By Joseph Xavier Martin
My wife Mary and I were fortunate enough to visit the Alpine countries in Europe. All of the storybook fables, of dark forests, cuckoo clocks and verdant Alpine meadows were as picturesque in real life as they had been in Grimm’s fairy tales. The magnificent specter of the Alps was awe inspiring. But, like most journeys, it was the people, their history and their gracious hospitality that captivated us.
Our journey had positioned us, for several days at the beginning and end of our trip, in the ancient city of Frankfurt am Main. The River Main (mine) divides this city. Unlike most older cities in Europe, Frankfurt’s downtown area now glistens with the shining glass of new office towers. The European Central Bank and the German Federal Bank are both headquartered here. Locals say with humor that the new name of the city is “Main Hattan.” The reason such glittering splendor now adorns the landscape is that during World War II, over 80 percent of Frankfurt had been leveled by Allied bombers attempting to destroy the ball bearing factories that kept the Nazi war machine rolling. Little was left from the previous thousand years of its history. Now the city has risen again as a shining, urban Phoenix.
One of my favorite memories from that trip is the discovery of a little-known monument to the kindness and decency of our American Armed Forces, during the Berlin airlift of the late 1940s. We came across the monument almost by chance. On a bus tour, from Frankfurt to nearby Heidelberg, we passed by a strange apparition. Two cargo planes, a C-54 and a C-47, sat alongside the autobahn in a small field. A tour guide explained their significance.
Just outside Frankfurt, we came across a touching vignette, involving these same bombers that had rained destruction on the city. Berlin then lay some 70 miles inside East Germany and was accessible by road and rail with the sufferance of the Soviet Union. In July 1948, the Russians shut off access to Berlin to all of the Allied powers, hoping to starve the city into submission. For the next 15 months, elements of the U.S. Air Force and its allies flew millions of tons of coal, food and supplies, using converted bombers and other aircraft, into Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport. The Russians finally relented. During those weary months, Allied planes landed every 20 minutes, disgorged their supplies and took off again in all types of weather.
In the narrow confines of the approach to Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport, the pilots flew over what was left of some of Berlin’s residential areas. The young children below waved to them, curious at the distraction. One enterprising pilot, Col. Gail Halvorsen, started throwing chocolate bars to the children below. That was all it took. Thereafter, there was always a crowd of squealing children chasing after the falling candy from the arriving planes.
Die Kinder (children) started calling the fliers “Der Candy Bombers.” One of the young girls wrote a letter to the high command of the U.S. Air Force, praising the fliers for their generosity. The letter survived in Air Force archives. Upon its rediscovery, officials decided to stage a reunion of sorts.
Fifty years later, the now-aging recipient of the “candy bombers” met with several of the “Der Chocolate Bombers” at a happy reunion in Berlin.
It is a message that perhaps we all might wish to remember. The kindness and compassion of individuals can allay even the most horrific circumstances of war and destruction.
It is a message of hope that many can relate to. The human spirit is indomitable.