More than 45,000 people showed up Monday at the U.S. Army Garrison in Wiesbaden, Germany, for a 70th anniversary commemoration of the end of the Berlin Airlift.
At times it seemed like they all wanted to climb aboard Miss Montana.
“We opened up the airplane to people and we had a line probably 200 feet long all day,” said Bryan Douglass, one of the leaders of the Miss Montana to Normandy project on the old Johnson Flying Service DC-3.
Wednesday will mark an anniversary for the airplane itself. It's been just one month since she circled the Missoula Valley and her home at the Museum of Mountain Flying, airborne for the first time since 2001.
Last Thursday, the 75th anniversary of D-Day, she and some 35 other warbirds of her ilk dropped reenactors in parachutes over a field in Normandy.
Then it was on to Germany with the D-Day Squadron, where a months-long commemoration of the Berlin Airlift in 1948 and 1949 is wrapping up at several locations.
The American base in Wiesbaden was opened to the public Monday for the first time in 11 years, and the people poured through the gates.
Not all the World War II-era planes parked at the Clay Kaserne airfield opened their doors to the visitors, but Miss Montana did.
Douglass said it was “just like moths to a flame” for the locals, who climbed aboard, visited and admired the recently reconstructed cockpit, and snapped photos of each other standing under the distinctive Miss Montana logo.
The day’s events included a formation flight of other airplanes and a simulated candy drop.
The Cold War was already simmering in June 1948 when Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union began a nearly yearlong blockade of Berlin in an attempt to starve more than 2 million Germans and thousands of Allied troops.
The Allies responded with the greatest humanitarian airlift in history, bringing coal, food, medicine and other supplies for people in West Berlin. The siege ended on May 12, 1949, but the airlift continued into September to stockpile supplies in case Stalin reinstituted the blockade. All told, American, British and French aircrews made more than 278,000 flights in support of the German people.
One of the heroes who emerged from the saga was U.S. Col. Gail Halvorsen of Denton, Texas, who’s known as the Candy Bomber. Halvorsen, 98, arrived Monday on the Placid Lassie of the D-Day Squadron and greeted some of the "children" for whom he spurred drops of Hershey bars and sticks of gum during the airlift.
Halvorsen said he was caught by his superiors after he made three “candy drops.” They encouraged him to carry on.
Monday’s simulated candy drop was preceded by a Berlin Airlift memorial service and followed by a re-enactment of Bob Hope’s 1948 USO Show Troupe.
“It was incredible today,” Douglass said on behalf of the Miss Montana crew. “They said they haven’t had an event with that kind of attendance by locals in 25 years.”
Miss Montana’s flight from France to Wiesbaden on Sunday had an international flavor. Germany-born Nico Von Pronay of Anchorage, Alaska, and native Italian Giuseppe Caltabiano of Whitefish shared the controls with Mark Bretz of Missoula. All earned their American certification to fly the plane in Missoula in recent months. Von Pronay helped fly the airplane from Missoula to Connecticut on May 19-20.
Douglass said there were “logistical challenges” in England and France, but it was a different story in Wiesbaden.
“When we showed up here (Sunday) night, we pulled in about dark and a huge fuel truck pulled up to fill us up, there were buses ready to go, the Girl Scouts had made dinners for us,” he said. “It was a model of German and American efficiency. It felt like home.”
True home in Montana is still weeks away for the core crew and Miss Montana herself. The Wiesbaden base in western Germany was closed Tuesday to all but the crews of the warplanes, the Wiesbaden military community and prearranged school groups.
Miss Montana and the D-Day Squadron will spend Wednesday through Friday at Berlin Airlift 70 festivities in Fassberg in northern Germany; four days (June 15-18) in Berlin in the northeast, and the final three full days (June 19-21) in southern Germany at Tannheim.
Then it’s time to start toward home, following roughly the same “Blue Spruce Route” through Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland. There might be some “R&R” stops along the way, Douglass said. The exact route and timetable are up in the air.
“In general terms, we’re talking about (getting home) the end of June. It could be a little before or after,” he said.
The plan is to leave Miss Montana at a hangar near Indianapolis and return at the end of July to take her to the Oshkosh air show in Wisconsin. That still may be in the works, but Douglass said there may not be enough crew available for Oshkosh.
The 70th anniversary of the tragic Mann Gulch fire at the Gates of the Mountains is Monday, Aug. 5. Miss Montana was central to the story that ended with the deaths of 12 smokejumpers and a firefighter. Jeff Sholty, one of the charter members of the Museum of Mountain Flying, is working with the Montana National Guard on a commemoration the weekend before that would include reenactment jumps in Helena.
This story has been corrected to reflect that coal, food, medicine and other supplies were brought to West Berlin but not dropped. Only candy was dropped from airplanes.