Over 70 years ago, after the end of the Second World War and the crumbling of Germany’s Third Reich, the children of Berlin were starving. With the Germans’ surrender in 1945, the Allies divided what was left of conquered Germany. The French, British and American forces claimed the western half of the country, spreading the Western ideals of democracy with them.
Meanwhile, Communist Russia occupied the eastern half. The city of Berlin itself was divided into regions between the allies, however, it was surrounded by the Soviet-ruled part of Germany. About three years after World War II, on June 24, 1948, Russian forces blocked the Allied-controlled areas of Berlin. Thus, all access to food, coal and medicine was shut down to two million German citizens.
Luckily, an American pilot named Gail Halvorsen showed up…
Berlin became the first front line of The Cold War, and the US Air Force – then only nine-months-old, was in charge of keeping those in Berlin alive while also keeping the Cold War from turning hot. In late June of 1948, the Berlin Airlift began. With it, US Air Force C-47 Skytrains and C-54 Skymasters were delivering milk, flour, and medicine to the people of West Berlin.
During the blockade, US and British aircraft delivered over 2.3 million tons of supplies. At the height of the Berlin Airlift, planes were landing every three minutes, carrying up to 13,000 tons of food, coal, and medicine per day, according to the Air Force Historical Support Division. Gail Halvorsen was one of the pilots involved in the mission.
1st Lt. Gail Halvorsen, who retired from the Air Force much later in 1974 as a colonel and is now 100 years old (as of October 2020), was one of the American pilots tasked with flying around-the-clock missions. Day in, day out, he flew from Rhein-Main Air Base in West Germany to the Tempelhof Airfield in Berlin. In total, he flew 126 missions delivering food and supplies between July 1948 and February 1949.
To Halvorsen, his mission was clear and necessary: “We learned very clearly that the new enemy was Stalin. He was taking over where Hitler left off. We knew exactly what Stalin had in mind,” he said. But not all airmen were on the same page as Halvorsen…
Some airmen at the time had mixed emotions about helping their former enemy – the country that had been shooting at American pilots a mere three years prior. Halvorsen admitted that he had issues with it at first, but his feelings quickly changed once he discussed it with a fellow crewmember.
“He told me that it is a hell of a lot better to feed them (rather) than kill them and that he was glad to be back,” Halvorsen recalled. Service before self was the prevailing maxim at that point. “That is what causes your enemy to become your friend.” It was during one of Halvorsen’s first missions that he understood what the mission was indirectly providing the people of Germany…
Halvorsen learned – through a conversation with some German youth through a perimeter fence at Templehof – that West Berliners were in need of more than just-food. They were starved of hope and freedom. They were hungry for a future. Between his scheduled missions, Halvorsen would film aircraft landings with his Revere film camera.
As he wrote in his autobiography, The Berlin Candy Bomber, Halvorsen recalled how he encountered about 30 German children between the ages of 8 and 14 while he was filming one of the landings. He was able to greet them with the little amount of German he had picked up along the way. Surprisingly, one of the kids spoke English.
Before long, Halvorsen was answering their questions about what the airplanes were carrying. He was asked how many sacks of flour and loaves of bread they were supplying and what other types of cargo were being delivered. He spoke with them for nearly an hour before he realized that not one single child had asked him for anything.
What happened instead was that these children gave him something. What they gave him was something he never expected: the best lesson on freedom he could ever get. Halvorsen recalled: “I got five steps away from them, and then it hit me… I’d been dead-stopped for an hour, and not one kid had put out their hand. Not one.”
During World War II, and dating back long before, if you were in an American uniform walking down the street, children would chase you and ask for chocolate and gum. Halvorsen’s experience with the German children was nothing short of eye-opening.
The way he sees it, the reason they didn’t ask him for anything was because they were just so grateful to be free. “They wouldn’t be a beggar for more than freedom,” he said. He explained that the Fuhrer’s past and Stalin’s future was their living nightmare. American freedom was their dream. Apparently, they had no idea what freedom was about.
Halvorsen recalled that the children said to him, “Someday we’ll have enough to eat, but if we lose our freedom, we’ll never get it back.” These young kids were teaching a grown man about freedom. “That’s what just blew me away… That was the trigger.”
