The Candy Bomber
Recently we had the privilege of welcoming retired Colonel Gail ‘Hal’ Halvorsen, better known as the ‘Berlin Candy Bomber’ or ‘Uncle Wiggly Wings’ to our London site. This 99-year old veteran had been a transport pilot with the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) during the Second World War, but he is best remembered from his actions during the Berlin Airlift.
After Nazi Germany surrendered from the Second World War in 1945, the four main Allies (United Kingdom, United States, Soviet Union and France) divided the country into four military zones. Its capital city, Berlin, was also divided into four zones despite it being in the Soviet Union zone. On 24 June 1948, the Soviet Union blocked all road, rail and canal routes to Berlin from the Western zones. This was to force the Western Allies to yield West Berlin to the Soviet Union. However, a combined effort from the RAF and the United States Air Force managed to sustain the city from the air until 12 May 1949 when these routes opened again.
Hal was just an ordinary USAAF pilot, but surprisingly, he also wore RAF wings. His flight training had been with the RAF No. 3 British Flying Training School in Oklahoma, where both American and RAF recruits were being trained. The RAF had several flying schools around the world during the Second World War. The United Kingdom could not create the large number of trained personnel required for the war by itself. Non-European countries also offered skies empty of enemy aircraft and considerably better weather. As such, several American civilian flying schools were contracted to train cadets and turn them into pilots. Hal received both wings on 17 June 1944.
He started his operational career in late 1944 and flew twin-engined Douglas Dakota transport aircraft in Brazil. However, it was the bigger four-engined Douglas Skymaster which was his favourite. Hal loved the extra power and the comfort of the Skymaster. It was to be his workhorse during the Berlin Airlift. After the conclusion of the Second World War, Hal was transferred back to the United States, flying the biggest transport aircraft at that time, the Douglas Globemaster. This aircraft could carry up to 50,000 lb (22,700 kg) of cargo across the Atlantic Ocean, an extraordinary feat for its day. Only around a dozen were built, but Hal was piloting one of them.
When on 24 June 1948 the crisis started in Berlin, the Skymasters were ordered to Europe to contribute in the nascent Berlin Airlift, code named Operation Vittles. The Globemaster was too heavy to operate from the small German airfields. Hal’s friend Peter Sowa was a Skymaster pilot, but could not join his squadron because of personal reasons. Hal volunteered to take his place and was promptly transferred to the Skymaster squadron, led by Colonel James Haun. Via Newfoundland and the Azores islands the aircraft flew to Rhein-Main airport near Frankfurt in West Germany.
The next day, Hal was flying to Berlin with a Skymaster packed with 138 sacks of flour. He was told that there were no navigational aids and that if he drifted away from the corridor, there would be Soviet fighter aircraft waiting for him. When approaching Berlin, nothing Hal had read, or seen, prepared him for the desolate, ravaged sight below. The gaunt, broken outlines of once-majestic buildings, supported by piles of rubble at their base, stretched from one end of the city to the other. It was unbelievable that two million people lived there.
Hal was shocked to see the conditions they had to work in. At first there were inadequate maintenance service, sleeping facilities and a broken infrastructure. This was mirrored and magnified by Germany still in ruins, lacking basic facilities and with a civilian population dressed in rags and scrounging for food, coal and other vital necessities.
One afternoon in July 1948, after landing at Berlin-Tempelhof airfield, he saw about thirty children lined up behind one of the barbed-wire fences, watching the aircraft coming in overhead to land. He went to meet them and noticed that the children had nothing. He remembers ‘a little girl of about twelve years with wistful blue eyes. She wore a pair of trousers that looked as though they belonged to an older brother and a pair of shoes that had seen better days on someone half again her size’. She told him how the Allied bombers had killed some of their parents, brothers and sisters, but that they now realise that the worst is to lose their freedom. ‘We can get by on a little food, but if we lose our freedom, we may never get it back.’
Hal said goodbye to them and walked toward the Jeep which was going to take him back to his aircraft. He paused. He reached in his pocket and took out two sticks of Wrigley’s Doublemint chewing gum. He turned around abruptly and walked back toward the fence. It would be a moment which changed his life. He broke the two sticks in half and gave it to four children. Others took the wrapper, strips were torn off and passed around with the children smelling the mint flavour. Their eyes lit up with sheer surprise and joy. Hal quickly thought ‘What I could do with thirty full sticks of gum!’.
