July 1948. Berlin.
Lieutenant Gail Halvorsen walks the Templehof airfield of West Berlin, embarking upon a Cold War confrontation with the Soviets. The rattling of a wire fence catches his ear. He turns his head and is greeted by the sight of 30 German children dressed in tattered, dirty clothes. Their pleading eyes coax Halvorsen to pull a package of gum from his pocket, from which he retrieves two sticks wrapped in shining foil. The childrens’ dirt-stained hands reach through the wires to eagerly retrieve the American pilot’s gift. The young Germans pass around the gum and tear it into small pieces to share, some even desperately smelling the wrappers. Inklings of a new idea begin to form in Halvorsen’s mind.
Gail Halvorsen grew up in Utah. Upon his graduation in 1939, he briefly attended Utah State University before delving into the world of aviation, earning his private pilot license in 1941, just mere months before the country entered World War II. He officially joined the U.S. Air Force in 1942, training with the British Royal Airforce. During the war, he ferried transport planes across Europe and North Africa, not seeing combat during his time of service. After the war ended, he returned to the United States– but not for too long.
After the conclusion of World War II, Germany was partitioned into military occupation zones by Britain, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union, with the latter occupying a large chunk of Eastern Germany. Though initially the Western Allies and the Soviets remained on good terms, hostilities soon arose as the USSR was angered by the Allies’ efforts to curtail Soviet power by unifying the western half of the country into one state. In response, the Soviets cut off all electricity, food supply, and railway travel to and from Ally-occupied West Berlin. The U.S. air force had no choice but to airlift coal, food, and medicine to the starving Germans of Berlin in “Operation Vittles,” which began in July 1948. Among the Americans who were called to serve was none other than Gail Halvorsen.
Halvorsen obeyed his call to military duty, yet initially was hesitant towards helping the people of Germany, who dwelt in a country that had caused the world such immense pain only a few years prior. Yet, his begrudging spirit was quickly melted by the sight of the 30 children at Templehof airfield. In their desperate eyes, he saw reflections of himself, remembering the desperation he felt for luxuries such as candy when growing up during the Great Depression. Wishing he could offer the children more than just two sticks of gum, he told them he would drop more from his plane the next day, signaling to the group by wiggling his plane wings. As promised, sticks of gum tied to handkerchief parachutes rained from the skies of Berlin, dropped by the newly dubbed “Uncle Wiggly Wings.” Halvorsen made a habit of these “candy bombings,” dropping more parachutes holding gum as well as lollipops, candies, and chocolate bars. Yet, Halvorsen was deviating from the standard airlift procedure, which would attract attention from Major General William H. Tunner, the airlift commander. Fearing a reprimand, Halvorsen was surprised to instead receive a nod of approval from his superior, who admired Halvorsen’s compassion for the German children and encouraged future candy drops. Thus, his mission, “Operation Little Vittles,” would continue. Americans back home were moved by the operation and began donating hundreds of pounds of candies tied to handkerchief parachutes to the Air Force. Soon, other American pilots would join in on the mission. An alleged total of 250,000 candy parachutes rained from the sky of Berlin between 1948 and 1949.
After the Soviets lifted their blockade on Berlin in May 1949, Halvorsen returned home to Utah and started a family. His humanitarian work was not yet over, though; for the next 25 years, he performed various candy drops in other countries, such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, Japan, Guam, and Iraq. To commemorate his work in Berlin, he performed various candy drops in the city over the years. He retired in 1974, and he passed away at the age of 101 in February 2022.
Ursula Yunger was one of the Berlin children who had received one of Halvorsen’s candy parachutes in the 40s. “It wasn’t the candy,” she recalled. “It was his profound gesture, showing us that somebody cared;” a sentiment likely shared by thousands who had watched for the plane of Uncle Wiggly Wings.
“The Berlin Airlift, 1948–1949.” Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, https://history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/berlin-airlift.
“The ‘Candy Bomber’ Who Dropped Sweets during the Berlin Airlift Has Died at Age 101.” NPR, NPR, 17 Feb. 2022, https://www.npr.org/2022/02/17/1081594481/the-candy-bomber-who-dropped-sweets-during-the-berlin-airlift-has-died-at-age-10.
Facer, Austin. “Who Is the ‘Berlin Candy Bomber?’ Utah Pilot Made a Big Difference in the World through Simple Kindness.” ABC4 Utah, ABC4 Utah, 17 Feb. 2022, https://www.abc4.com/news/digital-exclusives/who-is-the-berlin-candy-bomber-utah-pilot-made-a-big-difference-in-the-world-through-simple-kindness/.
“Gail Halvorsen.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/airlift-gail-halvorsen/.
“Gail Halvorsen.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 9 Mar. 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gail_Halvorsen.
Goldstein, Richard. “Gail Halvorsen, ‘Candy Bomber’ in Berlin Airlift, Dies at 101.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 Feb. 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/17/us/gail-halvorsen-obituary.html.