Written by Todd DePastino
All he did was give candy to children. But in doing so, Lieutenant Gail Halvorsen inadvertently launched one of the greatest diplomatic missions of the Cold War.
A Douglas C-54 Skymaster dropping candy over Berlin (Museum of USAF)
In November 2020, we welcomed the 100-year-old Berlin Airlift hero and icon to our VBC Happy Hour, and he told us about his first C-54 Airlift trip to Tempelhof Airport on July 17, 1948.
He was walking the airport grounds and approached a group of thirty raggedy children standing silently outside the fence.
“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.”
The comment stunned Gail, a 27-year-old veteran of World War II. Here they were, young German survivors of that same war, reminding him what freedom meant.
The children never asked for anything, but Halvorsen took out two sticks of gum from his pocket—all he had–and handed them to the older kids. They children carefully sliced the sticks into a couple dozen pieces. Those who didn’t get a section got to sniff the wrapper. Halvorsoen’s heart broke for the children, and he told them he would drop enough candy for all of them on his return trip to Tempelhof.
Dagmar Weiss Snodgrass and Gail Halvorsen on VBC Happy Hour in November 2020
“How will we know it is your plane?” the kids asked.
“I’ll wiggle my wings,” he responded.
The next day, he made good on his promise. Technically, he hadn’t broken any regulation. The extra cargo he’d carried—candy scrounged from unused rations—had been dropped before he landed, outside the fence, carried safely to the hands of the gathered children by little handkerchief parachutes he’d sewn the night before.
Gail continued his candy drops the next day and the next, until word spread throughout West Berlin about the magical “Uncle Wiggle Wings,” “The Candy Bomber.”
Young Berliners sent thank you notes to Rhein-Main Air Base near Frankfurt, where Gail was stationed, and often included instructions on where to drop candy. “My house is the one with the white chickens and red coop,” wrote one girl.
Gail Halvorsen greets children of West Berlin (USAF)
Gail’s candy bombing caught the ire of his direct commander, who chewed the pilot out for creating a distraction. The commander also reported the incident up the chain of command to General William Tunner himself.
Gail’s knees shook as he entered Tunner’s office for what was certain to be a severe reprimand, a bust in rank, or worse.
Instead, the General commended Halvorsen for his ingenuity and asked him what it would take to get every Airlift pilot to drop sweets on Berlin.
It turned out that Gail’s candy bombing was just what the United States needed as it launched its ambitious Airlift in the summer of 1948. Not only did Gail’s mission win the hearts of the city the US was trying to save, it also highlighted the humanitarian, rather than military, nature of the Airlift. The US was in Europe to help, not to chase any imperial ambitions.
1st Lt. Gail Halvorsen and the 17th Military Air Transport Squadron rig some candy bars to miniature parachutes for German children in Berlin as part of Operation Little Vittles. As his C-54 plane approaches Tempelhof AB, Germany, he drops the homemade parachutes weighted with American candy bars and gum (USAF)
In the following months, 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 Airlift pilots. By May 1949, 23 tons of candy had been dropped on Berlin from over a quarter-million parachutes.
One Berliner who picked up a candy bundle in 1948 was young Dagmar Weiss, who later wrote a book in tribute to Gail titled, Uncle Wiggly Wings: My Love and Admiration for Berlin’s Candy Bomber. Dagmar joined our program with Gail in November 2020. We got to hear her story, and she got to express her enduring gratitude for the Airlift heroes.
Gail Halvorsen, a poor farm boy from Utah who went on to become a full Colonel in the United States Air Force, died in February 2022 at age 101. The day after he passed, Dagmar sent me an email saying that with the loss of Gail, the world had gotten “poorer and darker.” The world indeed was one hero fewer.
But the spirit of Gail Halvorsen survives, a spirit captured in words he shared on our program:
“My experience on the Airlift taught me that gratitude, hope, and service before self can bring happiness to the soul when the opposite brings despair.”