Although wartime doesn’t usually bring with it very many sweet memories, a man nicknamed the “candy bomber” helped to change that for thousands of German children during the Berlin Airlift that followed World War II.
What began as a treat for a handful of German waifs spiraled into an operation that eventually gained world fame and popularity. The LDS serviceman who started it all, Gail S. Halvorsen, now lives in Provo, Utah. Up until a few years ago, however, he was a career man in the United States Air Force where he became known as the “chocolate flyer” and the “candy bomber” because of the candy-laden parachutes he dropped into West Berlin.
Col. Halvorsen (who was then a lieutenant) was in the first group of airmen sent to Frankfurt, Germany, when Russia blockaded West Berlin in 1948. The Soviets planned to starve the European city into submission by blockading all entrances into it, but the United States came to the aid of the Germans by flying in food, coal, medicine, and other basic supplies.
“I thought we’d only be there a short time, that world opinion wouldn’t allow another country to try to starve two and a half million people for long. We operated the airlift for nearly a year and a half, though,” recalled Col. Halvorsen as he thought back on his time in Frankfurt.
Since the airmen were normally only in Berlin long enough to unload their cargo and refuel their planes, Lt. Halvorsen decided to hike in on his day off to take some pictures. As he approached the city, he came upon a barbed wire fence that separated him from some German children who were playing. They began talking to him, and the tall man with the Utah accent and the tiny children with their faltering English became friends.
After talking with them for an hour, Lt. Halvorsen started to leave but had only walked a few steps when he turned back. There was something about these children that was different from all the others he had met while a serviceman.
“Most children would clamour around us, asking us for candy or gum,” he explained. “But these were different. These children had been through so much—their city had been practically destroyed; many of them had lost family members in the war. Yet not one asked for any gum or candy.”
He reached into his pocket to see if he had any treat that he could leave with them and found only two sticks of gum. He passed them through the fence and watched as the children eagerly accepted his small gift. Without argument they divided the small pieces of gum into even smaller pieces, and when there was none left to divide, passed the gum wrappers around to smell.
A plane swooped by overhead and gave Lt. Halvorsen an idea. He told the children that he would come back the next day, and if they would share it with each other, he would drop some candy from his plane as it flew into the city.
The children had only one worry: “How will we tell which plane is yours?” they asked. Lt. Halvorsen replied that he would wiggle the wings of his plane and then drop parachutes made from handkerchiefs through the flare chute.
The next day Lt. Halvorsen dropped three candy-laden parachutes to the children waiting below. “I could see the little group of kids in a cluster, standing in the same place I had left them the day before as if they hadn’t moved at all. When we flew back out of the city later that day, they were again standing there, this time waving the three white handkerchiefs through the fence at us.”
The operation continued on a small scale for several weeks. Lt. Halvorsen began dropping not only his own candy rations, but also those that were contributed by the other men in his company. One day he walked into headquarters and noticed a stack of mail addressed to “Uncle Wiggly Wings” and “Chocolate Flyer,” Tempelhof Air Base. Since he was unsure about how the air force would react, he quickly left but was called in by his commander a few days later.
“What have you been doing?” queried the senior officer. To Lt. Halvorsen’s surprise, his commander told him that a candy bar that had been dropped on the end of a runway had hit a German reporter in the head, and the story was now all over the front pages in Berlin.
“The German people loved it and that kept me from getting into trouble. My commander thanked me for the good idea and gave permission to continue the candy flying,” said Col. Halvorsen. The servicemen were by now contributing not only their candy rations but also their handkerchiefs. They soon ran out of handkerchiefs, and the men donated shirtsleeves to be used as parachutes. Finally they began attaching notes asking that the parachutes be returned to use again; most were.
As the operation became larger, more and more people began participating. By August, radio stations all along the east coast of the United States were playing tunes for handkerchiefs. They urged people to send handkerchiefs in envelopes to Frankfurt. At the peak of the operation, five mailbags full of handkerchiefs would arrive in Germany every other day.
“The people in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, sent many, many large cardboard boxes of candy already attached to parachutes,” said Col. Halvorsen.
The Weekly Reader, a children’s newsletter, also gave its support. It encouraged the grade school children to send small contributions to help the children in Germany, and the response was tremendous.
Candy companies in the United States also contributed; in all more than 7,000 pounds of candy was shipped, much of which was saved for Christmas and then distributed to the children in West Berlin.
Col. Halvorsen said that children sometimes wrote to him with special requests. “I received one letter with a beautiful map in it. The little girl said hers was the white house with the chickens in the backyard and that she would be waiting there at 2:00 P.M. I never found her house so I mailed her a package.”
Twenty years later when Col. Halvorsen returned to Tempelhof as commander of the base, the same girl, now grown up with a family of her own, wrote to him again. She invited him to dinner in the same home he had failed to find during the airlift. The two families still keep in touch with each other.
Another letter Col. Halvorsen received was from a little boy named Peter Zimmerman who had lost both his parents in the war. He asked the candy bomber if he could find him some people in America who would adopt him. Col. Halvorsen helped to locate a family in Pennsylvania who welcomed Peter into their home.
He received letters from children all over the world, including some in East Berlin who said, “Please drop us some candy, too.”
“Some propaganda was published saying that the candy flying was a capitalistic operation by the United States government, but actually it wasn’t an official operation or controlled by any agency of the government,” explained Col. Halvorsen.
Col. Halvorsen returned to Germany and served as commander of Tempelhof Air Base for the four years from 1970 to 1974. While there, he and his wife, Alta, and their five children attended an LDS servicemen’s branch. Col. Halvorsen feels strongly that “wherever you work, you can be a good Latter-day Saint. Just don’t compromise or you’re lost. You’ll be surprised how many people are watching.”
Col. Halvorsen, who serves as bishop of the Oak Hills First Ward in Provo, Utah, is a shining example of the Savior’s words. “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Matt. 22:39.) To the American Serviceman remembered by thousands as the candy bomber and Uncle Wiggly Wings, that commandment became a way of life.