Veterans, recipients of Berlin Airlift symbolize reason to be thankful

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol
  • U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center Public Affairs
Every Thanksgiving, I'm like many other Americans who find reasons to be thankful. I might be thankful because we are having a feast of turkey, or, for just having a family.

This year, however, I was reminded to be thankful for a whole lot more.

In April, I met the family of former missing in action Airman Maj. Robert F. Woods. From doing interviews and attending his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, Va., I learned how his family was thankful to "have him home" after being missing for more than 40 years, and what he meant to them.

I also learned about how Major Woods began his career as an enlisted Airman in 1948 and supported the Berlin Airlift. Besides being a certified war hero from service in Korea and Vietnam as an aviator, he was, in his beginnings, an Airman who helped redefine air mobility history. And that got me thinking ... "the Berlin Airlift is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year...hmmm...what would the veterans of that airlift milestone tell us about being thankful?"

I got my answer Nov. 8 while attending the 2008 Airlift/Tanker Association convention in Anaheim, Calif. There, on the second full day of the convention, they held a panel that included veterans of the Berlin Airlift and one recipient.

Among the veterans were retired Col. Gail Halvorsen, also known as the "Candy Bomber," who holds the most co-relation with the airlift as the man who put parachutes on candy bars and floated them to German children while flying his transport plane.

There was also retired Senior Master Sgt. Bill Morrissey who worked as an air traffic controller in Germany for the "one plane, every three minutes" airlift effort. And besides Air Force vets, there was also retired Navy Cmdr. (Dr.) Earl Moore - a former pilot of a Navy R5D transport (equivalent to a C-54 Skymaster) who flew 208 missions and hauled more than 260,000 pounds of aid during the airlift.

Commander Moore caught my attention the most. He said the entire operation changed him as a person. He talked about being a single sailor, working in China as the assistant air attaché to the ambassador, and the life he had before the Berlin Airlift. "I was nice and comfortable right where I was," he said.

Then as the airlift began in June 1948, Commander Moore was told take his plane to Germany and help out. He said at the time he wasn't happy to leave a comfortable place, but he went. Soon after arriving and flying missions, he said things changed.

"I started out doing a job, but in a matter of a few days it became a crusade," Commander Moore said. "One more trip. Feed more kids."

Commander Moore saw malnourished women and children by the hundreds as he landed in East Berlin. "There were very few men," he said.

By seeing those affected, he said it drove the fact home to him and the many others involved in the Berlin effort to do more, and more, and more.

"I'd ask myself, 'Who are these poor little things?,'" Commander Moore said. "It got to the point where we were all addicted. We'd say, 'We've got to get in one more trip.'"

But what caught my heart is how Commander Moore nearly came to tears and said, "I went from a selfish, single no good so-and-so to someone who cared. And I still do." Sixty years later, he still cares and he's most obviously thankful to have been there in that historic operation.

Then there was Mr. Peter Gunther, the recipient on the panel I mentioned earlier. Mr. Gunther said he never gave the airlift much thought until he met Berlin Airlift veterans at a similar convention in 1995. "Often, as human beings, we try to suppress the negative thoughts and memories that we have," he said about that time of his life.

But since 1995, Mr. Gunther said the highlight in his life was meeting Colonel Halvorsen. "I can't express enough thanks to Colonel Halvorsen," he said. "It's amazing how one individual can compel us to change attitudes of a whole nation to another nation. Talk about grass roots movement."

Again, 60 years later and someone is still thankful that someone cared. How amazing is that? Mr. Gunther's appreciation has transcended generations and carries to this day. "I want to thank you for what you've done and for what you continue to do," he said as he concluded his panel remarks.

Throughout this year, I'm thankful for many things but I am incredibly thankful to be an Airman and a service member.

To know that 60 years ago, just as the Air Force began, Airmen showed outstanding caring for others and continued it through all these years makes me thankful. To know about people like Major Woods, Colonel Halvorsen, Sergeant Morrissey and Commander Moore, I am proud and thankful to be a military member.

When you sit down this Thanksgiving with your family and friends and enjoy what you have, I ask that you too think about what the Berlin Airlifters did 60 years ago. Think about these heroes who gave so much to those who had so little. Surely, that symbolizes the true spirit of Thanksgiving.