Beloved "candy bomber" to thousands of Berlin children, Lieutenant Gail Halvorsen parachuted hope into a city facing its darkest hour.
Learning to Fly
Growing up with "my face down in the dirt all the time" on a Utah farm, Halvorsen would watch planes fly overhead and wish he could be "up there with them." After getting his private pilot's license, Halvorsen joined the Army Air Corps in 1942. He received flight training with the Royal Air Force before returning to the Army Air Corps and spent World War II ferrying transport planes in England, Italy, and North Africa.
Halvorsen stayed in the military after the war, continuing to fly transports. At the end of June 1948 he was stationed at an Air Force base in Mobile, Alabama, when the call came for pilots to participate in the airlift. Halvorsen was given less than an hour's notice. He stuffed a bag full of handkerchiefs to help fight a nasty cold and left his new Chevy under a tree near the base. Halvorsen thought he'd be back soon; he figured the airlift would only last a couple of weeks. But Halvorsen never saw his car again.
Uncle Wiggly Wings
In the beginning, the Allies lacked enough aircraft for round-the-clock operations, so when Halvorsen arrived in Germany in early July, he flew three round-trips daily and had about seven hours off to sleep. During one of his down times in the middle of the month, Halvorsen decided to do some sightseeing in Berlin.
After hitching a ride on a flight to Tempelhof airport in the American sector, Halvorsen noticed a group of children watching through barbed wire as the airplanes landed. Halvorsen loved children, and during his transport days, he had often been followed by packs of them, begging for candy. But these Berliners were quieter and more polite; all they asked was that the Americans not abandon the airlift when the weather turned bad. They could go without enough food for a bit, the children told Halvorsen, but "if we lose our freedom we may never get it back." Touched, Halvorsen dug in his pocket for a couple sticks of gum and distributed them, promising to return the next day with more candy. The children wondered how they would recognize his plane. Don't worry; as I approach, I'll wiggle my wings, the pilot replied. Back at his base, Halvorsen improvised parachutes by tying strings to the corners of handkerchiefs and then attaching those strings to candy bars. The next day he released the handkerchiefs on approach to Tempelhof and saw the kids joyously clutching their candy. Soon large crowds had gathered and Halvorsen was receiving mail addressed to "Uncle Wiggly Wings" and the "Chocolate Flier."
Operation Little Vittles
Halvorsen knew what he had been doing violated Air Force regulations, and when his colonel found out, the young pilot got an earful. But Berlin newspapers had already gotten wind of Halvorsen's candy drops, and airlift commander General William Tunner approved the continuation of "Operation Little Vittles." What began with a pilot's spare handkerchiefs and candy his crew bought at the local commissary soon spread throughout the airlift, with 25 participants in his squadron alone.
Halvorsen's home base got in on the act, with the commanding officer declaring any handkerchief seen would be requisitioned for Little Vittles, and the American Confectioners Association donated tons of candy for the cause. The treats arrived at Westover Air Force base in Chicopee, Massachusetts, where local school children assembled the candy parachutes and sent them on to Germany. By January 1949 some 250,000 parachutes had been dropped over Berlin, and the operation helped reassure citizens that the West would not abandon them. As one young Berliner later told Halvorsen, "It wasn't [just] chocolate. It was hope."
Return to Berlin
After rotating back to America, Halvorsen married and raised a family. Back in Germany, Halvorsen had a school named for him. Stateside, he received the Cheney award for his humanitarian work and had an aircraft loader named in his honor. The pilot also maintained his ties to Germany, attending anniversary celebrations of the airlift and conducting a commemorative candy drop. He also dropped candy over Kosovo during the time of conflict there. Since 1980 Halvorsen has worked with one of the recipients of Operation Little Vittles on an Airlift of Understanding that exchanges high school students between Berlin and Utah, where Halvorsen lives. He wrote a memoir of his experiences called The Berlin Candy Bomber.