I’ve wanted to write about this for months, but Putin’s war on Ukraine caused me to put it aside. It’s about the passing of a hero with a truly American story. Since there seems to be no end in sight with the destruction of Ukraine and the wanton killing of civilians, and the January 6 hearings that further drew our attention away from all that’s good, it’s time for a heartwarming story. This summer moment may be the best time to remember Gail Halvorsen.
Colonel Gail Halvorsen is known as the Berlin Candy Bomber, but better remembered as "Uncle Wiggly Wings" by German youth during the Berlin Airlift at the start of the Cold War. Halvorsen passed away this past February at the age of 101.
The Berlin Airlift, the opening act of the Cold War, demonstrates the best of American generosity and ingenuity. With conflict brewing, the Americans and British jockeyed together against the USSR for economic and political dominance in post-war Germany. Berlin was divided among the victorious Allies at the close of World War II, including the Soviets, who cut off all land and sea means of supply for the sectors controlled by the west.
The city was still in ruins and there was a real danger of starvation for many. The only solution was for the American and British military to do the impossible. On June 28, 1948, the United States started Operation Vittles to airlift food and basic necessities to the people in the western sectors of Berlin. The Berlin Airlift lasted for over a year, with nearly 2.4 million tons of supplies provided, and enough miles flown to cover the distance from Earth to the Sun. At the airlift peak, there was a plane landing in Berlin every three minutes, arriving at separate air fields. That is a remarkable feat.
A lieutenant in the USAF, which itself was less than a year old as an independent service, Halvorsen flew transports. Almost seventy-four years ago to the day, he was on an airlift mission taking him to West Berlin’s Tempelhof airfield.
The Halvorsen foundation website, thecandybomber.org, relays a simple reflection on what it meant to World War II veteran pilots to participate in the Berlin Airlift. That sentiment that was probably shared by many Allied pilots.
One of my fellow Airlift pilots had bombed Berlin during the war. I asked him how he felt about flying day and night on behalf of the enemy, the very ones who did their best to kill him as he flew over Berlin in 1944. He hesitated a moment, shuffling his feet and then said, “It feels a lot better to feed them than it does to kill ’em.”
Halvorsen proved on that July day at West Berlin’s Tempelhof airfield, that one person can make a difference, even as major world events unfold. Here are Halvorsen’s words describing how he became the Candy Bomber.
I met 30 kids at the barbed wire fence at Tempelhof in Berlin. They were so excited. All I had was two sticks of gum. I broke them in two and passed them through the barbed wire. The result was unbelievable. Those with the gum tore off strips of the wrapper and gave them to the others. Those with the strips put them to their noses and smelled the tiny fragrance. The expression of pleasure was unmeasurable.
“I was so moved by what I saw and their incredible restraint that I promised them I would drop enough gum for each of them the next day as I came over their heads to land. They would know my plane because I would wiggle the wings as I came over the airport.”
“When I got back to base I attached gum and even chocolate bars to three handkerchief parachutes. We wiggled the wings and delivered the goods the next day. What a jubilant celebration.
The candy drop project grew among the squadron pilots, who pooled their candy rations and dropped them to eager German youth waiting at the airfield perimeter fence. Candy and gum tied to tiny parachutes dancing their way to children that survived the war and were powerful symbols of needed hope to survive the peace.
Halvorsen’s New York Times obituary retells the story of a German child sending The Candy Bomber a letter.
A 9-year-old named Peter Zimmerman sent him a homemade parachute and a map providing directions to his home for a candy drop. Lieutenant Halvorsen searched for the house on his next flight but couldn’t find it. As recounted in Andrei Cherny’s book “The Candy Bombers” (2008), Peter sent another note reading: “No chocolate yet. … You’re a pilot. … I gave you a map. … How did you guys win the war anyway?”
Lieutenant Halvorsen sent Peter a chocolate bar in the mail.
Candy Bomber deeds gained traction in the press. Halvorsen was soon called in by his commanding officer. Fearing a real dressing down, instead Halvorsen was shocked when the airlift commanding officer got wind of the effort and gave his full support. Operation Little Vittles was born, dropping over 23 tons of candy to Berlin children during the nearly yearlong Airlift.
Halvorsen’s life of service will continue through the Gail S. Halvorsen Foundation, dedicated to preserve his legacy of community service. The foundation’s mission is to promote the principles of gratitude, service, and excellence, to inspire children to reach their dreams, and to foster community cohesion.
In his 90’s, Halvorsen had an interesting reflection back to initial conversations with the German children he met at West Berlin’s Tempelhof airfield. He was amazed that the children did not ask him for chocolate. They only asked that he not give up on them. Indeed, they did not have enough to eat. The children were more concerned with their freedom than their empty stomachs. With freedom they could preserve and triumph over hunger, and the rebuilding of their lives. The American-driven airlift represented freedom. The Russian blockade represented oppression. The freedom lesson is one that we must never forget, teach our children, and as a nation, continue to learn and pay for.
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Not enough hearts to give this one.
Thanks for sharing, and may the spirit of the Candy Bomber continue to live in each of us.