Col Gail S. Halvorsen (Ret.), the Candy Bomber. Photo by Steve Parsons Photography
German children in West Berlin wave to an Air Force transport aircraft as it comes in to land at Templehof Airport during “Operation Vittles,” better known as the Berlin Airlift in 1948. USAF photo
Lt Gail Halvorsen, “The Candy Bomber,” greets children of isolated West Berlin sometime during 1948-49 after dropping candy bars from the air on tiny parachutes. Photo courtesy of Gail Halvorsen
By MS. BRITTANY OLSON, Staff Writer
Imagine having survived the deadliest conflict in history and losing everything and everyone you ever knew or loved. While the rest of the world is rebuilding and moving forward following the Second World War, you are held a prisoner in your own city, West Berlin, and forced to fend for yourself amid one of history’s most dramatic standoffs initiated by the Soviet Union. You are merely a child who just survived Hitler’s reign, food and water are an everyday scarcity, and the future appears bleaker than ever before, with little chance of your reaching adulthood. You are in dire need of a hero—or at the very least, a glimmer of hope.
That glimmer of hope for the children of West Berlin floated down from the heavens as chocolate candies attached to miniature parachutes, and the hero of the operation was U.S. Air Force Colonel Gail Halvorsen, better known as the Candy Bomber. Little did Halvorsen know that sharing candy with a group of 30 children on the other side of the air base fence and a burning desire to pay it forward would result in Operation Little Vittles and make him an international hero. “I have a lot of favorite parts in my life, but the one that stands out to me is the children of Berlin,” recounted Halvorsen.
Following WWII, Germany was divided into four zones and occupied by foreign militaries. Whereas western Germany was controlled by the United States, Great Britain, and France, eastern Germany was governed by the Soviet Union.
In May of 1946, the United States, Great Britain, and France unified their German occupation zones to fortify West Germany as tensions with the Soviet Union escalated. The nations focused on Germany’s economic revival and intended to establish a common currency for West Germany. The Soviet Union perceived the coalition as a threat, and on June 24, 1948, Soviet forces blocked all transportation routes by land and sea into West Berlin. The territory’s 2 million residents were isolated from the rest of the world and deprived of food, water, fuel, and other necessities.
On June 26, 1948, the United States and British Air Forces responded to the Soviet blockade with an airlift task force referred to by the U.S. military as Operation Vittles. For 15 months, the U.S. Air Force contributed a fleet of 340 aircraft and aided in transporting more than 4,500 tons of food, water, coal, medical supplies, and other humanitarian aid daily to the residents of West Berlin. To this day, the Berlin Airlift was the largest humanitarian airlift operation executed in history, and it single-handedly liberated West Berlin from Soviet occupation and communist expansion. Most important, however, the humanitarian operation kept the hopes and dreams of freedom, unification with western Germany, and a better future alive for the men, women, and children of West Berlin.
Halvorsen was assigned to the Berlin Airlift on July 10, 1948, as a C-54 pilot responsible for airdropping humanitarian packages with flour, milk, meat, and coal. Wherever he was stationed, Halvorsen always carried a ration of chocolate and candy to share with the local children he met.
Halvorsen’s epic journey as the Candy Bomber began while at the end of Tempelhof runway where he met a group of children on the other side of a barbed wire fence. At the time he had only two sticks of gum, which he broke into pieces for the children but promised to drop more goodies the next day.
He said “What impressed me most and what stays with me to this day is that these children, who had been through hell and didn’t know when they might see their next meal, weren’t interested in the treats; they just wanted to express their gratitude for what we were doing to free West Berlin of Russian control. It was such a different reaction from the other kids I met. They weren’t begging for chocolate, unlike the kids in the States that would see a military guy coming off the base and shake him down for candy or a toy gun. Many of the kids were orphans; they knew what Hitler was like, but they were also aware of what the free world was like and wanted more of it, and so they were consumed by that greater goal for freedom. To get involved with them during that part of their life changed the rest of my life. The children were the true heroes.”
The former Airman recalls children as young as 8 years of age saying in a grown-up manner “‘We want freedom more than anything. If we don’t get our freedom now, we’ll never get it back. Just don’t give up on us.’ It gave me great admiration for the youth of West Berlin who were living in such disparate states, where they lost their mom or dad or both, and yet they were optimistic for a better future and didn’t expect any handouts,” explained Halvorsen.
The Airman’s encounter with the first group of endearing children left him with a heavy heart and a burning desire to lift the spirits of the youth of West Berlin on a much larger scale. Originally, once a week, Halvorsen and his crew would pool their candy rations and airdrop the small amount of sweets they had by parachute to children waiting on the other side of the Berlin Tempelhof Air Base fence. In no time, the group of Berlin children grew exponentially in size, and American children and candy manufacturers from all over the world were contributing candy to what had become a full-blown operation known as Operation Little Vittles.
From 1970 to 1974, Halvorsen was reassigned to the Berlin Tempelhof Air Base and reunited with dozens of the Berlin children he had airdropped candy to over his seven-month deployment as a pilot for the Berlin Airlift. “It was incredible seeing the kids that caught the parachutes with candy all grown up with kids of their own. That was the completion of the circle. It was pretty incredible,” noted Halvorsen. In 1999, he was inducted into the Airlift/Tanker Association (A/TA) Hall of Fame for his lifetime contributions to Air Mobility Command.
In 2016, Halvorsen and members of the Civil Air Patrol sought to keep the Candy Bomber’s legacy and history alive and organized the Gail S. Halvorsen Aviation Education Foundation. The organization has since earned a Gold Seal of Transparency for its mission to advance aviation education, promote youth leadership development, and enhance community emergency response and humanitarian services.
In 2017, the foundation committed to constructing an 8,000-square-foot multiuse aviation education center at the Spanish Fork-Springville Airport near Provo, UT. The $5 million project is youth oriented and will house year-round STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education and courses on flight and aviation for local schools and private youth groups. Fundraising for the facility is on-going and has garnered the support of organizations and individuals worldwide.
In 2018, the A/TA Board endorsed and raised $30,000 to support the development of the Gail S. Halvorsen Aviation Education Center’s Candy Bomber-Humanitarian Airlift exhibit, which will display memorabilia and artifacts from the Berlin Airlift that visually tell the story of the Candy Bomber and the effect that Operation Little Vittles had on the youth of West Berlin. Other exhibits will spotlight history’s selfless mobility Airmen who are famous for their integral role in humanitarian operations.