WIESBADEN, Germany About 10,000 people, including U.S. soldiers, attended an open house at Wiesbaden Garrison on Sunday to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift one of the largest humanitarian undertakings of all time.
The commander of the U.S. Army garrison, Col. Ray Graham, said the role played by allied forces who organized the airlift set the stage for NATO and closer ties ever since.
"Through the staunch resolve of the Western allies, and the grit of the Berliners, the blockade was broken," Graham told a crowd that included Germans, American soldiers and their families. "And along the way, the foundations were laid for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Federal Republic of Germany."
Utahn Gail S. Halvorsen, a retired Air Force colonel who received fame as the "Candy Bomber" during the airlift, was in Germany for the anniversary.
Halvorsen, 87, was a pilot of one of the hundreds of C-47 transport planes flying from bases in England and France during the airlift. With help from the American Confectioners Association and schoolchildren in Chicopee, Mass., who made about 250,000 small parachutes for the candy drops, Halvorsen and other pilots ended up dropping some 23,000 tons of candy to nearly 100,000 children in West Berlin.
With music playing and an air show at Sunday's event, participants remembered what has been regarded as one of the first and most decisive battles of the Cold War.
From June 26, 1948, to May 1949, the airlift carried food, medical and fuel supplies to some 2 million West Berliners cut off from the West by Soviet forces.
American, British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and South African pilots, among others, flew some 278,000 missions, mainly from the U.S. Army Airfield in Wiesbaden and what is now Frankfurt International Airport. During the operation, 73 allied airmen and at least five Germans died in accidents.
In total they carried some 23 million tons in supplies.
"We just did our jobs," retired Pfc. Johnny Macia, 79, told visitors lined up in the aircraft hangar to ask him and other veterans for autographs and photos.
Macia, of Hayward, California, had been an aircraft mechanic with the 317th Troop Carriers in Celle, near Hannover, that carried mainly coal into Berlin. He also was aboard 10 of the flights to the city.
"We were really glad that we were able to take care of the needs of the city of Berlin, and then to see it grow up," he said. "Now Berlin's rebuilt and so modern today, it's really unbelievable. We never expected this."
Weisbaden Mayor Helmut Mueller said the Berlin Airlift was about more than humanitarianism, calling it a fight for freedom overall.
"Let us regard this open house as an opportunity to improve and deepen our existing relationship," he said.