May 6, 2020 – As part of Lesson Plan #6 – Technology and Heroes in the Cockpit, the following story will feature one of those heroes. Col. Gail Halvorsen earned his wings eleven days after D-Day. After the war, he deployed to Berlin to participate in the Berlin Airlift and became famous as the “Candy Bomber” who dropped candy from his C-54 to West Berlin children.
Sept. 23, 2019 – It’s often said it’s the small things in life that are so meaningful. During the 1948-1949 Berlin Airlift to keep residents of Berlin, Germany from starving, Col. Gail Halvorsen, a pilot, gave two sticks of gum to a group of 30 children standing at a fence watching Allied planes land and take off. They divided the gum and passed the wrappers around so children who did not get a small piece could smell the peppermint. The experience changed Col. Halvorsen’s life forever.
From sugar beet fields in Utah to Berlin, Germany
In summer 1939, Gail Halvorsen was working on a ten-acre sugar beet farm toiling in the fields thinning sugar beet plants to increase yield. It was arduous work. But Gail realized he was developing great hand-eye coordination. He wondered where he could put that skill to work other than on a sugar beet farm.
The sugar beet fields were on the air route from Salt Lake City to Malad, Idaho so occasionally Gail would turn his gaze from the ground to the skies. “The sight of a silver shaft against that beautiful blue western sky and the sound that kept it there sent a shiver down my spine each time the event was repeated.” (p. 11, The Berlin Candy Bomber by Gail Halvorsen)
Gail asked a neighbor who became a pilot how he could do the same. He was disappointed to learn he needed two years of college before he could qualify to begin flying lessons. Gail could not afford to go to college and his father needed him on the farm.
World War II begins
On September 1, 1939, Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany invaded Poland beginning World War II. Shortly thereafter, Germany invaded many sovereign countries in western Europe, including France, Belgium, Denmark, and The Netherlands. World War II would engulf the world until 1945.
With the new threat in Europe, the Federal Aeronautics Administration (FAA) decided it needed to train more young pilots.
In Utah, classes were offered at Bear River High School in Garland, Gail’s hometown. Ten scholarships were available. More than 100 students applied. Gail was awarded the sixth scholarship. “The sugar beet was a powerful motivator.” (p. 12, The Berlin Candy Bomber by Gail Halvorsen)
In September 1941, Gail earned his pilot’s license through the Civilian Pilot Training Program. He joined the Civil Air Patrol as a pilot. At this time, the United States had not entered World War II.
Then on Dec. 7, 1941, imperial Japan attacked the US Navy at its base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. More than 2,000 military personnel and more than 50 civilians were killed. The next day the U.S. Congress declared war on Japan and on Dec. 11, Congress declared war on Germany. Millions of young men left school and work to fight the war in Europe (called the Atlantic theater) and Asia (called the Pacific theater).
In June 1942, Gail joined the US Army Air Force (USAAF). On D-Day (June 6, 1944), Gail was training with Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) as a fighter pilot. His RAF certificate was issued on June 17, 1944, 11 days after D-Day.
Gail then went back to the USAAF. He was assigned flight missions with foreign transport operations. It was another step in his career that ultimately led to his life changing experience during the Berlin Airlift.
End of World War II and the Berlin Airlift
In May 1945, combat in Europe ended when Germany surrendered to the Allies (Canada, England, the United States, the Soviet Union, and many smaller countries). In September 1945, war in Asia ended when Japan surrendered to the Allies.
As a result of peace agreements, Germany was divided into four zones administered by the United States, France, England, and the Soviet Union. Berlin was in the Soviet Union zone but was divided into four zones as well. The Soviet Union had a large swath of eastern Berlin.
As tensions rose among Allied countries administering Germany, the Soviet Union decided to block shipments of food and fuel, a blockade, into Berlin, a city of more than 2 million residents. In his book, Gail explains that in the peace agreements, air corridors were established for each of the four Allied countries but nothing protected rail and road routes into the city.
In June 1948, the Soviet Union began their blockade of rail and roads in hopes of taking over all of Berlin.
The United States, France, and England responded by beginning the Berlin Airlift to sustain Berliners with food and fuel. A minimum of 4,500 tons a day had to be delivered to prevent Berliners from starving to death. (p. 28 The Berlin Candy Bomber by Gail Halvorsen)
In 1947, Gail was assigned to Brookley Air Force Base in Mobile, Alabama. In July 1948, Gail was in a squadron of pilots flying the C-74 transport airplane. Many pilots assigned to the base in Mobile had served overseas during World War II. When the urgent call came for pilots to fly food and fuel to Berlin, Gail offered to take the place of a friend. His friend had small children and Gail was not yet married so Gail volunteered for the mission to allow his friend to stay home.
Gail flew a C-54 transport plane, the plane that would be the workhorse of the Berlin Airlift. About 100 of the smaller C-47 planes, Gooney Birds, were used at the start of the Airlift.
The Airlift’s mission was clear: deliver food and fuel to Berliners so they would not starve or freeze to death.
Gail arrived at the Rhein-Main air base in Germany on July 11, 1948. Along with hundreds of Allied pilots and crew, around the clock flights to Berlin had begun on June 26, 1948. The pilots flew from Rhein-Main to Tempelhof airport near Berlin, a former base of Hitler’s Luftwaffe, the Nazi air force.
