Almost 60 years ago one of the first "battles" of the Cold War took place above the skies of Berlin. A battle fought with candy and coal rather than bullets. On Tuesday German Chancellor Angela Merkel extended warm thanks to veterans of that vital Berlin Airlift at a ceremony to mark the opening of the Berlin Air Show.
Merkel, who grew up in the former East Germany, told over 80 veterans who had made the trip to Berlin that without their help "history would have turned out differently."
Many of the veterans and their families will be staying on in Berlin for the 60th anniversary of the Air Lift in June. The Western allies kept West Berlin alive by flying in supplies for almost a year from June 1948 to May 1949 after the Soviets shut off all ground access to the city. Merkel offered "special thanks, especially to America and Great Britain, that they helped Germany and the city of Berlin in a difficult hour."
The veterans -- now aged between 83 and 93 -- were delighted to be back in Berlin. "We saved this city without firing a shot," Tom Flowers, a retired Navy officer from Alabama told the Associated Press. Johnny Macia, who had been an airplane mechanic with the US Air Force's 317th Troop Carriers during the airlift, said "It's a great thing we did here."
Gail Halvorsen, who became known as the "Candy Bomber" because he used to drop sweets attached to parachutes to the children below, is also in Berlin. Halvorsen used to wiggle the wings to identify himself, which led to his other nickname "Uncle Wiggly Wings." The 88-year-old told the DPA news agency that the air lift "was only possible because of the Berliners' gratitude."
Several vintage US planes are at the Berlin Air Show, including "The Spirit of Berlin," an Air Force Boeing C-17 Globemaster III. One plane, a single-engine Messerschmitt 109, had a small accident on Tuesday, sliding into the grass when its right landing gear collapsed. No one was injured and the air show was only briefly interrupted so that the plane could be removed.
Merkel opened the Air Show, which is being held at Schönefeld Airport on the eastern edge of the city, with the words: "Ready to Take Off." The show, which is the world's oldest, having begun back in 1909 at the very dawn of aviation, is held every two years. Members of the public will be allowed to attend from Friday to Sunday and Berliners will have an opportunity to meet with many of the US and British veterans and hear their first-hand accounts of their dramatic breaking of the Cold War blockade.
Tempelhof, the historic airport built by the Nazis which then became a life line for West Berlin during the Air Lift, will be the focus of some of the anniversary celebrations in June but ironically by the time the big party planned for 2009 to mark the end of the airlift comes round, the huge loss-making airport will have closed down. Berlin's government plans to move all the city's air traffic to its new international airport at Schönefeld and by October of this year the air above Tempelhof will be quiet.