast to the bombs they dropped during the war. While the airlift saved West Berliners from starvation, it was Halvorsen's gesture that helped foster reconciliation with the former enemy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HALVORSEN: Berlin is (speaking German). The history of the people and the geography of Germany and Berlin are a part of me.

NICHOLSON: For the children of West Berlin traumatized by the Second World War, Halvorsen and his fellow candy bombers not only provided chocolate and gum but a glimmer of hope at the start of another, colder war.

For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTOINE DUFOUR'S "LOST IN YOUR EYES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.