Retired Col. Gail Halvorsen, also known as the “Candy Bomber,” rocked the wings of his C-54 Skymaster aircraft as he came in to notify the children of which plane was carrying the chocolate.
Retired Col. Gail Halvorsen, also known as the “Candy Bomber,” passed away on Feb. 16, 2022. He was 101 years old.
Starting his career in the US Army Air Corps in 1942, Halvorsen served as a pilot until his retirement in 1974, after accumulating more than 8,000 flying hours and 31 years of military service.
Halvorsen went down in history for his selfless acts during the Berlin Airlift in 1948 and 1949. Then-Lt. Halvorsen took it upon himself to help boost the morale of the children in West Berlin by attaching handkerchief parachutes to chocolate bars and dropping them from his aircraft to the children below.
The German children began calling him “Uncle Wiggly Wings.”
According to a US Air Force (USAF) news release, he would also rock the wings of his aircraft as he came in to notify the children of which plane was carrying the chocolate.
At Rhein-Main Air Base, he combined his candy rations with those of his co-pilot and engineer, made parachutes out of handkerchiefs and string and tied them to chocolate and gum for the first “Operation Little Vittles” drop from his C-54 Skymaster on Jul. 18, 1948.
“The only way I could get back to deliver it was to drop it from the airplane, 100 feet over their heads, on the approach between the barbed wire fence and bombed-out buildings,” Halvorsen recalled during an interview with Airman Magazine. “A red light came on that said you can’t drop it without permission. But I rationalized it by saying that starving 2 million people isn’t according to Hoyle, either, so what’s a few candy bars?”
The amount of candy steadily increased, along with the number of waiting children, for three weeks until a Berlin newspaper published a photo of the now famous “Candy Bomber.”
Soon, stacks of letters began arriving at Templehof base operations addressed to “Der Schokoladen Flieger” (the Chocolate Flyer), or “Onkel Wackelflugel.”
One day, after he returned from Berlin, Halvorsen was summoned by Col. James R. Haun, the C-54 squadron commander. Haun had received a call from Brig. Gen. William H. Tunner, deputy commander of operations during the airlift, who wanted to know who was dropping parachutes over Berlin.
Halvorsen knew he was in trouble when Haun showed him the newspaper with the picture of little parachutes flying out of his C-54.
“You got me in a little trouble there, Halvorsen,” Haun told him.
“I’d had a long relationship with him, but he was put out because he was sandbagged,” Halvorsen said. “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.”
However, Operation Little Vittles garnered public support and donations.
Fellow pilots donated their candy rations. Eventually, they ran out of parachutes, so they made more from cloth and old shirt-sleeves until noncommissioned officers’ and officers’ wives at Rhein-Main AB began making them.
Later, the American Confectioners Association donated 18 tons of candy, mostly sent through a Chicopee, Massachusetts school where students attached it to parachutes before sending to Berlin through then-Westover Air Force Base.
By the end of the Berlin Airlift in September 1949, American pilots had dropped 250,000 parachutes and 23 tons of candy.
“Willie Williams took over after I left Berlin,” Halvorsen said. “And he ended up dropping even more candy than I did.”
Halvorsen’s efforts stand as a symbol of the impact one small gesture can have on an entire community.
“As I look back at Operation Little Vittles and the years that have followed, there is one human characteristic above all others that gave it birth – the silent gratitude of the children at a barbed wire fence in Berlin, July 1948,” he wrote in his autobiography.
The Berlin Airlift is arguably the mission that put heavies on the map. It was the first major victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and it was a tremendous success for the then-new US Air Force.
In 1994 after retiring, Halvorsen requested to assist in the delivery of food to refugees fleeing from the conflict in Bosnia.
“We have our freedom to choose, and when the freedom is taken away, air power is the only quick way to answer a crisis like that,” Halvorsen said.
Photo credit: Rosario “Charo” Gutierrez and Bennie J. Davis III / U.S. Air Force