“If we get outside ourselves on the road of life, for somebody who is struggling more than you are, then you’re going to be rewarded in a way you’ll never know.” -Gail Halvorsen
In May 1945, in the waning hours of the Second World War, Allied forces were quickly closing in on the German capital city of Berlin.
The German Army had collapsed and the defense of Berlin had fallen to the elderly men and boys still left in the city. The Soviet Red Army was fast approaching from the East, and the combined Allied armies were approaching from the western parts of Germany. The Soviets arrived first.
Then all hell broke loose.
When Soviet troops arrived in Berlin, vengeance against the Germans became the order of the day. Soviet soldiers lost all sense of discipline and went on a rampage through what was left of the city. Berliners were subjugated to mass rapes, killings, and lootings for days on end by Soviet occupation forces. Men, women, and children were all targeted, and many experienced atrocities too unspeakable to be mentioned here.
By the time American, British, and French forces arrived, Berlin as a city was virtually destroyed. Estimates were that one-third of all buildings in the city had been reduced to rubble due to heavy fighting and bombing campaigns to bring an end to the German war effort. There was no electricity or running water; disease was rampant. The inhabitants of the city were faced with the prospect of starvation in addition to all the terrors they had experienced in the war and Soviet incursions.
As the war wrapped up, the task of rebuilding Berlin and caring for it’s civilian population fell to the Allied victors. Germany was split into four sectors, with each sector controlled by the Soviet Union, the United States, Great Britain, and France, respectively. The city of Berlin, still mostly in ruins, was also divided into four sectors, each run by one of the abovementioned countries. As 1945 drew to a close, it looked as if peace and healing would begin to take hold in Berlin.
Things began to go bad very quickly.
While Soviet leader and dictator Joseph Stalin had been willing to work with the United States and Great Britain to defeat Nazi Germany in the Second World War, it became clear soon afterward that Stalin had his own sights set on dominating Europe following the war’s end. Shortly after 1945, Soviet-sponsored coups and revolutions began to take place in a variety of European countries, leading former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to comment in a speech that an “Iron Curtain” had fallen across Europe.
Meanwhile, relations between the Soviet Union and the Allies continued to disintegrate. Acts of espionage committed against the United States by the Soviets were soon uncovered, with Soviet spies trying to steal the secrets to the atomic weapons the US had just developed. Tensions in Europe continued to rise. A Third World War appeared just on the horizon. The Cold War had begun.
The Soviet Union tried desperately for the next several years to gain control of the entirety of Berlin from the Allies. However, thanks to the efforts of Allied leaders with colorful names such as US Army Colonel Frank “Howling Mad” Howley and British General Robert “Looney” Hinde, as well as President Harry Truman and US Army General Lucias Clay, Soviet efforts were stymied. A battle of wits over the hearts and minds of Berliners ensued. Would Berlin (and the rest of Germany) become the next member state of the Soviet Union’s tyranny? Would the rest of the world soon follow?
In 1948, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union collapsed. In an effort to gain control of all Berlin, Soviet forces instituted a blockade of the Western half of the city. Railroads and the German “Autobahn” (Freeway) into the city were shut down by Soviet troops. Since the city was still mostly ruined, food and supplies had to be brought into the city through the Soviet controlled sector of Germany. Because the city was geographically located in the Eastern part of Germany (and thus, within territory already occupied by Soviet troops), it didn’t take long before all routes into Berlin were cut off.
If the people of the city were not willing to join the Soviets, they would starve to death. War between the United States and Russia seemed imminent, and the lives of over two million Berliners hung in the balance.
What followed was perhaps the greatest humanitarian mission of the 20th century.
Seeing the problems posed by the blockade, American and British leaders debated the best course of action to address the problem of bringing food to the city. Railroads, highways, and rivers were shut down, but the Soviets were unable to control the air over the city.
While Allied leaders debated sending armored convoys into the city to break the blockade, the US Air Force began sending planes loaded with supplies to the Tempelhof Airport in Berlin. There was a problem, however. Very few military planes were still in service in Europe, and the few that remained had seen great ordeals during their wartime service. Many still had camouflage paint from missions in the North African theater of WWII, and others still had paint and bullet holes from flights over Normandy on D-Day.
Other problems persisted as well. Berliners were already barely getting enough food to stay alive. Now it appeared that thousands would begin starving to death unless enough planes were available to bring in food and medicine. Winter was also fast approaching, which meant even more planes would be needed to bring in coal for the city’s electricity and heating; there was a real possibility that the people who survived starvation would freeze to death.
These daunting odds didn’t stop the Allies. Taking lessons learned from the massive logistical hurdles of the Second World War, the US and British Air Forces were able to put together a scientifically precise airlift operation, with planes landing in the city and taking off again at precise moments. The mission to supply Berlin came to be known as Operation Vittles.
