While members of the allied air forces delivered millions of tons of food, fuel and vital staples in the Berlin Airlift almost 60 years ago, one American pilot stood out as a favorite of the sweet-toothed children in the German capital.
Now 87 years old, retired Air Force Col. Gail S. Halvorsen, known as the "Candy Bomber," gained popularity among West Berlin's young residents by tossing candy from his C-54 Skymaster aircraft as he approached a runway, showering the sky with sugary treats.
The idea grew out of a chance meeting with a group of hungry German school children gathered near Tempelhof Airport in Berlin to watch the giant airplanes land and unload, Halvorsen recalled in a February 2007 interview with Air Force Public Affairs.
"They were just grateful that we were bringing in the supplies," he said. "They had been through Hitler, and were going through Stalin," he continued. "After a while, I realized I had talked to these kids for an hour and they hadn't asked for anything. I found out there hadn't been any candy in months."
Halvorsen gave the two pieces of gum in his possession to the kids, half expecting them to fight over the rare treat. Instead, he recalled, the children split the sticks into miniature morsels, and those who didn't get any gum were given small strips torn from the foil wrappers so they could smell the confection's sweet residue.
The pilot promised to bring the children more gum and candy on his next flight into the airport. Though the decision could have earned him a court-martial for breaking flying regulations, Halvorsen vowed to drop the goodies as he passed over them before landing.
So they'd know which of the huge airplanes was his, Halvorsen said he told the children he would "wiggle" his wings as he approached their position.
When he returned to his quarters at Rhein-Main, Germany, then-lieutenant Halvorsen requested his fellow pilots donate their candy rations to disburse to the children. His Air Force comrades warned him of the consequences of throwing unauthorized objects from an aircraft in flight, but he refused to be swayed from delivering on his promise.
After attaching makeshift parachutes of handkerchiefs and string to each chocolate bar, Halvorsen brought the airworthy goodies onboard and kept his oath to the children during his missions over the following three weeks.
Upon returning to Rhein-Main after a flight into Berlin one day, Halvorsen found a message waiting for him. He was to report to the colonel's office, post-haste. I
n the midst of chewing out the young lieutenant for what felt like an eternity, Halvorsen recalled, the colonel produced a German newspaper with a feature article about "Uncle Wiggly Wings," a nickname the children of West Berlin had given Halvorsen.
"It turns out that the general had seen the article before the colonel," the maverick pilot said. "He called the colonel into his office asking which of his pilots had been dropping parachutes into Berlin and the colonel said none of us were.
"The general then told him, 'You'd better wake up, Colonel, because one of your pilots is dropping parachutes,'" Halvorsen recalled. "I think the colonel was more upset that the general found out before he did than he was at what I did."
Local newspapers picked up the story, and Halvorsen's fame started to spread. At his home base, Halvorsen began receiving mail from other pilots who wanted to help. Donors sent candy, volunteers made handkerchief parachutes and the tiny parcels began to fall all over Berlin.
On a brief trip back to the United States, an interviewer asked Halvorsen what he needed to continue his popular "Candy Bomber" operation. He jokingly remarked, "Boxcars full of candy!" Sure enough, shortly after his return to Germany, a train car loaded with 3,000 pounds of chocolate bars arrived for "Uncle Wiggly Wings."
Sixty years after the Berlin Airlift, or "Operation Vittles" -- the largest humanitarian effort in Air Force history -- the mission is remembered for relieving some 2.5 million beleaguered West Berlin residents and striking a blow against the communist Soviet government depriving them of essential goods.
Many also remember the American aircraft that dropped more than 23 tons of candy to the children of West Berlin during the Candy Bomber operation, later renamed "Operation Little Vittles."
For performing an act of valor and self-sacrifice in a humanitarian interest, Halvorsen received the prestigious Cheney Award in 1948, named for 1st Lt. William Cheney, who was killed in an air collision over Italy in 1918. Established in 1927, it's awarded to an airman for an act of valor, extreme fortitude or self-sacrifice in a humanitarian interest, performed in connection with aircraft, but not necessarily of a military nature.
"It's called service before self," Halvorsen told schoolchildren during a February 2006 appearance at an elementary school assembly. "Look at me. I've had a lot of great things happen and met a lot of people, but really it's all because of two sticks of gum."
(Compiled from articles by Air Force Tech Sgt. Ben Gonzales and Ed Drohan published on the U.S. Air Force Website.)
For more about the history of the Berlin Airlift ~ http://www.af.mil/history/spotlight.asp?id=123022256