At that point, he reached into his pocket, intending to give them something – despite not being asked for anything. But all he had in his pocket were two sticks of Wrigley’s Doublemint gum. In that very moment, he made a small decision that ended up changing the rest of his life.
Halvorsen admitted that when he reached into his pocket for those two sticks of gum, he hesitated for a second, debating about whether to give it to them. After all, there were about 30 kids in front of him. They might fight over it. So, what he did was break each in half and passed four halves through the barbed wire.
He braced for the rush of kids to the fence. But it never came. Those who didn’t get a piece of the gum asked for a piece of the wrapper just so they could catch a whiff of the aroma. It was their reaction, together with the surprise he felt from not being asked for anything, that led Halvorsen to his next move.
The German children would soon start calling the American pilot “Onkel Wackelflugel” or “Uncle Wiggly Wings.”. His idea didn’t only change the lives of those kids but also helped the West win the ethical war against the Soviets for Germany’s future. After handing them the gum at the border fence, Halvorsen told the children that he would be back.
He told them that on his next landing at Templehof, he would drop something off for them, but only if they promised to share. He said he would signal to them that it was him by wiggling the wings of his plane (hence “wiggly wings”).
The whole tactic of wiggling his wings came from his childhood when he would do the same for his parents. After earning his pilot’s license in 1941, he would show off to his parents, signaling his plane to them by wiggling its wings. And so, the tactic proved useful once again when it came to the eager German kids awaiting their special delivery.
Back at Rhein-Main Air Base, 280 miles away from Templehof, Halvorsen collected his candy rations with those of his co-pilot and engineer. They then made parachutes from handkerchiefs and string and tied them to chocolates and gum. On July 18, 1949, the first-ever “Operation Little Vittles” drop from Halvorsen’s C-54 Skymaster took place.
“The only way I could get back to deliver it was to drop it from the airplane, 100 feet over their heads, on the approach between the barbed wire fence and bombed-out buildings,” Halvorsen explained. He described that a red light would come on to indicate that you’re technically not allowed to drop it without permission.
But Halvorsen would rationalize it by saying that “starving 2 million people isn’t according to Hoyle, either, so what’s a few candy bars?” With time, the amount of candy increased steadily, as did the number of anticipating children. It took three weeks until a Berlin newspaper caught wind of the American pilot “bombing” candy for the children of Berlin. With that, Halvorsen became the “Candy Bomber.”
Stacks of letters started to arrive at Templehof base operations addressed to “Der Schokoladen Flieger” (the “Chocolate Flyer”) as well as “Onkel Wackelflugel” (“Uncle Wiggly Wings”). It wasn’t just the people of Germany that took an interest in Halvorsen; the squadron commander wanted a word with him, too. One day, after returning from Berlin, Halvorsen was summoned by the C-54 squadron commander, Col. James R. Haun.
Haun had gotten a call from Brig. Gen. William H. Tunner, who was the deputy commander of operations during the airlift. Tunner wanted to know who the pilot dropping parachutes over Berlin was. Halvorsen knew he was in trouble when Col. Haun showed him a newspaper picture of little parachutes flying out of his C-54.
“You got me in a little trouble there, Halvorsen,” Haun said to him. Halvorsen said, “I’d had a long relationship with him, but he was put out because he was sandbagged.” Halvorsen then said that when he has the opportunity to talk to kids, especially those in high school, he tells them, “When you get a job, don’t sandbag your boss.”
Halvorsen was relieved that he could keep dropping the candy; he just needed to keep his commander informed. That’s all. “It just went crazy after that,” Halvorsen stated. Fellow pilots started donating their own candy rations. It came to a point where they actually ran out of parachutes. So what they did was make more from cloth and old shirt-sleeves.
What started out as a sweet gesture (pun intended) became an organized mission. Eventually, noncommissioned officers and officers’ wives at Rhein-Main started making the parachutes. And later, the American Confectioners Association donated a whopping 18 tons of candy, mainly through a school in Chicopee, Massachusetts. Students at the school attached the candy to parachutes before sending them as complete packages to Berlin.
By the end of the Berlin Airlift in September 1949, 250,000 parachutes and 23 tons of candy had been dropped by American pilots. It came to a point where Halvorsen had to leave his post. After he left, pilot Willie Williams took over, “And he ended up dropping even more candy than I did.”
