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Berlin Airlift veteran honored

Times-Tribune - 6/7/2024

Shortly before a small band of World War ll veterans gathered in France this week for the 80th anniversary of D-Day, a local man was honored with a similar trip marking another military milestone, the Berlin Airlift.

Harold Bowers joined the Air Force two days after graduating from West Scranton High School in 1946. He later remembered a challenge from President Harry S. Truman to “fly over those bastards.” Those were the Soviets.

Following World War II, control of Germany was split between the victorious nations. In the showdown of superpowers that followed, the portion of Berlin overseen by the Americans, French and British was surrounded by Soviet control. The Soviets blockaded food and other supplies from entering West Berlin.

The Soviets lifted the blockade in May, 1949. Between June 1948 and September 1949, the airlift delivered more than 2.3 million tons of cargo, approximately 75 percent of it in American planes, according to the Air Force Historical Support Division. American crews made more than 189,000 flights, more than 92 million miles total. They supplied more than 2 million people.

“Being from Scranton,” Bowers said with a grin, “guess what l hauled to Berlin? Coal."

Bowers, 95, recently returned to his home at Clarks Summit Senior Living. A small group of Americans were guests of the city of Berlin to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the airlift. “I would say they extended themselves,” he said. The trip included a formal evening with the mayor, over schnitzel. “We were warned ahead of time, so l was OK,” with a black suit in his luggage, he said.

It was his second anniversary celebration in Germany. On both trips, and during the airlift, Germans were eager to thank him. “The people were really happy,” he said.

His rank in the Air Force was private first class. “Allow me to be facetious,” he said. “My position: hey, you.”

Bowers joined the Air Force because he felt the country was still in a wartime mindset and military service was inevitable.

He served several places and was in Germany for about a year. He did mechanical work and flew on about 20 flights that ferried supplies.

“I was pleased that l was involved,” he said.

The flights were “very boring, because it was only an hour trip, from where we were," he said. He wasn’t scared in the air.

“You didn’t get a chance to be scared,” he said. “You were too busy running here and running there, doing this and doing that.” Also, the Soviets “wouldn’t dare” attack, he said.

The Air Force Historical Support Division website says the Soviets “harassed but did not attack” American and British cargo planes. Thirty American airmen and one American civilian died in accidents, according to the website. There were a similar number of British deaths.

But it was on the ground, riding in cars with headlights off, on a few trips that took him near the Soviets, that Bowers was frightened. “They were very cautious with the Soviets, because you didn’t know,” what they might do, he said. He was given strict instructions on how to act. “I was glad to do what they told me,” he said.

Bowers was in Germany for about a year. While there he met Air Force Col. Gail S. Halvorsen, the best known veteran of the airlift. Nicknamed the “candy bomber,” Halvorsen became famous for making parachutes out of handkerchiefs, attaching candy and dropping them from planes for German children.

“It was very interesting to me,” Bowers said. “Here are all these tough G.I.s, and they all carried some candy,” he said. “And they didn’t care who the child was, they offered them a candy bar. And l thought that was really demonstrating some good qualities of the Americans. And it made an impression on the Germans.”

Bowers knew to “some extent” that he was involved in something historic. Truman made that clear, he said. Before going to Germany, Bowers happened to be at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and heard Truman address a meeting. “Can you guys fly over? Well then, dammit, fly over those bastards. Those were his words,” Bowers said.

The airlift was also meaningful to him because he has German heritage.

Bowers left the Air Force soon after the airlift. He had a career as an Air Force civilian employee and lived in several places. He has a masters degree in public administration from the University of Pennsylvania. He and his wife, the late Dorothy Gahn Bowers, had two sons, Bill and Steven. Bill, an Army veteran, traveled with him to Germany. Steven lives in Poland, so they made a side trip there.

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