Berlin Airlift — Picture By Henry Ries / USAF [Public domain] 1948 Via Wikipedia Creative Commons
How would one drop candy out of a bomber? It’s a strange question to ask. But, Lieutenant Gail Halvorsen found himself pondering this exact question in July of 1949.
Halvorsen put the candy he gathered with his crew mates in three separate boxes. He’d create makeshift parachutes with handkerchiefs and string. It wasn’t necessary to engineer anything beautiful. The parachutes just had to slow the candy down as it fell to earth. He didn’t want any children below getting hurt.
He didn’t bother to ask permission to lob candy bombs out of his airplane; it was obviously against regulations. He just ran the idea past his flight crew and they were agreeable to it. He stashed the candy with their parachutes away and prepared to begin a mission that would become a thing of legend — although he wouldn’t know it at the time.
The Berlin Airlift
After WWII Germany was split up into 4 pieces controlled by different Allied forces who fought in the war. The British, French, Americans, and Russians each took a piece. Likewise, the old capital of Berlin, deep within Russian territory was split into 4 pieces.
In June 1948, the Russians closed all land entry points into Berlin. They wanted to take all the city by starving it into submission. It was approximately 100 miles into Russian territory, so no trains or trucks would be able to bypass the blockade. Suddenly a city of millions had no food, coal, or medicine.
Withdrawing from Berlin wasn’t an option. Military action was also off the table as a response. The Americans, British, and French decided to fly in enough supplies for a city of millions. This would be a monumental effort and pilots and planes were gathered in the new Allied section of Germany to make it happen.
Operation Vittles would send 8,000 tons of supplies to West Berlin every day according to History.com. This “air bridge” would entail planes taking off and landing every 30 seconds at one point. Near 300,000 flights in total would be made. One of the many pilots bringing in supplies was Lieutenant Gail Halvorsen.
Birth Of The Candy Bomber
Lt. Gail Halvorsen 1940’s — Picture By U.S. Air Force [Public Domain]
“I’d been dead-stopped for an hour, and not one kid had put out their hand. Not one. The contrast was so stark because during World War II and all the way back to George Washington, if you were in an American uniform walking down the street, kids would chase you and ask for chocolate and gum. The reason they didn’t was they were so grateful to our fliers to be free. They wouldn’t be a beggar for more than freedom. That was the trigger. Scrooge would’ve done the same thing. I reached into my pocket, but all I had were two sticks of gum. Right then, the smallest decision I made changed the rest of my life.”
— Gail Halvorsen, interview in Airmen Magazine May-June 2011
In between flights, Halvorsen saw that kids had been gathering around the fences at the airfield he was landing at. One day he walked out and talked with them. He’d expected to get rushed by a crowd of begging children, but they asked for nothing.
Something hit him in those moments. These kids had suffered under Hitler and were now suffering under Stalin. They didn’t ask for anything because they were just grateful to be free. He was so moved he decided to give them something.
Still a little hesitant that it might cause a brawl, he reached into his pocket and only found two sticks of gum. He handed them over and watched the kids break up the two sticks and hand it out to the others. The children who got nothing just asked for the wrappers so they could smell the gum.
The display the kids put on left Halvorsen dumbstruck. He told them he’d be back the next day and bring them more. He might not be able to physically walk it to them though. He’d drop them candy from his plane.
The kids at the fence told him that lots of planes flew in and out. How would they know it was Halvorsen’s plane? He told them he’d wiggle the wings of his plane as he came in. This led to Halvorsen making the candy parachutes you read about earlier.
Other pilots heard of his candy missions and started donating their candy ration as well. The candy ammunition started growing and so did the number of children at the fences. Eventually a German newspaper published pictures and wrote a story according to Airmen Magazine.
Letters started coming to Templehof base operations for “Der Schokoladen Flieger” (the Chocolate Flyer), or “Onkel Wackelflugel.” (Uncle wiggly wings). This started to draw attention.
Operation Little Vittles
“I’d had a long relationship with him, but he was put out because he was sandbagged. So when I talk to kids, especially high school kids, I say, ‘when you get a job, don’t sandbag your boss.’ “He said to keep [dropping candy], but keep him informed. It just went crazy after that.”
— Gail Halvorsen, interview in Airmen Magazine May-June 2011
Halvorsen’s clandestine candy bombs wouldn’t stay hidden for long. After another flight, he’d get called in front of his boss, squadron commander Col. James R. Haun.
Haun told him a phone call came in from Brig. Gen. William H. Tunner, deputy commander of operations, asking who was dropping parachutes all over Berlin. Haun then dropped a newspaper on his desk showing pictures of Halverson doing it.
Ouch. Caught in the Act!
Instead of tearing into Halverson, Col. Haun let him continue the candy bombing. Halverson was told to inform the chain of command when missions were under way. Eventually, the top brass would get wind of what was going on and latch onto the mission.
It was now dubbed “Operation Little Vittles” and the air force put film of Halverson in a self-made documentary on the Berlin Airlift.
More pilots now donated their candy rations to the children. Eventually the officers’ wives started making parachutes for the hordes of candy falling from the sky.
The American Confectioners Association eventually donated near 20 tons of candy. This hoard of candy bombs would pass through a school in Chicopee, Massachusetts where children attached parachutes.
By the end of the airlift 250,000 parachutes lowered 23 tons of candy to children who had suffered under two of the worst regimes in history. The candy bomber became the face of the Berlin Airlift.
Halverson reenacted the candy bombings several times in his career after this. He’d also return to drop candy in a modern C-130 Hercules during Operation Provide Promise in Bosnia-Herzegovina according to Airman Magazine.
The Power Of Goodwill
Berliners watching airlift plane land at Templehof Airport, 1948 —Picture By U.S. Airforce Via Wikipedia Creative Commons
We live in an age where we’re swamped with regulation and often hear the phrase, “You can’t do that because of x”. So, it’s wonderful to see what can happen when someone takes initiative to solve suffering.
It’s also incredible to see a strict by-the-book organization like the military latch on to something irregular just because it was good. Gail Halvorsen is a classic example of the power one person can have in spreading light to even the darkest places in the world.
Halverson wasn’t alone, you noticed how all the soldiers around him immediately helped. The air force may have operated with the precision of a machine, but they were made up of human beings.
In an instance of possible war, bombers brought food, heat, and comfort to those suffering from WWII and now a future Cold War. Those flying the planes also jumped at the chance to tie tiny parachutes to boxes of candy as well.
“We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost….”
— Charlie Chaplin, final speech from the Great Dictator
Life doesn’t have to be violent and all things don’t have to be lost. Gail Halvorsen figured out a way to deliver joy from a machine whose intended purpose was destruction. He wasn’t alone — an entire air force was with him.
On May 12, 1949, the Soviet Union ended the blockade of West Berlin. They couldn’t risk the instigation of war by shooting down the planes — especially ones dropping candy to children. As a result, a city wouldn’t starve, and no shots needed to be fired to make this happen.
This is more than a feel-good story. It’s also a tell-tale example of the use of soft power, and also shows kindness can be the greatest weapon of all.