Retired Col. Gail S. Halvorsen, known commonly as the Berlin “Candy Bomber,” stands in front of a C-54 Skymaster like the one he flew during WWII at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Arizona. Halvorsen dropped candy bars attached to parachutes made from handkerchiefs to German children watching the airlift operations from outside the fence of the Tempelhof Airport in West Berlin. Photo by Bennie J. Davis III/U.S. Air Force photo
Every year around the holidays, millions of children worldwide anticipate the festivities associated with Christmas: the carefully wrapped presents, a fresh snowfall that covers Santa Claus-decorated households, the piney smell of the tree, and spending time with friends and family.
But in 1948, the children of Berlin weren’t searching for Santa Claus — they needed a Christmas miracle. And his name was Gail Halvorsen, the famed “Berlin Candy Bomber” who dropped boxes of chocolate and gum from his plane using tiny handkerchief parachutes to the smiling children below, often at the instruction of crayon-drawn maps and letters. The spirit of Christmas was fueled by Halvorsen’s desire to restore the hope the Soviets were threatening to extinguish.
Gail S. Halvorsen, the “Berline Candy Bomber.” Photo courtesy of wigglywings.weebly.com
After the conclusion of World War II, the Allies (U.S., France, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union) were forced to pick up the pieces and provide aid to the struggling citizens of Germany, many lacking basic necessities to survive, such as food, water, and housing. The Soviets were responsible for the eastern portion while the U.S., France, and Great Britain supported the west. Berlin was split further and divided into zones between the four of them. Along the way, the Soviets disagreed with the ideologies, the future of government and policy, currency, and, ultimately, the direction the nation was being steered.
This led to increased tensions, and by April 1948, the once battle-hardened Allies were on the brink of going to war with each other. The humanitarian effort to help the citizens was put on hold and all allied trains into Western Berlin stopped. On June 18, the U.S., France, and Great Britain proposed a plan to unify Western Germany’s currency to better the economy. The Soviets, led by Joseph Stalin, countered by blocking all land routes to noncommunist zones, which cut off supplies to over 2 million men, women, and children and sparked a desperate emergency. In order to keep the peace and overcome the blockade, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) and Royal Air Force (RAF) led the effort from the air that became known as the Berlin Airlift-Operation Vittles.
The premise sounds promising by today’s standards, but at that time Douglas C-47 Skytrains could only manage 3.5 tons of supplies each — a minuscule number compared to ground transport capabilities. The city of Berlin required 1,534 tons of food rations just to keep the 2 million people fed, and to make this happen, the C-47s would need to do more than 1,000 flights a day. With their resources, the situation appeared dire. The Soviets were pressuring its allies to abandon the people in Berlin and routinely harassed flights with anti-aircraft weapons and searchlights.
Naturally, the U.S. didn’t take this strong-arming lightly, and on June 28, President Harry Truman ordered 90 B-29 Superfortresses to be stationed near British air bases to enforce the point that the Americans weren’t going anywhere. Furthermore, C-54s were added to the rotation, allowing for a freshly stocked plane to leave the airport every five minutes.
‘I was there for about an hour, and of those 30 kids by the barbed wire, not one child begged for chocolate.’
Despite the daunting task that lay ahead, Operation Vittles (Brits called it Operation Plane Flare) was enacted and pilots began their challenging 15-month assignments; at the time, air drops were viewed as unfamiliar territory. With limited planes, supplies, and three airports out of which to operate, it was the only option to keep the peace.
Halvorsen expected the airlift to be short and decided to walk along the outskirts of Tempelhof Airfield in Berlin to record some home movies of the C-54s preparing for a hasty landing on the runway, just passing over several buildings. As he was putting the camera up to his eye, he noticed a bunch of children gathered along the barbed wire fence. His curiosity and the calmness of the children persuaded him to go over and talk to them.
Retired Col. Gail Halvorsen. Photo courtesy of Stephanie James/Stars and Stripes
In the Patriot to the Core podcast interview recorded in 2016, Halvorsen said, “I was there for about an hour, and of those 30 kids by the barbed wire, not one child begged for chocolate.” During the war, I flew around Africa and England and kids that age knew Americans had chocolate and begged for chocolate. What struck me was these kids didn’t have chocolate for a few years and none of them begged. And I thought, Why? It’s because they were so grateful for flour to be free, they wouldn’t ask for something so extravagant.”
This moved Halvorsen, and he reached into his pocket and grabbed his last two sticks of bubblegum and watched as each child split their small piece in half and shared it. Those that didn’t get a piece asked for the wrapper, and the kids ripped the pieces and put them to their noses. Halvorsen watched their faces light up when smelling its minty flavor.
“They 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 just don’t give up on us. Someday we will have enough to eat, but if we lose our freedom, we’ll never get it back,” Halvorsen said.
By December 1948, 23 tons of candy were dropped, and 3 tons were delivered to orphanages on Christmas Day.