Hal decided then and there to drop some gum and even chocolate to these kids next time he flew overhead. He knew it was against regulations, but he told himself ‘it’ll be just a one-time thing!’. He told the children of his plan. The little girl asked how they would know which is his plane?’ Hal thought about it for a second when the thought passed through his mind like a lightning bolt ‘Why not wiggle the wings?’. Hal became ‘Uncle Wiggly Wings’.
When Hal got back, he realised the amount of gum and sweets was limited by his ration card. He would need the help of his crew members. He informed them of his decision. They too were worried about the possible consequences if they got caught, but agreed it was worth it. They bought all the chocolate bars and packages of gum they could buy. They came up with the idea to split it up in three packages, each attached to a handkerchief parachute to slow the fall.
By this time, flights were happening on an almost daily basis, often more than one flight to Berlin a day. Aircraft would fuel and load up in West Germany, fly to Berlin, off load their cargo and without refuelling fly back. This turnover went ever more smooth and fast. At the height of the Berlin Airlift aircraft would land at an interval of three minutes. If an aircraft was running late, it was taken out of the ‘conveyor belt’ in order not to disrupt the three-minute schedule. Lessons learned during the Berlin Airlift were later applied to civilian transport and can still be seen today in places like Heathrow airport.
Hal and his two crew members were approaching Berlin-Tempelhof when they noticed the children in the middle of the grassy strip between the end of the runway and an apartment block. Hal rolled the left aileron and fed in a little left rudder, causing the wing to go down, followed by a right aileron and right rudder, making the aircraft wiggle in the opposite direction. The children instantly recognised the aircraft and started waving and jumping. Dropping the sweets too soon would result in them landing on the roof of the apartment block, too late would mean they would be behind the fence and on the runway. Either way, difficult questions would be asked as to where they came from. Hal and his colleagues were not sure if they had dropped them in the right spot…
It was only when the Skymaster was unloaded and started to taxi to the take-off position, that Hal saw the children waving the little parachutes. He even noticed the little girl with the long trousers and blue eyes. She was radiant!
Things went back to normal after that. Except that the group of children kept growing after that. After one week Hal and his two friends received their new week’s rations. On the spot, they again pooled their resources, came over Tempelhof, wiggled their wings, caused a celebration and delivered the goods on target. And this became a weekly routine.
By this time in August 1948, and after two months, the Airlift was succeeding. More than 1,500 flights a day were carried out, delivering more than 4,500 tons of cargo, enough to keep West Berlin supplied. From January 1949 onwards, 225 American Skymasters were devoted to the lift. The RAF contributed around one hundred aircraft to the operation, mainly Douglas Dakotas, Avro Yorks and even Short Sunderland flying boats. Together these RAF aircraft delivered almost a quarter of the total Allied freight to Berlin.
After a few weeks Hal walked into the Base Operations building to have a look at the weather map. To his surprise, the table was not holding its usual maps and charts, but full of mail addressed to ‘Onkel Wackelflugel’ (‘Uncle Wiggly Wings’) and the ‘Schokoladen Flieger’ (‘Chocolate Pilot’). As much as Hal tried to stop it, the cat was out of the bag. Or, rather, the sweets were. And sure enough, Hal was called into the office of Colonel Haun, his Squadron commander. Haun had received a call from Brigadier General William H Tunner, deputy commander of operations during the airlift, who wanted to know who was dropping parachutes over Berlin.
‘Halverson, what in the world have you been doing?’ Haun asked. ‘Flying like mad, sir.’ was Hal’s reply. In one motion, Haun reached under the desk and showed him the newspaper with the picture of little parachutes flying out of his C-54. Hal knew he was in serious trouble now. To his surprise, Haun said ‘The General called me with congratulations and I didn’t know anything about it. [He] wants to see you, and there is an International Press conference set up for you in Frankfurt. Fit them into your schedule. And Lieutenant, keep flying, keep dropping, and keep me informed.’ Operation Little Vittles was born.
