The Candy Bomber

A Simple Act of Kindness - The Candy Bomber Story

July 2022

A simple act of kindness by an American airman during the Berlin Airlift in 1948 blossomed into a movement that raised the spirits of the city and forever proclaimed him to be known as the “Candy Bomber.” That man was Gail S. Halvorsen, who passed away unexpectedly on February 16, 2022 at the age of 101. I attended the two-day event celebrating his life in May 2022 and had the opportunity to speak to his daughter Denise about how it all came to be.

Gail Seymour Halvorsen was born on October 10, 1920 in Salt Lake City and spent his early years living on small farms in rural Utah. One farm was almost directly below the airway from Salt Lake City to Malad City, Idaho and the occasional airplane passing overhead stirred the young man’s interest as he was working the field below. The demands of working in a sugar beet field had him seriously considering other career opportunities and an aviation career seemed very attractive to this 18 year old. Graduating from high school in 1939, Gail earned his private pilot license on September 1, 1941 under the Civilian Pilot Training Program. He joined the US Army Air Force in May 1942 and trained at the No. 3 British Flying School in Miami, Oklahoma, where he was awarded his Royal Air Force cloth wings and USAAF silver wings on June 17, 1944. After graduation, Gail was assigned to Natal, Brazil flying C-47 “Gooney Birds” in the South Atlantic Theatre. While in Natal, he decided to make the Air Force his career.

After the war, Lt. Halvorsen was assigned to the Military Air Transport Service (MATS) and based at Brookley Air Force Base in Mobile, Alabama. The base supported overseas operations with a contingent of Douglas C-54 Skymaster and C-74 Globemaster I aircraft. As chance would have it, Gail was assigned to the C-74, of which only 12 were built and all assigned to Brookley. Russian dictator Joseph Stalin initiated the blockade of Berlin on June 24, 1948 with the aim of strangling the city and forcing the United States, Great Britain and France to abandon their sectors. The United States and Great Britain responded by initiating one of the greatest humanitarian airlifts of all time. The first flights were dispatched on June 26th with the Americans naming their effort “Operation Vittles” and the British “Operation Plainfare.”

Scuttlebutt around Brookley was that some of the base’s C-54’s would be assigned to the airlift but, since Gail was flying C-74s, he paid it little mind. Two weeks into the blockade, Gail happened to stop by an emergency meeting of C-54 crew members where Colonel George Cassady was reading off a list of individuals that were being told to pack their bags and be ready to fly four C-54s to Rhein-Main Airbase in Germany to support the operation. One of the names on the list was his good friend Pete Sowa, whose wife had just delivered a pair of twins. Since Gail was single and had no family ties at the base, he volunteered to take Pete’s place even though he was not assigned to C-54s at the time. Gail had just bought a brand new red four-door Chevrolet and had just enough time to park it under a heavy growth of pine trees before departing for Germany. Since the crews were told that the blockade would only last a month, Gail figured his car would be safe until his return. Little did he know at the time that he would never see that car again!

The four C-54s arrived at Rhein-Main on July 11th and were immediately pressed into service flying supplies along the narrow 280 mile corridor through Russian occupied East Germany from Rhein-Main Air Base to Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport. Gail’s first flight to Berlin occurred the very next day at 1:00pm with a crew consisting of himself, Captain John Pickering and crew chief TSgt Hershel Elkins. He had flown with both on many occasions at Brookley and they made a good team. During the early days of the airlift, there was a desperate need for coal and food in Berlin and the crew settled into flying up to three round-trips a day to Tempelhof.

Post-war Berlin was full of historic sites and the young lieutenant was determined to photograph the Brandenburg Gate, Hitler’s bunker, the Rheischtag and film C-54s landing over the apartment house at the end of Tempelhof’s runway. He surmised that “a shot from inside the barbed wire at ground level would be more expressive than a thousand words.” Flying almost continuously made achieving his goal seem unattainable but an opportunity presented itself when he completed his final flight of the day and hopped a ride back to Berlin with his roommate Lt. Bill Christian. The plan was complete when another friend gave him a contact at Tempelhof who would drive him around Berlin to take his photos.

