Shortly after a war it would be quite unnerving to see a bomber flying over your city.
However in West Berlin in 1948, this was a welcome sight. It probably was the equivalent of Santa delivering presents early. After World War 2, when Soviet Union leader Josef Stalin occupied West Berlin in 1948, Halvorsen participated in the Berlin Airlift, a joint military effort between America and the United Kingdom to deliver food and aid to the German city.
Lieutenant Halvorsen’s role in the Berlin Airlift was to fly one of many C-54 cargo planes used to ferry supplies into the starving city. During his flights he would first fly to Berlin, then deeper into Soviet-controlled areas. Halvorsen had an interest in photography and on his days off often went sightseeing in Berlin and shot film on his personal handheld movie camera. One day in July, he was filming planes taking off and landing at Tempelhof, the main landing site for the airlift. While there, he saw about thirty children lined up behind one of the barbed-wire fences. He went to meet them and noticed that the children had nothing. Halvorsen remembers: “I met about thirty children at the barbed wire fence that protected Tempelhof’s huge area. They were excited and told me that ‘when the weather gets so bad that you can’t land, don’t worry about us. We can get by on a little food, but if we lose our freedom, we may never get it back.'”Touched, Halvorsen reached into his pocket and took out two sticks of gum to give to the children. The kids broke them into little pieces and shared them; the ones who did not get any sniffed the wrappers.
Watching the children, so many of whom had absolutely nothing, Halvorsen regretted not having more to give them. Halvorsen recorded that he wanted to do more for the children, and so told them that the following day he would have enough gum for all of them, and he would drop it out of his plane. According to Halvorsen, one child asked “How will we know it is your plane?” to which Halvorsen responded that he would wiggle his wings, something he had done for his parents when he first got his pilot’s license in 1941.
That night, Halvorsen, his copilot, and his engineer pooled their candy rations for the next day’s drop. The accumulated candy was heavy, so in order to ensure that no children were hurt by the falling package, Halvorsen made three parachutes out of handkerchiefs and tied them to the rations.In the morning when Halvorsen and his crew made regular supply drops, they also dropped three boxes of candy attached to handkerchiefs. They made these drops once a week for three weeks. Each week, the group of children waiting at the Tempelhof airport fence grew significantly.
When word reached the airlift commander, Lieutenant General William H. Tunner, he ordered it expanded into Operation “Little Vittles”, named as a play on the airlift’s name of Operation Vittles. Operation Little Vittles began officially on September 22, 1948. Support for this effort to provide the children of Berlin with chocolate and gum grew quickly, first among Halvorsen’s friends, then to the whole squadron. As news of Operation Little Vittles reached the United States, children and candymakers from all over the US began contributing candy. By November 1948, Halvorsen could no longer keep up with the amount of candy and handkerchiefs being sent from across America. College student Mary C. Connors of Chicopee, Massachusetts offered to take charge of the now national project and worked with the National Confectioner’s Association to prepare the candy and tie the handkerchiefs. With the groundswell of support, Little Vittles pilots, of which Halvorsen was now one of many, were dropping candy every other day. Children all over Berlin had sweets, and more and more artwork was getting sent back with kind letters attached to them.The American candy bombers became known as the Rosinenbomber (Raisin Bombers), while Halvorsen himself became known by many nicknames to the children of Berlin, including his original moniker of “Uncle Wiggly Wings”, as well as “The Chocolate Uncle”, “The Gum Drop Kid” and “The Chocolate Flier”.
Operation “Little Vittles” was in effect from September 22, 1948, to May 13, 1949. Although Lieutenant Halvorsen returned home in January 1949, he passed on leadership of the operation to one of his friends, Captain Lawrence Caskey. Upon his return home, Halvorsen met with several individuals who were key in making Operation “Little Vittles” a success. Halvorsen personally thanked his biggest supporter Dorothy Groeger, a homebound woman who nonetheless enlisted the help of all of her friends and acquaintances to sew handkerchiefs and donate funds. He also met the schoolchildren and “Little Vittles” committee of Chicopee, Massachusetts who were responsible for preparing over 18 tons of candy and gum from across the country and shipping it to Germany. In total, it is estimated that Operation “Little Vittles” was responsible for dropping over 23 tons of candy from over 250,000 parachutes.
Halvorsen tells HistoryNet’s David Lauterborn that an encounter with a group of young German children watching Allied soldiers arrive at the Templehof air base helped put things into perspective. Through a barbed-wire perimeter fence, they spoke to him.
“These kids were giving me a lecture, telling me, “Don’t give up on us. If we lose our freedom, we’ll never get it back,” Halvorsen tells HistoryNet. “I just flipped. Got so interested, I forgot what time it was.”
The pilot then handed the children two sticks of gum and told them to come back the next day, when he planned to airdrop more sweets. He would wiggle the wings of his aircraft so they would know it was him, reports the Boston Globe.
Halvorsen lived up to his promise, asking other pilots to donate their candy rations and having his flight engineer rock the airplane during the drop. Things grew from there, as more and more children showed up to catch his airdrops and letters began to arrive “requesting special airdrops at other points in the city,” writes the Air Force. The peculiar wing maneuver was how Halvorsen earned his other nickname: ‘Uncle Wiggly Wings.’
During the airlift, Allied planes carrying supplies landed every 45 seconds at Templehoff Airport in Berlin. From June 1948, the pilots delivered 2.3 million tons of food, coal, medicine and other necessities on 278,000 flights up until the end of the Soviet blockade in May 1949, according to the AP.
Halvorsen remained in the military after the war, retiring as a colonel in 1974 from the Air Force, reports Richard Goldstein for the New York Times. He moved back to Utah and became assistant dean of student life at Brigham Young University in Provo.
That same year, Halvorsen received the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany for his efforts as the “Candy Bomber,” per the Boston Globe.
Gail Seymour “The Candy Bomber” Halvorsen was born on October 10, 1920 and lived a very long life, He died aged 101 on February 16, 2022.
Halvorsen died from respiratory failure in Provo on February 16, 2022, at the age of 101.After funeral services conducted for him with full military honors, which included a flyover by a KC-135R of the Utah Air National Guard’s 151st Air Refueling Wing and a 21-gun salute by honor guard members from the Air Force ROTC units from BYU and Utah Valley University, he was buried at the Provo City Cemetery.
Happy Birthday dear Sir.
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