Once the Berlin Airlift ended, the candy bombs stopped being dropped. But it wasn’t the end of Halvorsen’s story. He met countless Germans whose lives were changed thanks to his “Operation Little Vittles.” One of those Germans was a 7-year-old girl named Mercedes. She wrote a letter to Halvorsen in 1948 saying that she loved “Der Schokoladen Flieger,” but that she was concerned for her chickens.
She explained that her chickens thought the planes were chicken hawks, and they frightened them. Mercedes asked Halverston to drop the candy near the white chickens because, apparently, she didn’t care if he scared them. Halvorsen admitted that he tried to follow her request, but he could never find her white chickens. He wrote her a letter in return and sent her candy with it.
The two brief pen pals would eventually meet face-to-face all 24 years later when Halvorsen returned to Berlin as Templehof commander during the early ‘70s. Mercedes’ husband, Peter Wild, convinced Halvorsen to come to their home for dinner. Mercedes showed him the letter from 1948 along with the written-about chickens. Believe it or not, their friendship was forever immortalized in a children’s book: Margot Theis Raven’s “Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot.”
Halvorsen ended up returning to Berlin around 40 times since the original airlift. In 1974, the American pilot received one of Germany’s highest medals: the Grosses Bundesverdienstkreuz. For the 50th anniversary of the airlift, Halvorsen and his fellow pilots flew the restored C-54 Spirit of Freedom back to Berlin.
Halvorsen recalled seeing people streaming through, men and women who were there during the blockade. He saw them teary-eyed, and they would shake his hand and say, “Thank you, for freedom!” Every time they could go back into Berlin, he would feel like a hero every time. Those who came would also bear gifts. One was particularly memorable for Halvorsen.
He recalled a woman and her daughter of about 10 years old who came to their airplane. The little girl had a worn-out teddy bear that she tried to give to Halvorsen as a gift. He told her: “I can’t take your teddy bear… This is probably the only thing you’ve got left.”
The girl spoke only a little English, but he understood that her father had been killed in the war, during the bombing of Berlin. He said he couldn’t accept such a sentimental gift like that. But her mother intervened, saying, “This teddy bear, my daughter thinks it saved her life during the bombing of Berlin, in the air raid shelter or, if we didn’t have time, in the basement.”
The mother told Halvorsen that her daughter held the teddy bear every time and held it tight. “In Germany, the teddy bear is like a talisman, for good luck.” And so, she was convinced that the bear saved her life, and that’s why she wanted to give it to him. He had no choice but to accept the gift. He said he gave the bear to his own children, but it eventually came apart.
At the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Halvorsen carried the German team’s national placard into Rice-Eccles Stadium during the opening march. Even at 97, Halvorsen kept a busy schedule as he and his wife, Lorraine, split their time between their homes in Arizona and Utah. He is now 100 years old and has visited many schools, both in the United States and overseas.
He has visited Iraq to review Air Mobility Command transport operations as well as visit the troops deployed in Southwest Asia. Seven decades after the Berlin Airlift, Halvorsen remains universally admired as the “Candy Bomber.” He said that there’s one thing about his fame that he enjoys the most.
“The thing I enjoy the most about being the Candy Bomber is seeing the children’s reaction even now to the idea of a chocolate bar coming out of the sky,” he said. The most fun he had was doing airdrops, as he said, because even in the States, there’s something truly magical about a parachute flying out of the sky with candy on it.
Halvorsen makes a point to say that he shouldn’t receive all the praise for bringing hope to a generation of Germans via his candy parachutes. He wants to highlight the fact that much of the credit should go to that first group of kids at the barbed wire fence at Templehof.
It was their gratitude for the pilots’ efforts to keep them free and fed during the Berlin Airlift that inspired him to reach into his pocket that day and hand them those two sticks of gum. That “smallest decision” led to 23 tons of candy “magically” dropping from the sky to the children of West Berlin. And not only did it change the lives of the German children, but it changed his life as well.
Halvorsen grew dedicated to helping those in need. And it didn’t end when he retired after 31 years of service in the Air Force. In 1994, he requested to assist in another humanitarian airlift and was approved to fly with the Air Force to deliver food to 70,000 refugees fleeing the conflict in Bosnia.
Let’s not end things here. To provide you with another interesting, even quirky story involving the skies (and some more black and white photos), check out this next story about a man they called Lawnchair Larry…