The airlift's 'Candy Bomber' returns to Berlin
Stars and Stripes May 18, 1984
TO THE CHILDREN OF blockaded Berlin, 1st Lt. Gail. S. Halvorsen was a year-round Santa, a magical figure known as the Chocolate Flyer, Uncle Wiggly Wings or the Raisin Bomber. A quick dip of the wings of his C-54 Skymaster transport plane, and fruit, chocolate and other sweets would parachute down from the sky.
Young Berliners, who hadn't seen a chocolate bar in three years, made him an instant hero. Not bad for a Utah farm boy who learned to pilot by buzzing his family's beet fields on a flying scholarship.
Halvorsen had been assigned to ferry food and supplies to Berlin almost as soon as the Soviets blocked the city's roads, rails and waterways in June 1948. When the airlift reached full swing, Halvorsen and other pilots assigned in West Germany were landing at the beleaguered city's Tempelhof airport every three minutes.
"We were on the ramp long enough to unload 138 sacks of flour and get back to Rhein Main and get some more," said Halvorsen, now 63 and dean of student affairs at Brigham Young University in his home state. "I knew I wasn't. going to get a chance to see Berlin because all we did was fly and sleep, so I decided to skip sleeping and hitch a flight back and take a look around.
WHILE SNAPPING PICTURES of the airport Halvorsen met up with a group of about 30 children who had gathered outside the fence to watch the non-stop takeoffs and landings of what the U.S. Air force called Operation Vittles.
"I talked to them for more than an hour, and when I finally turned to leave it occurred to me that there was something different about these kids. I'd been in Panama and South America and the kids would chase you down the street and grab you and shake you down for gum and candy.
"These kids didn't have enough to eat, but they were so proud of what the airlift was doing that not one of them even made a motion to ask for candy."
Halvorsen found two sticks of gum in his pockets, broke them in half and passed them through the barbed wire to the children.
"I COULDN'T BELIEVE THE LOOKS on the faces of the kids who got a piece. They unwrapped it very carefully so they wouldn't lose a piece of the broken off end and then they took the wrappers and tore them into little pieces and passed them around. The other kids were happy just smelling a piece of the gum wrapper.
"For 30 cents, I figured, I can put these kids on easy street."
Although it was against regulations — "It's okay to drop a bomb from a plane, but not gum" — Halvorsen decided to throw out little parachutes attached to bags of sweets on his next flight to Berlin. The first drop featured three handkerchief chutes and the weekly candy rations of Halvorsen, his co-pilot and their flight engineer.
"When we came over the field I looked down and there was the bunch of kids, right in a knot. I wiggled .the wings and when they saw that, they just about went crazy. We dropped the stuff, but we couldn't see what happened because at that point we were literally over the runway. So I sweated it out, wondering whether anyone saw me and whether we hit the kids."
After unloading, Halvorsen taxied around to the end of the field and "through the barbed wire fence there were three handkerchiefs waving like crazy."
IT WAS THE START OF WHAT BERLINERS would later dub Operation Little Vittles. In the next few weeks Halvorsen risked drops every few days, but he was finally discovered and summoned to the commander's office.
"The colonel asked me what I'd been doing. I said, 'Flying my ass off, sir.' He said, 'Halvorsen, I'm not stupid. What else have you been doing?' So I finally told him and he chewed me out for a while and then he said I was lucky. 'One of your parachutes almost hit a newspaperman.'
"He pulled out a paper and the story was all over the front page. The colonel said, 'The general called to congratulate me and I didn't know anything about it."'
After that, Halvorsen said, "it was gangbusters." Members of the unit chipped in their candy rations — a real sacrifice, Halvorsen notes. because you could get a German to do a week's washing for one chocolate bar — and the men donated handkerchiefs to keep the candy bombing operation underway.
Later, when the unit's handkerchief supply ran out, the flyers pitched in old shirts. And when the children heard Halvorsen was running short on chutes, they returned the old ones for refills.
LETTERS TO HALVORSEN — addressed simply to the Chokolade Flieger (Chocolate Flyer) or Uncle Wiggly Wings, Tempelhof Airport Operations — had started flooding in soon after the first candy drop. Once his project was discovered, Halvorsen was assigned two German secretaries to handle the thousands of letters he received weekly.
Most had to be answered with a form letter, but special ones were given to the pilot for a personal response.
"There was this one kid named Peter Zimmerman who sent me a map and asked me to make a drop at his house. He said when I flew into Berlin and reached the River Spree, to turn, go down two railroad bridges and his was the bombed out house on the corner. He said he'd be there everyday at 2 p.m.
"Well I looked for him several times, but I couldn't ever find him. Finally the kid wrote me another letter saying, 'Look, I gave you a map, you're in the Air Force and you're a pilot. How'd you guys win the war anyway?' We finally fixed up a box and had it mailed it to him."
A young girl named Mercedes wrote a similar letter. "My house is easy to find," she wrote, 'because there are white chickens in the yard. Just look for the white chickens."
Halvorsen and his buddies looked repeatedly for the chickens, but ended up mailing candy to the girl as well.
THE CANDY BOMBERS DROPPED CHUTES for the children of East Berlin until Soviet officials complained to the State Department that the pilot was violating East German airspace and the practice was discontinued.
Word of Halvorsen's project reached America and thousands of parachutes with sweets attached were boxed and sent to Germany for delivery. On a quick trip to the States, Halvorsen met with the president of a confectionary company who was anxious to contribute to the project.
"I told him we could use some outlandish amount of candy, and then forgot about it. Well one day I flew back in to Rhein Main and one of the guys there said he wanted to show me something. He took me down to the rail yard and there was this boxcar sitting there.
"There was 3,000 pounds of candy sitting in there and the following week there was 3,500 pounds more."
THE TONS OF CANDY, a black-market gold mine, was put under round-the-clock guard and later flown to Berlin in 100 pound shipments — all the extra weight the planes could handle when loaded with airlift supplies. The pilot was given two cells in a Berlin jail and the sweets were locked up there until a huge Christmas party was arranged for children of the city.
When Halvorsen — by then a colonel — took command of Tempelhof in the early 1970s, Berlin welcomed him back as a city son. "I commanded the base for four years and I had a dinner invitation or official function every night for the whole tour," he said.
Because of his tight schedule, Halvorsen put off one invitation from a German couple for more than a year. "I didn't know who they were, but figured we just had to go because they were so persistent and so patient. The woman greeted me at the door and took me to this little china cabinet and brought out the letter I'd sent to her so many years before saying I couldn't find her house.
"It was little Mercedes and she said, 'Now come outside and I'll show you where those white chickens were that you never could find.' "
ON VISITS TO BERLIN TODAY, Halvorsen is recognized instantly. Germans rush up to grasp his hand and there are the "aahs" of recognition. He is hugged and tears mix with the smiles.
Kurt Roth, a teenager during the blockade, spotted Halvorsen in Berlin last Sunday at ceremonies marking the 35th anniversary of the end of the blockade.
"We lived close to the airport in 1948," he said after chatting briefly with the Candy Bomber, "that itself was special — we would say that we were not Berliners, we were Tempelhofers. My brother and I would hurry home from school everyday to sit on the roof and watch the planes landing. And one day we were sitting there watching and one of his famous parachutes landed in our garden.
"Chocolate bars coming from the sky. It all sounds rather dramatic today, but for me it was a special sign. A sign that we Berliners had to survive."