While everybody was busy bombing the hell out of each other, other military pilots were more soft-hearted after World War II had ended. One of those pilots was World War II and Berlin Airlift Command Pilot Colonel Gail S. Halvorsen.
The Allies and the Axis forces were known to drop tons of different bombs on each other during the World War, with many remembering the terror the German Luftwaffe brought into the skies and the legendary Squadron B-29 Enola Gay, those Boeing B-29 Superfortress Bombers that were used to drop nukes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But not Halvorsen. He dropped joy in the form of candy.
Yup, he didn’t drop bombs during the Cold War. He dropped the exact opposite of these explosives—sweets, chocolates, and candy along with tons of food and supplies to the people of post-World War II Berlin, Germany.
The Candy Bomber, as he was later known in Germany and the rest of the world, had passed away last Wednesday at the age of 101. Known for his extreme kindness and bringing happiness to the children of Berlin during the Berlin Airlift, the veteran spent most of his life helping children by reenacting his candy bombs throughout the years, repeating his kindness in various war-torn countries all his life as a humanitarian.
The Start Of Halvorsen’s ‘Sweet’ Life
Gail S. Halvorsen had always wanted to be a pilot ever since he was a child. Born in Salt Lake City, he was a farm boy who grew up in Rigby, Idaho, then Utah in his later life. As he dreamt of being a pilot, he immediately underwent the Civilian Pilot Training Program in 1941 and subsequently joined the Civil Air Patrol group under the United States Air Force. This would open up the opportunity for him to eventually join the Air Force, which he eventually did in May 1942.
Slowly, he achieved his childhood dream to be a pilot! After his training and the attack on Pearl Harbor, he became a transport pilot during World War II under the South Atlantic Theater. More so, he was a pilot that played an important role in feeding millions of starving people in Berlin—a mission that would launch his name into the history of Germany.
Halvorsen’s Operation Little Vittles
The Soviets, due to ideological differences with the west, had taken control of the Eastern side of Berlin and proceeded to cut off supply trains and water supplies to the Western side, leaving 2 million Germans on the brink of starvation and potential death.
Thus, the Berlin Airlift mission was born. The British and American forces jointly decided that they would start “Operation Vittles” (Operation Plainfare on the British side and Operation Pelican on the Australian side) to provide food, clothing, water, medicine, coal, and petrol for over 2 million citizens for a year—carrying over 2.5 million tons of supplies to their former enemies.
Having lost multiple friends during World War II, Halvorsen originally had mixed feelings about helping the Allies’ original enemies as they had killed his friends. The Soviets blockaded West Berlin. Food and water were scarce, and people would freeze to death if the Allies did nothing about it. Halvorsen had been ordered to take part in the airlift made and executed by British Commander Sir Brian Robertson, US General Lucius Clay, General Curtis E. LeMay, and Brig. Gen. Joseph Smith. In service of his country, he did with reservations about the mission.
“We knew it wasn’t the fault of women and children. It wasn’t the fault of most of the Germans,” he said.
However, his demeanor would change toward the mission as he met various children along the Tempelhof Airport, the main site for the airlift, where the kids were lined up behind the barbed-wire fences. One of the children had talked to him from the group of 30 kids, saying that “I met about thirty children at the barbed wire fence that protected Tempelhof’s huge area. They were excited and told me that ‘when the weather gets so bad that you can’t land, don’t worry about us. We can get by on a little food, but if we lose our freedom, we may never get it back.”
Seemingly moved by the story, Colonel Gail S. Halvorsen gave the kid two sticks of Wrigley’s Doublemint gum to the children, to which the kids broke them into pieces so they could share among themselves. Those who did not get a piece reportedly sniffed the wrappers. This made Halvorsen’s heart wrench as he did not have any more candy to give to the starving children, so he promised them that he would give them all gum in the coming days by dropping candy out of his C-54—a promise he fulfilled ten-fold.
“How will we know it’s your plane?” one of the children asked. “I’ll wiggle my plane’s wings!” a gesture he frequently did for his parents when he obtained his pilot’s license in 1941.
He reflected on this moment as it was a point in time where his life would change. He thought, “Why not drop some gum and even chocolate to these kids out of our airplane the next daylight trip to Berlin?”
“To my own astonishment and dismay, I found myself in the next moment announcing the plan for all to hear,” he continued.
Colonel Gail S. Halvorsen and his copilot got to work, collected candy, and put them into boxes. But they were heavy, so he made handkerchief parachutes so that he wouldn’t hurt the kids or any person near the site. They did this for weeks until they eventually got caught by Lieutenant General William Turner, who surprisingly supported the idea. He named the Operation “Little Vittles,” an operation that officially began on September 22, 1948.
Eventually, his story of kindness would go viral as the Associated Press published a story about the operation entitled “Lollipop Bomber Flies Over Berlin,” which greatly helped the project as Halvorsen gained the support of candy makers all over the US. He and his team would later become known as the Rosinenbomber (Raisin Bombers in English). Halvorsen would somewhat become a local legend of children, becoming known as “Uncle Wiggly Wings” (Uncle Wackelflugel in German), “The Chocolate Uncle,” “The Gum Drop Kid,” and “The Chocolate Flier.”
After almost a year of dropping candy to starving German Children, 23 tons of candy from 250,000 parachutes were dropped in West Berlin, bringing joy to kids in a desperate situation. He became somewhat like a military Santa Claus to children during that time, where kids would write him letters, telling him where to drop the candy so that it would be dropped directly over house according to children’s logic.
Halvorsen would retire in 1974 as a hero due to his simple act of kindness that started a movement that made German children the happiest! He would later drop candy bars over Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1994 and Kosovo in 1999. The United States military would keep his tradition alive by dropping toys, teddy bears, and soccer balls to Iraqi children.
God speed, fly high, Colonel Gail S. Halvorsen. Thank you for your service to your country and the children and people of Berlin who owe their lives to you and other pilots who performed supply drops during those times of difficulty.
RIP Colonel #GailHalvorsen. Berlin's 'Candy Bomber', has passed at 101 years-old. When supplies were short during the Berlin Airlift, he dropped candy from his plane for the children of the city, inspiring Operation "Little Vittles".
Thank you for your kindness, Colonel. pic.twitter.com/HDumSDAunm
— German Embassy (@GermanyinUSA) February 17, 2022