When Hal returned to his base he found his cot covered with cases of candy bars and chewing gum, donated by his colleagues. Handkerchiefs for parachutes would often be stacked alongside the goodies. More mail arrived and two German secretaries were employed to reply to the letters of the children. One of them, a 7-year-old girl named Mercedes, wrote in a letter that she loved ‘Der Schokoladen Flieger’ but was concerned for her chickens, who thought the airlift planes were chicken hawks and stopped laying eggs. Mercedes asked him to drop candy near the white chickens because she didn’t care if he scared them. Hal tried, but never could find Mercedes’ white chickens, so he wrote her a letter and sent her candy through the Berlin mail. The two would finally meet face-to-face 24 years later met when Halvorsen returned to Berlin as Tempelhof commander in the early 1970s. They maintain a close friendship to this day.
After a while, the crowds became so large on the end of the runway they feared someone might get injured. The method of operation changed to drops to playgrounds, parks, school areas and church yards all over West Berlin. Supplies were coming in from armed forces all over West Germany. 22 schools in the States were packaging sweets. Businesses furnished thousands of ribbons, cartons, handkerchiefs and 18 tons of sweets and chewing gum. Contributions arrived from Great Britain and as far away as Australia. Packages would be dropped by all crews flying into Berlin. Even East Berlin, controlled by the Soviets, soon saw little parachutes floating down, until the Soviets demanded these drops were halted.
Hal left Berlin in January 1949 but the airlift and the dropping of sweets and chewing gum continued. By the end of the Berlin Airlift in May 1949, 23 tons of sweets had been dropped. But it all started with Hal, sharing his two sticks of gum. Hal returned to the United States and married Alta, a girl he had fallen in love with before becoming a pilot. Reading Hal’s autobiography has been an emotional read, evoking such great sympathy and admiration for this humble and loving pilot, but the photo of his marriage proposal was probably the most touching moment. He had attached the ring to a parachute!
Hal has returned to Berlin nearly 40 times since the airlift. In 1974, he received one of Germany’s highest medals, the Grosses Bundesverdienstkreuz, and carried the German team’s national placard into Rice-Eccles Stadium during the opening march for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. He participated in a re-enactment of “Operation Little Vittles” (the codename for the candy dropping) during the 40th and 50th anniversaries of the Berlin Airlift.
Halvorsen’s dedication to helping those in need didn’t end after he retired with 31 years of service in the Air Force. In 1994, his request to assist in another humanitarian airlift was approved. He would fly with the Air Force again, this time in a Lockheed Hercules delivering food to 70,000 refugees fleeing from the conflict in Bosnia.
Last year, Hal, now at the young age of 99, was a guest of honour at a banquet in Washington DC held by the RAF Museum American Foundation ‘Spirit of the Battle of Britain’ to honour the 70th anniversary of the RAF and USAF operations during the Berlin Airlift. For the occasion, Mars Wrigley had reproduced the original chewing gum package and wrapper, the latter made from paper instead of the current tin foil. Also present was Mercedes Wild, the girl who wrote to Hal she was concerned about the aircraft frightening her chickens whose eggs she would trade on the black market for meat or shoes. In fact, she too had been afraid when the first transport aircraft landed in Berlin: ‘The noise of the airplanes during the airlift in the beginning I feared, because it was the same noise while bombing Berlin,’ she said.
Following this banquet, we invited Hal to the RAF Museum London, together with two of his daughters. On arrival, he was greeted by the Museum staff, including our CEO Maggie Appleton and Chair of Trustees Sir Andy Pulford. We gave him a little tour around the Museum and displayed a selection of documents from our Archives, related to the Berlin Airlift. Hal told us many great stories from his time in Berlin and warmed us all with his modesty and charm. It was a great privilege to welcome this great man.
Hal still travels the world, especially to Germany where his story is well known. He also supports the organisation which bears his name, the Gail S. Halvorsen Aviation Education Foundation which advances aviation education, promotes youth leadership development, enhances community capacity for emergency response, and encourages humanitarian service. The Foundation’s next project is to build the Gail Halvorsen Museum and Aviation Education Center. During the opening event, Hal went into a helicopter and in four passes dropped 500 chocolate bars dangling under small white parachutes for the kids in the crowd. ‘The thing I enjoy the most about being the ‘Candy Bomber’ is seeing the children’s reaction even now to the idea of a chocolate bar coming out of the sky,’ he said. ‘The most fun I have is doing air drops because even here in the States, there’s something magical about a parachute flying out of the sky with a candy bar on it.’