Halvorsen was already devising a plan because he knew he could buy chocolate for cheap. He told the children to come back tomorrow and he would drop it from his plane. They asked how they would know it was him, and Halvorsen replied, “I’ll wiggle my wings.” As the children eagerly waited the next day, a plane approached them, wiggled its wings, and pushed out three tiny handkerchief parachutes wrapped around a box containing chocolate and Wrigley’s gum. Halvorsen looked back and saw the children going wild — Operation Little Vittles was born.
After the small success along the barbed wire of Tempelhof Airfield, Halvorsen promised to drop chocolate on all of his flights. Aboard his plane there was a pilot (Halvorsen), a co-pilot, and a flight engineer. Halvorsen described that under the feet of the crew chief is a small hole in the fuselage. The purpose was for a flare on a parachute that would light up the sky if the pilot needed to signal someone or prepare for a crash landing. This was the perfect way to time the drop of the candy parachutes and predict their falling patterns. The first trial runs occurred at the barbed wire fence, but because crowds got too big and with fears of children being hurt in the melee, Halvorsen dropped the candy all over the city of West Berlin.
In the operations center was a map of West Berlin, and after each flight Halvorsen would come in and place a pin on the location of his delivery. The message quickly spread around the city that a USAF pilot the children called Uncle Wiggly Wings was dropping candy. Soon after, letters started arriving through the mail with detailed instructions: “Dear Uncle from the Heaven: Fly along the big canal to the second bridge. Turn right one block. I live in the bombed out house on the corner. I’ll be in the backyard everyday at 2:00PM. Drop the chocolate there.”
A thank-you letter from a child in Berlin. Photo courtesy of Gail Halvorsen’s website, wigglywings.weebly.com
His fellow aviators saw the impact that “The Chocolate Pilot” had on raising the hope of the German children and how his efforts were changing the morale of their former enemies, so they joined the endeavor. Support also came from back home, with major candy companies like Hershey and Wrigley donating tons of chocolate bars and packs of gum. The small town of Chicopee, Massachusetts, involved 22 schools working overtime every weekday from 2-5 PM and weekends from 9 AM to noon. They established an assembly line using an old light canvas a little bit bigger than a handkerchief for the parachutes. With some string, the kids would tie it up and stack it in a discreet bundle of cardboard boxes to be delivered to Westover Air Force Base to support the Candy Bomber mission.
One 7-year-old girl named Mercedes Simon chewed out Halvorsen for flying over her yard and scaring her white chickens. They lost their feathers and struggled to lay eggs because of the loud engines of the planes overhead. She wrote, “When you see the white chickens, drop it there. I don’t care if it scares them.” Halvorsen was unable to locate the chickens on the ground so he personally mailed candy to her home with a letter that read, “Dear Mercedes, I can’t find your chickens. I hope this is OK. Your Chocolate Uncle.”
Twenty-two years later, Halvorsen was assigned as the commander of Tempelhof Airport and accepted an invitation to meet Mercedes and her husband, Peter, for dinner. They have visited each other over 30 times since 1972.
One of the children’s letters addressing American pilots. Photo courtesy of Gail Halvorsen’s website, wigglywings.weebly.com
Despite all the positive feedback for his actions, there are always politics. One USAF commander told Halvorsen that he needed to stop dropping to the “nasty communist kids,” to which Halvorsen replied, “Kids are just kids. Gravity is the same on both sides of the border.” The Soviets issued a statement claiming that the State Department “is a dirty capitalist prick trying to influence the minds of young people against the regime,” the commander recalled and told Halvorsen to stop. After being threatened with a court martial, General William H. Tunner pardoned him and said, “Keep it up.”
By December 1948, 23 tons of candy were dropped, and 3 tons were delivered to orphanages on Christmas Day. In total, Operation Vittles became the largest humanitarian airlift operation in history; of the 189,963 flights, only 126 were accidents with 31 USAF airmen and 39 British RAF airmen who didn’t make it home.
Today, the Air Mobility Command launches a mission of mercy every 90 seconds all around the world; thanks to the contributions started by Colonel Halvorsen, the U.S. flag on the tails of every aircraft is a symbol that help is on the way. Halvorsen retired in 1974 after 31 years of service and 8,000 flying hours; however, he remained committed to serving others by leading humanitarian candy airdrops in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Albania, while he advocated for similar missions in Iraq, Japan, and Guam. In 1999, Halvorsen was inducted into the Airlift/Tanker Hall of Fame and the following year he conducted a “Christmas Drop” for the natives in the Micronesian Islands. In 2014, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal — the highest award Congress can give to a civilian.
Halvorsen is now 98 years old, and he still gets up in the air to bring a smile to children’s faces.
“There’s something magical about a chocolate bar that comes floating out of the sky, tied on an actual parachute,” he said. “They run just as hard now as they did in 1948.”
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.