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The 'candy bombers' who gave a besieged city hope

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The 'candy bombers' who gave a besieged city hope
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Berliners have been marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the Berlin airlift — the 14-month operation to feed and supply West Berlin after the Soviet Union imposed a blockade.

The siege began in June 1948 in an attempt to force the US, Britain and France out of the enclave that was within Soviet-occupied eastern Germany. It was the first major crisis of the Cold War.

At the time Germany's ruined capital was still reeling from WWII. Its population of 2.5 million were starving.

Allied pilots flew a total of 278,000 flights to Berlin, carrying about 2.3 million tonnes of food, coal, medicine and other supplies.

At least 78 US, British and German pilots and ground crew lost their lives in accidents.

At the time Anita Stapel was a young, starving mother in Berlin Kreuzberg.

"This package gave us so much hope," she said. "Also the fact that there are people somewhere in the world, who are giving this to their former enemies."

A guest of honour at the celebrations was 98-year-old former pilot Gail Halvorsen, who became known as the Candy Bomber.

After seeing how children longed to just smell a sweet wrapper, he began dropping chocolates from his own rations using tiny handkerchiefs as parachutes.

Soon other pilots started doing the same, and before long there were thousands of donations of sweets and handkerchiefs.

Mercedes Wild was seven years old at the time and too small to catch the "precious treasure". So she wrote to Halvorsen.

"Chocolate was something very special for me, and I knew that little chocolate barrels were connected to the parachutes, so I wrote to my 'chocolate uncle' at the Tempelhof Airport, and I pleaded with him, that one parachute, I mean really just one parachute should be thrown directly into our garden, the one with the white chickens."

To her surprise, Halvorsen wrote back and even enclosed some sweets. It was the start of a friendship that continues to this day.