On arriving at Tempelhof, contact was made with the driver who would pick him up at base operations in an hour. This was just enough time to get to the end of the runway to film C-54s landing over the rooftops. What he hadn’t counted on was a group of about 30 children that had gathered on the other side of the fence. After taking photos and movies of the arriving aircraft, he noticed that the children had moved right up against the fence and were now checking him out. Although he didn’t speak much German and their English was limited, somehow a dialog developed between him and the children. They had many questions about the airlift and the cargo being carried on the C-54s. One little girl made the point that they could live with hardship for quite a while if they knew the airlift would continue. Many of them had seen firsthand what was happening in Soviet controlled East Berlin and didn’t want the same thing to happen to the remainder of Berlin. To sum it up, they “were interested more in freedom than flour.”

Saying goodbye to his new friends, he turned to head back to base operations to catch his ride. He sensed that the children were mature beyond their years and suddenly realized that none of them had asked him for anything. This was very different from what he had experienced in other parts of the world and with only two sticks of Wrigley’s Doublemint gum in his pocket he had very little to offer them. In what would be a life changing decision, he turned around and headed back to the children. He tore each stick of gum in half and passed the pieces to four lucky recipients. No fighting broke out and even strips of the tin foil gum wrappers were passed around to be treasured. Gail thought to himself “Why not drop some gum and even chocolate to these kids out of our airplane the next daylight trip to Berlin?” He told the children he would do this and they asked how they would know which airplane he was flying. He told them he would wiggle his wings and to the children of Berlin he would become known as “Uncle Wiggle Wings.” Luckily, the driver was still waiting for him when he returned to base operations and the photo tour of Berlin, in both the allied and Russian sectors, was completed before his return flight to Rhein-Main for a few hours of sleep prior to the next day’s first flight.

Gail enlisted fellow crew members Pickering and Elkins in his project and they pooled their three candy rations for the first candy drop. Using parachutes made from handkerchiefs, the plan was for Elkins to drop the three packages using an emergency flare chute next to the pilot’s seat. As they flew over the apartment house at the end of the runway, Gail gave the command to drop the packages. They didn’t have to wait very long to confirm that the packages had arrived on target. While taxing for takeoff, they saw a group of children at the fence enthusiastically waving the three parachutes to each passing aircraft. None of the crew realized at the time that they had set off a chain of events that would ultimately lift the spirits of Berliners and help them get through the very trying times ahead.

The crew nervously waited a summons from “management” but that never came and they pooled their resources for a second drop, which happened a week later. Other flight crews had noticed the enthusiastic kids at the end of the runway but the trio maintained their oath of secrecy and their secret was safe; at least for the time being. A chance visit to base operations a few days later revealed a large stack of mail addressed to “Uncle Wackelflugel” (Uncle Wiggly Wings) and the candy bombers quickly realized that the situation had possibly gotten out of control.

To increase their “payload” the group decided they would combine a few weeks’ worth of rations for a third drop, which was executed according to plan. They decided this would be the final drop as they didn’t want to push their luck, which they found out the next day had run out. Apparently they had almost hit a reporter with a candy bar on the third drop and Gail was summoned to Colonel James Haun’s office after their arrival back at Rhein-Main. The colonel asked him “What in the world have you being doing?” to which he replied “Flying like mad sir.” The colonel asked him again and got the same response to which he exclaimed “I’m not stupid” and showed Gail the newspaper article that the reporter had written. Colonel Haun said that he had received a call earlier in the day from General Tunner congratulating him about the crew’s candy dropping exploits. The colonel was embarrassed by the fact that he didn’t know about the drops and was upset with Gail but, what saved Gail and the crew was that the general told Haun to keep doing it because it was great publicity. With that “Operation Little Vittles” was born.

The operation grew very quickly with the Rhein-Main base commander providing two secretaries who immediately began sending responses to the many letters received from the children. Candy and gum donations poured in and almost immediately a parachute shortage developed. The wire services had carried the report on the shortages and radio stations throughout the United States were playing tunes if the requester would send a parachute to Operation Little Vittles. Many of these homemade parachutes had the donor’s name and address written on them. The crowds became too large at the end of the runway so drops were made at playgrounds, parks, school areas and church yards throughout West Berlin. A number of drops were made over East Berlin but these were quickly ended after the Russians lodged a diplomatic protest, which almost ended the operation.