From the air, Gail could see the total devastation of Berlin although the famous Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, the German government building, were still standing. Gail wanted to see both up close. To do that, he had to use his free time between flights to see Berlin from the ground.
Gail becomes “Uncle Wiggly-Wings”
Knowing he would have just a couple of hours of sleep, he arranged to have a Jeep meet him after landing at Tempelhof one day. While snapping pictures, taking video from the ground, and waiting for his Jeep to arrive, he noticed a group of about 30 children standing at a fence watching the airplanes land and take off.
Lt. Gail Halvorsen, “The Candy Bomber,” greets children of isolated West Berlin sometime during 1948-49 after dropping candy bars from the air on tiny parachutes. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)
Gail walked over to talk with the children. The children asked him many questions about the Airlift, including how much flour was on each airplane. What followed changed Gail’s life.
“Then I received a lesson about priorities. They were interested in freedom more than flour. They fully recognized that between the two there was a real relationship but they had already decided which was preeminent. I was astonished with the maturity and clarity that they exhibited in advising me of what their values were and what was of greatest importance to them in these circumstances. In the months between the aircraft over Berlin changed their cargo from bombs to flour, the children had witnessed an accelerated change in international relations. These young kids began giving me the most meaningful lesson in freedom I ever had. Here I was, an American, almost bald-headed at the age of twenty-seven, yet I was learning about something I took too much for granted.” (p. 93, The Berlin Candy Bomber by Gail Halvorsen)
As Gail walked away from the fence, he put his hand in his pocket where he found two sticks of Wrigley’s Doublemint gum. He thought the children at the fence probably had not had any chocolate or gum in two or three years. He debated returning to the fence with the gum knowing he may miss his ride into the city if he went back. He returned to the fence. That decision changed his life.
He handed them his two sticks of gum and watched as the children, on their own, divided two sticks of gum so every child received a tiny piece. The children even passed around the wrappers so everyone could smell the mint. He wanted to do more for the children.
There simply was not time on each flight to come to the fence with candy and gum so he told the children he would drop candy to them from his airplane the next day. But how would they know it was him, the children asked? Gail said he would wiggle his plane’s wings. The children asked him to explain the word, wiggle. Gail showed him with his arms. Okay, they would be looking.
After his brief tour of Berlin, Gail flew back to Rhein-Main. He quickly made three small parachutes from handkerchiefs and tied chocolate bars to the parachutes, caught a couple hours of sleep, and reported for his flights to Berlin. His first flight was in the dark but his second flight was due to land at Tempelhof before noon. As he and his crew approached Tempelhof flying at an altitude of 1,500 feet, he saw the children at the fence. Gail wiggled his plane’s wings. The children recognized him instantly. In a split second and just at the right time, Gail had his co-pilot release the parachutes through a chute in back of the pilot’s seat used normally to release flares. Did the children retrieve the parachutes?
As Gail and his crew were taking off from Tempelhof after their delivery, they saw the three parachutes being waved by children at the fence. They were waving them at every airplane coming and going.
The children named Gail “Uncle Wiggly Wings.” They sent letters of thanks to the airport. A newspaper featured a story about the candy drop. Gail’s attempt to keep it a secret failed. He had not received permission to drop candy but his superiors embraced it although it came with a warning to Gail that he should have informed his superiors.
Word of the parachutes flew around the world. In the United States, volunteers began making parachutes and candy companies donated tons of candy and gum.
The Berlin Airlift continued until the Soviet Union ended the blockade in May 1949.
At its peak, 319 C-54 transport planes were being used for the Berlin Airlift. The C-47 transport, called the Gooney Bird, had been used to drop thousands of paratroopers over Normandy for the D-Day invasion in 1944. Larger C-54 transport planes were also used during the war. About 100 “Gooney Birds” participated in the early weeks of the Airlift until the larger C-54 planes arrived in Germany.
When the blockade started in June, the prevailing thought was that it would not last long. But as summer turned to fall and winter approached, the blockade continued. It was clear to pilots they would soon be flying in sleet and snow.
From the start of the Airlift to the end of January 1949, 674,232.2 tons of supplies were flown to Berlin by the Americans and 229,368.9 tons by the British. In addition, a total of 81,730.6 tons of manufactured goods were flown out of Berlin during the Airlift allowing 935,238 Berliners to keep their jobs. (p. 142, The Berlin Candy Bomber by Gail Halvorsen)
Gail credits the airplane mechanics, support personnel, and Gen. William Tunner, head of Airlift operations, with the Airlift’s success. He does not see himself as a hero. Throughout his book, he often mentions the two sticks of gum that set the direction of his life.
From 1970-1974, Gail was the commander of the Tempelhof Central Airport in Berlin. He retired from the Air Force on September 30, 1974. Born on Oct. 10, 1920, at almost 99 years old, he is as busy as ever and still being recognized for his kindness to the children of Berlin who had suffered so much during World War II.
“The heroes of the Berlin Airlift are the thirty-one Americans and thirty-nine British who gave their lives to deliver freedom and democracy to a former enemy. Service to others before self was their mission. It is the only true recipe by which full fulfillment may be attained in this life. It is one of the core values of the United States Air Force. Today the Air Word of the Day Mobility Command, in the airlift tradition, launches a mission of mercy every ninety seconds somewhere around the world. The American flag on the aircraft tail is the symbol of hope to those in deep despair from whatever the source of oppression.” (p. 244, The Berlin Candy Bomber by Gail Halvorsen)