TAMPA — Sixty years ago this summer, a young Air Force pilot named Gail Halvorsen opened the doors of his C-54 aircraft and dropped Hershey bars tied to parachutes over Berlin.
"They needed something to eat and the right to choose how to live the rest of their lives," Halvorsen, who later became a colonel and is today affectionately known as "the Candy Bomber," told several hundred military members gathered in a hangar Wednesday at MacDill Air Force Base.
"The faces of the people as we flew over Berlin became faces no more. They became people."
This year, Halvorsen, fellow Berlin Airlift veteran Bill Morrissey and volunteers who helped restore the plane Halvorsen flew are touring the country to mark the airlift's 60th anniversary.
In the spring of 1948, East Germany had been cut off from the rest of the world by the Soviet Union, which had been given control of it at the end of World War II.
The Soviets blockaded all roads in and out of the region, which meant no food or supplies could be brought in.
The U.S. Air Force launched a massive airlift of food, soap, coal and other supplies. The Berlin Airlift lasted nearly a year before the Soviets lifted the blockade.
Halvorsen wanted to do something for the children, so he started dropping chocolate bars and other candy.
"This mission was the first time that we were able to do something for national security without firing a shot," said Air Force Gen. Arthur Lichte, who with Halvorsen was part of a panel speaking at MacDill.
German Brig. Gen. Hans-Georg Schmidt, assigned to MacDill and also on the panel, said the fruits of the Berlin Airlift culminated with the reunification of Germany in 1989.
Halvorsen, 87, regularly travels the world and gives speeches about his experience.
At Halloween his grandson, who's in the Air Force, organized a candy drive for children in Iraq.