Many schools and companies in the United States got involved and, in Chicopee, Massachusetts, twenty-three schools began a coordinated effort to support the operation. By January 21, 1949, their production peaked at 800 pounds shipped per day! In September 1948 Gail was summoned to New York for newspaper interviews and appearances on a number of television and radio shows. During the visit to New York, he was invited to lunch with Mr. John Swersey, who was a member of the American Confectioners Association. Swersey asked Gail what he and the association could do to support the effort and he responded with a number that he thought outlandish. A month after returning to Germany, Gail was shocked to hear that a shipment had arrived at Bremerhaven by ship consisting of 3,500 pounds of candy and gum. A shipment of 3,000 pounds arrived the following week! Too large to drop by parachute, Gail became concerned about how to distribute the 6,500 pounds of the sweet stuff. A solution was found by organizing Christmas parties in Berlin where the candy was distributed!

In January 1949 it was time for Gail to rotate back to the United States after being extended a month to complete some of his Operation Little Vittles responsibilities. It turns out that a documentary that the Air Force had produced on the airlift was being considered for an Oscar and Gail was asked to represent the service at the award ceremony in Hollywood. He was given two tickets and invited his future bride Alta, who he married in April 1949. The couple had three sons and two daughters.

After receiving a regular commission, the Air Force sent him to the University of Florida where he earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Aeronautical Engineering in 1951 and 1952, while on assignment to the Air Force Institute of Technology.

While still on active duty with the Air Force, he was asked to participate in the July 1969 celebration commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift. He was reunited with many of the 1948/49 “Berlin Kids” and their children with reenactments of the candy drop held. Apparently this trip inspired the citizens of Berlin to lobby for his return to the city and, in February 1970, he became commander of the 7350th Air Base Group at Tempelhof Airport. This was very much a quasi-diplomatic position that Gail was initially uncomfortable with, but it was a good fit and he ultimately found the four year assignment very rewarding.

Gail held both technical and leadership positions during his 31 year Air Force career and retired on August 31, 1974 as a Lt. Colonel. After retiring from the military, he and Alta moved to Provo, Utah where he served as the Assistant Dean of Student Life at Brigham Young University from 1976 until 1986. They were both active in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and served as missionaries from 1986 to 1987 in London, England, and again from 1995 to 1997 in St. Petersburg, Russia.

For 25+ years Gail was an active member of the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation (BAHF) attending airshows and the annual candy drop reenactments held in December at the Dare County Regional Airport in Manteo, North Carolina. Gail was the star attraction in 1998 when BAHF flew their C-54E “Spirit of Freedom” to Europe on an epic 69-day journey to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift. During his long association with the organization, Gail was not just a celebrity passenger but an active member of the flight crew who often piloted the vintage C-54 aircraft. This was the same type of aircraft he flew during the airlift.
After faithfully participating in 20+ candy drop reenactments, Gail was disappointed when the 2020 event was canceled due to COVID and was looking forward to the December 2021 event when he would be 101 years old. Unfortunately, he was unable to attend the 2021 event and it was decided that, if Gail couldn’t make it to Manteo to see the event, they would take the new Spirit of Freedom to him in Utah. Plans were well underway when word came on February 16, 2022 that Gail had passed away at the age of 101 and the C-54 ultimately made the trip to be part of a much larger celebration of life that occurred on May 20-21, 2022.

Gail will be long remembered for the simple and kind gesture of sharing his two sticks of gum that blossomed into a movement that gave the people of Berlin hope during a time when hope was in short supply. This showed not only the children, but the people of West Berlin that the airlift was for real and allies weren’t going to abandoned them. For more information about the man and his life, I would highly recommend his excellent autobiography The Berlin Candy Bomber.

I’d like to thank Gail’s daughter Denise Williams for sharing her father’s story and for recommending the autobiography.

Ralph M. Pettersen
July 2022

Photo Credits: Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation

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