Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.
In his 1986 best-selling book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things, Robert Fulghum mused,
Maybe we should develop a Crayola bomb as our next secret weapon. A happiness weapon. A beauty bomb. And every time a crisis developed, we would launch one. It would explode high in the air — explode softly — and send thousands, millions, of little parachutes into the air. Floating down to earth — boxes of Crayolas.
And we wouldn’t go cheap either — not little boxes of eight. Boxes of sixty-four, with the sharpener built right in. With silver and gold and copper, magenta and peach and lime, amber and umber and all the rest. And people would smile and get a little funny look on their faces and cover the world with imagination instead of death. A child who touched one wouldn’t have his hand blown off.
Something akin to what Fulghum imagined actually happened almost 40 years earlier. The man responsible for it is, at this publication in January 2016, a vigorous 95 years old. His name is Gail Halvorsen, and he’s known in history as “the Candy Bomber.”
I first learned of Mr. Halvorsen in late 2013. I was watching a DVD of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s annual Christmas concert from the year before. NBC’s Tom Brokaw narrated a spectacular segment about a US Air Force officer who dropped candy from C-47s and C-54s during the 1948-49 Soviet blockade of Berlin. Then across the stage strolled a smiling Captain Halvorsen himself, more than six decades after his remarkable venture tugged at heartstrings the world over.
In the wake of the Nazi surrender in May 1945, Germany was divided and occupied by the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. Berlin itself, deep inside Soviet-occupied East Germany, was similarly carved up into zones, with Stalin hoping the Western Allies would eventually depart and leave the entire city under Soviet control. Tension over the future of Berlin produced the first major confrontation of the Cold War. Interestingly, the proximate cause of the crisis that led to the Soviet blockade was the introduction of a new currency.
For the three years from the end of the war until the spring of 1948, the Soviets handled the printing of Reichsmarks for all of occupied Germany and promptly over-printed. Stalin knew full well that currency debasement would thwart economic recovery, and that fit right into his plans to keep all of Germany weak and vulnerable to Soviet domination. By 1948, Germans were increasingly using cigarettes as money, instead of the depreciating paper Reichsmark.
When West German economics minister Ludwig Erhard suddenly ended rationing and price controls and introduced a new, sounder currency — the Deutsche Mark — on a Sunday in June, the Soviets reacted by cutting all land connections (including electricity) between Berlin and the other sectors of Germany occupied by the Western Allies. A hundred miles inside the Soviet sector, West Berlin was instantly inaccessible by road, river, canal or railway.
Stalin offered to lift the blockade if the Deutsche Mark were abandoned, introducing his own new currency, the “Ostmark,” in the Soviet zone. But Germans en masse began using the Deutsche Mark and rejecting the Ostmark, even in East Berlin.
To their credit, Erhard and the Western Allies held firm. They immediately organized a campaign of airlifts to ferry food, water, fuel, and other supplies to the besieged city. It was called “Operation Vittles.” Pilots and crews from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa flew more than 200,000 flights over the next year, bringing West Berliners upwards of 9,000 tons of vital provisions every day.
Stalin undoubtedly feared the ramifications of shooting down unarmed aircraft on humanitarian missions, but the airlift didn’t go unchallenged. Soviet harassment took the form of shining searchlights at the pilots as they attempted landings and takeoffs; “buzzing” Allied aircraft; firing rockets and staging explosions. Communist propaganda, especially by radio, subjected Berliners to a constant barrage of threats and boasts that collapse was imminent.
Stalin calculated that the West’s resolve would weaken, but within weeks, it was clear the airlift was working. Mass protests by Berliners against Soviet actions only strengthened the world’s moral and material support for the Western relief effort. Finally, at one minute after midnight on May 12, 1949, the Soviets threw in the towel and ended the blockade.
Gail Halvorsen of Salt Lake City, Utah, was one of the thousands of airlift pilots who saved West Berlin in the eleven months of the airlift. While on the ground at Berlin's Templehof airport, he noticed some local children observing the planes from behind a fence. He approached them and offered his only two sticks of gum. Grateful, the children broke the gum into pieces to share with each other; those who didn’t get any sniffed the empty wrappers.
Halvorsen promised he’d come back with more and told the children that they would know his plane from the others by watching him “wiggle” his wings. A day later, he did just that as he dropped chocolate bars attached to parachutes made from handkerchiefs. “Uncle Wiggly Wings,” as the children came to call him, had delivered!
Those few chocolate bars were just the beginning. Halvorsen made additional drops of candy that he gathered up from fellow airmen. The crowds of anxious children grew. Mail began to pile up as children sent letters to the airbase addressed to “Uncle Wiggly Wings.” In his book, Candy Bomber: The Story of the Berlin Airlift’s “Chocolate Pilot”, Michael O. Tunnell recounts an especially poignant episode:
By October of 1948 Peter Zimmerman must have decided he’d never score a candy parachute unless he took matters into his own hands. So he sent a letter — in English — to the man he hoped would soon be his Chocolate Uncle. He also tucked a map and a crude homemade parachute into the envelope.
“As you can see,” he wrote, “after takeoff, fly along the big canal to the second highway bridge, turn right one block. I live in the bombed-out house on the corner. I’ll be in the backyard every day at 2 pm. Drop the chocolate there.”
Poor Peter Zimmerman kept missing out on the candy drops. He wrote again to Halvorsen, complaining, “Didn’t get any gum or candy, a bigger kid beat me to it.” After several more drops that failed to reach him, Peter sent an impatient letter to Halvorsen: “You are a pilot?” he wrote. “I gave you a map. How did you guys win the war?” He offered to build a fire so Halvorsen would know exactly where he was. But this time, to make sure Peter wasn’t disappointed again, Halvorsen personally boxed up some gum and chocolate and mailed the package to Peter himself.
When news of the unauthorized candy drops first broke in the international media, Halvorsen feared he would be disciplined by his superiors. But instead, they approved, and the effort took off on wings of its own. Christened “Operation Little Vittles,” Halvorsen’s two sticks of gum blossomed into a full-blown campaign involving donations and volunteers from all over the globe.
Candy makers from the National Confectioners Association in America contributed massive amounts of candy. Children and their parents donated candy and provided homemade parachutes by the tens of thousands. By the time the Soviets finally relented and ended the blockade, Operation Little Vittles had dropped at least 23 tons of sweets on Berlin. It was a huge factor in kindling the goodwill and close ties that still exist today between the German people and those of America and its allies.
In the decades since the airlift, Col. Gail Halvorsen has been honored many times in many countries for his initiative and humanity. In 2010, he wrote a moving account of his experiences in those critical months of 1948-49, titled The Berlin Candy Bomber. Full of photos and copies of some of the children’s letters, it’s a gem of a read.
Thank you, Gail Halvorsen, for your inspiration. People like him — helping others from the goodness of their hearts — is truly a beautiful thing. Halvorsen and the other heroes of the Berlin airlift saved a city of more than two million.
For further information, see:
- Michael O. Tunnell’s Candy Bomber: The Story of the Berlin Airlift’s “Chocolate Pilot”
- Gail S. Halvorsen’s The Berlin Candy Bomber
- Tom Brokaw’s Christmas from Heaven: The True Story of the Berlin Candy Bomber
- Andrei Cherney’s The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America’s Finest Hour