Gail Halvorsen: Bombing Berlin with Bonbons

By Markus Weinzinger

The years for Germany following World War Two were marked by the gloom of destruction, loss, and separation. Germany would become divided for close to half a century, with Soviet forces occupying the eastern half and Allied forces occupying the western. The Soviet Union was angry with Germany’s actions in the past several years and launched a wrathful starvation. Germany called in need of help, and thus began the famous Berlin Airlift, and the marvelous service of pilot Lieutenant Gail Halvorsen.

Before the airlift, Halvorsen had a fascination with airplanes. A year after America entered WWII, he would serve his country by flying transport planes to the fronts of the war in several countries. Three years later, in 1945, the war would end, but the lieutenant would remain in the service.

As a result of war-related devastation, Germany became divided and daily necessities became harder to adequately fulfill. From 1948 to 1949, the United States organized the Berlin Airlift, an effort to resupply the hungry and malnourished people of West Germany by air. Lieutenant Halvorsen understood the importance of service, and gladly strived to do his part. On one occasion, while filming home videos of the ongoing operations, he noticed a large group of children next to a wire fence. Walking to the far end of Tempelhof Airport, he felt the need to give to these children who had suffered and endured the difficult time.

With only two sticks of gum, he approached the children and handed out the treats in four half pieces. To his surprise, some kids who received no gum were given small pieces of the wrappers, which were torn by the other children. The aroma of the gum was enough to satisfy these children. Halvorsen felt inspired at this profound act, and he wished he could do more. He proposed his plan to the children and to his crew.

The next time, the 27-year-old lieutenant made his landing approach to the airfield in a unique way. To identify his C-54 transport from other Airlift fliers, he told the children the previous day, “Don’t worry, I’ll wiggle my wings.” (Which would earn him the nickname “Uncle Wiggly Wings”). Children scrambled to meet him, and were struck with awe. Small pieces of candy floated down from parachutes made from handkerchiefs and string. Delighted children clenched the prizes with grateful hands. The young pilot’s devotion began a sweet success.

The knowledge of the “Chocolate Pilot” would spread among many people, some to become major sponsors of the operation. Letters came to Gail Halvorsen addressed to his activity-originated aliases. Initially, though, his scheme of sincerity faced jeopardy wrought by the young lieutenant’s colonel, and the possibility of court-martial had a thick, daunting presence. However, Berlin papers and reporters already knew of the plights of the pilot, and praised the pleasant provisions. No-nonsense airlift commander General William Tunner (known as “Whip” by his comrades), considered the situation, but graciously gave the green light to continue Halvorsen’s plan.

Operation “Little Vittles” began gaining ground, becoming well known and supported by all. Candy donors began supplying the ambitious pilot with glut amounts, totaling “more than eighteen tons”, according to Gail Halvorsen. When availability for handkerchiefs started to diminish, those were resupplied, too. Halvorsen and his many supporters continued the operation until the Berlin Airlift ended in 1949. It is amazing how much astonishing progress thrived in these two years, especially with the Chocolate Flier’s morale-boosting supplement to the German people.

Halvorsen, now 94-years-old, has not forgotten his legendary act of service, nor has others. For his actions of aid, he has been awarded the Cheney Award, and even has a school named after him in Germany. Over the years he has conducted several more candy drops in honor of the original event. He has been honored and recognized on multiple occasions, including being interviewed by renowned reporter and commentator Tom Brokaw. This year, he has been featured in the documentary film “Meet the Mormons”. When asked about service, Gail Halvorson said “service is the bottom line to happiness and fulfillment”.

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