For hours, Klaus Putter and his fellow German soldiers stared at the brown boxes lined up on the floor of their prison hospital barracks in Bayonne, France. Lying on their bunks, they argued late into the night.

The arrival of packages marked "C.A.R.E.," said to be supplies donated by Americans, his country's enemies, had aroused their suspicions.

"Why are they doing this?" they asked each other. "What is the snag? There must be a snag!"

Finally, one prisoner said, "I think I have the answer: These Americans are different. They just like to help people.' "

Opening the packages they found chocolate, cheese, biscuits, sugar, canned meats, gum.

"We were very much overwhelmed," Putter recalls. "It was a ray of light for us. It was a very, very important moment."

CARE filled bellies and lifted spirits in the grim years that followed World War II. It is celebrating its 50th year.

"Not only were the goods we supplied important, but the compassion from America that they represented was vital to people who had been both friends and enemies," says Peter Bell, president of CARE.

On Nov. 28, 1945, leaders of 22 religious groups, labor unions, businesses, and charitable cooperatives combined forces for a large-scale effort to ease the suffering and shortages in postwar Europe.

They obtained some 2 million packages of Army field rations, each with enough to feed 10 soldiers, that had been stockpiled for an invasion of Japan.

The outpouring of generosity and eagerness to help far exceeded CARE's expectations. Americans lined up to pay $10 to ship boxes to relatives, wartime acquaintances, or anyone they might reach.

In 1948, Japan was added as a destination. Gradually, CARE packages spread around the world. More than 100 million packages have been sent since the first delivery to France on May 11, 1946.

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