By the height of the airlift, planes were landing and unloading food, medicine, coal, salt, and other essentials every ninety seconds. Pilots and their crewmembers were not allowed to step away from their planes, but were instead ordered to wait with their craft, and prepare for their next flight in order to keep the operation moving smoothly.
One of these pilots was a young World War II veteran named Gail Halvorsen. Born in Utah, Halvorsen had been a transport plane pilot during the war. Missing out on the action experienced by fighter and bomber crews during the war, Halvorsen remained in the military following the end of hostilities and was called back overseas at the start of the airlift.
One day, while enjoying some downtime at Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, Halvorsen noticed a number of German children standing on the other side of one of the fences, watching planes land and take off again. He approached them and began to talk. Halvorsen was surprised by their questions; many wanted to talk about what it meant to be free. Halvorsen realized these children were just some of the Berliners who faced starvation if the airlift failed.
He was also surprised by how none of them asked for candy, as children in other countries Halvorsen had visited often did. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out two sticks of gum he had purchased earlier; he broke the gun into pieces and gave it to the children. For all of the kids, this was their first time tasting chewing gum. Several children were overjoyed to just be able to sniff the wrappers the gum came in.
This gave Halvorsen an idea. Moved by the sight of these children, he told them to keep an eye out the following day for his airplane, a C-54 Transport plane. He told them they would be able to tell it was him because he would wiggle his wings while he flew overhead.
Upon returning to the Air Force base in West Germany, Halvorsen and his crew purchased candy bars from the base Post Exchange (“PX” for short). He tied the candy into small parachutes made from handkerchiefs and dropped them from the emergency flare chute on the plane. To signal to the children on the ground, Halvorsen wiggled the plane’s wings as he flew overhead and dropped the chocolate bars to the overjoyed children on the ground.
Halvorsen and his crew dropped candy again on a subsequent trip, this time to a larger group of children. Fearing a court-martial for disobeying the strict rules of the airlift, they elected to keep the candy drops a secret, and to only do one or two more before calling it quits.
The candy drops did not go unnoticed, however.
Soon, letters began arriving at the Tempelhof Airport, written in crayon and addressed to “Uncle Wiggly-Wings”, “The Bon-bon flyer”, “The Chocolate Pilot”, and lastly, “To the Candy Bomber”.
Adults noticed the drops as well. One day, a reporter was standing outside the airport fenced-in, covering the story of the ongoing airlift, when a parachuting chocolate bar nearly struck him in the head. Curious, the reporter began looking closer at the candy bars floating to the ground. He ran a story about the curious incident, and the story made major headlines across Europe.
This soon attracted the attention of General William Tunner, the commander of the airlift operation. Gail Halvorsen found himself called into Tunner’s office. Given Tunner’s reputation for being a harsh leader who would fire staff members without second thought, Halvorsen thought he was being called in to be Court-martialed.
Nothing of the sort occurred. Tunner, seeing the immense value of the candy drops in a battle for the hearts and minds of the world, encouraged Halvorsen and his fellow pilots to keep up the drops. Operation “Little Vittles” was born. Radio stations, charity groups, and other civilians back home in the United States began donating candy and handkerchiefs to the cause.
During World War II American and British planes had repeatedly dropped bombs on targets in the city of Berlin in an effort to defeat the ability of Hitler’s Nazi henchman to wage war. Now, the American and British Air Forces became the lifelines of the city, and instead of dropping bombs, they dropped candy over the city. Many children who had survived the horrors of the war were now given something for the first time they never knew they could experience: hope.
The Berlin Airlift would continue into 1949. Thirty-one American and forty British airmen would give their lives during the airlift while trying to keep the people of the city alive. Former enemies now became allies and friends in the cause of freedom.
In the Spring of 1949, the Soviet Union quit their blockade of the city, conceding that they could never control the whole of Berlin or of Germany. East Berlin would remain occupied until 1989, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Berlin was finally reunited.
And what of Gail Halvorsen? He didn’t stop with his candy drops. Even today, at 100 years old, he still flies over groups of children in Germany to drop parachutes of candy to them in commemoration of the airlift.
The story of “The Candy Bomber” and the Berlin airlift should serve as a reminder to us in the present day: So long as there remain courageous men and women in the world, ready to exercise their God-given abilities on behalf of others, there will always be reason for hope.
There is another lesson as well. We never really know how far an act of kindness will go, and what impact it may ultimately have on others we may never even meet. Which means it is all the more important to strive to show love and compassion to everyone we encounter in life. You never know who may need it most.
For further reading:
Milton, Giles Checkmate in Berlin: The Cold War Showdown that Shaped the Modern World
“The Candy Bomber” A Free to watch documentary on YouTube about Gail Halvorsen’s “Operation Little Vittles”
Featured photo credit: 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. (U.S. Air Force photo)