ST. PETERSBURG — Ask Charles Hundley to describe the 225 missions he flew in the Berlin Airlift, and he'll give you a proper military answer: "It was just another job to do."
But ask what those missions meant for the world, and the 86-year-old retired Air Force lieutenant colonel has to catch himself. His lip trembles, his voice rises, and he seems close to tears.
"We saved Berlin," he answers.
Sixty years ago this month, pilots like Hundley and many other American, British and French military personnel began the first major stare-down of the Cold War. When the Soviet Union decided to block land and water access to West Berlin, American and British airplanes began flying in supplies.
Hundley's journey to Berlin was the classic "Greatest Generation" story. He grew up in Virginia, where his father taught school and farmed. But after his brother-in-law took him to Langley Airfield, he knew what he wanted to do in life.
In World War II, Hundley was accepted into flight training and became a pilot on B-24 "Liberator" bombers. It was an especially dangerous job. The crews flew over enemy territory to bomb oil fields, ball bearing plants and other targets, often soaring straight into black clouds of antiaircraft fire. The antiaircraft guns fired rounds of four, Hundley said, so when one burst near your airplane, you knew three more were about to explode even closer. Hundley himself was wounded with a piece of flak that blasted through the airplane and into his hip.
After the war, Hundley stayed in the military. He was posted in the United States for a few years, and then sent to Hof, Germany, in 1948, just after the airlift began.
Once he arrived, "they found out that I had four-engine flying time." As an experienced B-24 pilot, he was quickly assigned to the 14th Troop Carrier Squadron and tapped to fly C-54 transport planes into West Berlin.
The airlift was choreographed like ballet; airplanes landed three minutes after each other on the same runways, he recalled. Sometimes Soviet aircraft buzzed nearby.
"The Russians tried to harass us, but they didn't have much luck."
He remembers flying his C-54 over a graveyard and between apartment buildings on the way to the runways, and a fellow pilot nicknamed the "candy bomber" who dropped sweets to German children below.
On Easter Sunday in 1949, the crews flew a record number of flights, just to make a point, he said. Shortly afterward, they received the best news of the airlift: The Soviets had backed down, and agreed to reopen the highways.
After retiring from the Air Force in 1970, Hundley sold real estate in St. Petersburg with his wife, Vinette, who died in 2003.
Looking back, what once seemed like "just another job" has greater significance for him.
In his St. Petersburg home, he keeps mementos of the airlift: a brochure from a 40th anniversary reunion he attended in Germany in 1988 and a replica of the memorial to those who died in the effort.
"People in Berlin would have died. There was no food, no coal," he said.
The airlift, he said, provided not only food and supplies to the people, but a message about America: "We will support you, we'll feed you, we'll help you. But you have to believe in us."