75 years after the Berlin airlift, America's humanitarian missions still bring hope

  • Published
  • By Gen. James B. Hecker

I see the same child every day. He is small and happy, catching a candy bar in his hand, with an ear-to-ear smile. Every time I pass him, it triggers the same thought: What can we do – what can I do – to make sure that his smile remains, that he and his family remain safe and his world secure?

It's not an idle thought. I am an officer in the United States Air Force, and this nameless child lives in a painting hung in the corridors of the headquarters building of U.S. Air Forces Europe – Air Forces Africa. The painting is titled “Operation Chocolate Drop.” It commemorates the historic Berlin airlift in a way that presents the human face of the work we do and why it matters.

That painting, and the reminders it triggers, are still relevant today. Perhaps even more relevant now as we prepare to celebrate 75 years since the remarkable effort to provide food, fuel, medicine, hope and so much more to a beleaguered population.

“Operation Chocolate Drop” by C. C. Beall.

“Operation Chocolate Drop” by C. C. Beall.  

Over the course of 15 months in 1948-49, the United States and our allies delivered 2.3 million tons of food, fuel and supplies to the people of West Berlin entirely by air. It required more than 270,000 air drops.

June 26, 1948, is widely recognized as the date when the massive effort began.

As we reflect on this anniversary of the Berlin airlift, we can find the pages of history are being stained once again with the same ink and challenges from the same antagonist. Just as the Kremlin tried to squeeze West Berlin until it yielded, it seeks now to do the same to Ukraine.

Among the many things the Berlin airlift reminds us of is the importance of taking a good look at one of the critical core functions of the Air Force – to respond to humanitarian crises and relieve human suffering with a speed, scope and certainty that no other nation can match.

In recent history, our ability to execute this core function has been put to the test. We delivered relief, shelter and hope to Afghan refugees after the largest noncombatant evacuation in history. We provided for our German friends and neighbors after historic floods. We now partner with our allies training and exercising in hopes of mitigating blind spots in the face of an adversary.  

All of this sends an unmistakable message of unblinking focus, dedication and values that define the United States. It's beyond dispute the Berlin airlift delivered that same message to the Soviet Union at the start of the Cold War. The massive effort showed determination and prowess – a powerful deterrent to maintain stability and global order.

The Berlin blockade eventually ended, people survived and legends such as the late "Candy Bomber," Col. Gail Halvorsen, emerged.

In response to this story of struggle, unity and rebirth, instead of being asked to pack up and go home, the United States was invited to stay, to live and to work alongside our Allies and partners. It’s no exaggeration to say many generations are alive and thriving as a result of the Berlin airlift’s humanitarian mission.

It is my hope, and a hope for all Airmen and Guardians, that through our actions we project an immeasurable amount of strength and unity with our new allies so the machines of greed and aggression are restrained.

I hope that we work tirelessly in the achievement of our unified goals, and that we will never see another painting like the one hanging in our headquarters building.

Our nation’s heart guided our actions back then, and I hope it is what continues to guide us now.