All he did was give candy to children. But in doing so, Lt. Gail Halvorsen inadvertently launched what was perhaps the greatest publicity campaign of the Cold War.
One day during the Berlin Airlift in July 1948, C-54 pilot Halvorsen saw thirty hungry children huddled outside the barbed wire at Tempelhof Airport.
“When the weather gets so bad that you can’t land,” the kids told him, “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.”
Halvorsen took out two sticks of gum from his pocket and have them to the children. They carefully sliced the sticks into a couple dozen pieces. Those who didn’t get a section got to sniff the wrapper. Halvorsen’s heart broke for the children, and he told them he would drop gum for all of them out of his plane on his return trip to Tempelhof.
“How will we know it is your plane?” the kids asked.
“I’ll wiggle my wings,” he responded. The next day, after fulfilling his promise, Gail Halvorsen became known throughout West Berlin as “Uncle Wiggle Wings” and “The Candy Bomber.”
Gail Halvorsen was just one of thousands of American pilots who flew supplies into West Berlin during 1948-1949 after Joseph Stalin had blockaded the city in an attempt to annex it to East Germany. Over 15 hard months, against all odds and expert recommendations, US and British Air Forces supplied West Berlin with all the food, fuel, medicine, and other supplies it needed to survive. By the end of the operation, the pilots had flown 92 million miles on 277,000 flights and delivered 2.5 million tons of supplies. At its peak, the Airlift landed a flight at Tempelhof every minute, round-the-clock. The Airlift’s success stunned Stalin, who surrendered in May 1949, lifting the blockade. West Berlin was saved.
The standoff in the skies over Berlin was perilous not only for the pilots and the city, but also the world. The Soviets and the United States stood at the brink of World War III. Stalin might easily have ordered planes to be shot out of the sky. What kept him from doing so was the international perception that the US was on a humanitarian mission, not military one. West Berliners cheered the American effort. But Europe worried that President Harry Truman’s Airlift was just the kind of reckless folly that might trip the continent into war.
Gail Halvorsen’s candy bombing won the world’s hearts at the moment when the US needed to show it had no imperial ambitions in Europe. The day after meeting the gaggle of kids at Tempelhof, Halvorsen wiggled the wings of his C-54 and dropped candy bars with little handkerchief parachutes out his cockpit window. He did it again the next week, and the next. Soon, hundreds of children were gathered at the airport to collect the candy from their “Chocolate Flyer” and “Chocolate Uncle.” Berliner youths wrote letters of thanks to Halvorsen’s air base and included instructions on where to drop candy. “My house is the one with the white chickens and red coop,” wrote one girl.
The stir caused by Halvorsen’s candy bombing caught the ire of his direct commander, who chewed the pilot out for it and reported him upstairs. When Airlift commander Lt. Gen. William Tunner ordered Halvorsen to report to his office, the 27-year-old pilot was sure he was going to be reprimanded. Instead, Tunner told Halvorsen he was a genius and asked him what it would take to get every Airlift pilot to drop sweets on Berlin. American pilots were told to pool their ration candy, fashion little parachutes, and throw them down to the children of Berlin. Back home in the US, schoolchildren and candymakers heard about the mini-operation and started sending over boxes of chocolate, gum, and handkerchiefs for the Airlift pilots. By May 1949, 23 tons of candy had been dropped on Berlin from over a quarter-million parachutes.
Today, Berliners old enough to remember the Airlift still cherish Gail Halvorsen as their best American friend. Halvorsen would go on to serve another 25 years in the Air Force, retiring as a Colonel. Last month, he celebrated his 100th birthday.
We look forward to having Candy Bomber Gail Halvorsen on Greatest Generation Live this Sunday, November 22 at 4:00pm. Join us to meet a living legend!