Reviews | What the ‘Candy Bomber’ teaches us about kindness
This was the harrowing fate of the early Cold Warriors. Many of them had been shot down by Germans. They all knew men who had been killed or maimed by Germans. The Soviets had been reliable allies and allies—relentless fighters who shortened the ordeal considerably by giving Hitler a war on two fronts. Now, three years after the German surrender, Americans were challenging Soviet cannons to feed starving Germans. Something about it was wrong.
Wasn’t there a story about the Romans razing the conquered city of Carthage and then plowing the ground with salt? That’s what this young man thought of the Germans.
The pilot’s name was Gail Halvorsen. He was a Mormon from a hard farm life in Idaho and Utah. During the Depression, he looked up from his chores to the pale blue sky and imagined himself flying. As a young man, he joined the Civil Air Patrol and fulfilled those dreams. His wartime mission was to fly transport planes in the Atlantic theater over waters haunted by prowling U-boats.
Conquered Germany was divided between the former allies into four occupied zones, and its capital, Berlin, was similarly divided, although the entire city was within the Soviet zone. The American, British, and French parts of Berlin were only accessible by a single road and railroad through Soviet territory, and as competitive tensions increased in the post-war period, the Soviets came to see these arteries as a tool to hunt their rivals. “What happens in Berlin happens in Germany,” explained the Soviet Foreign Minister. “What happens to Germany happens to Europe.”
In June 1948, Moscow ordered the roads to be cut off. Determined not to abandon Berlin, President Harry S. Truman opted for an unprecedented and untested solution: an airlift to provide approximately 2 million people with everything they needed to live. Charcoal for heat. Wheat for bread. Meat, potatoes, soap, paper. All. The necessary logistics foreshadowed FedEx; air traffic control augured O’Hare. At its peak, after German volunteers built a third airport with millions of bricks from the rubble of their city, Operation Vittles – the Berlin Airlift – landed an average plane every 63 seconds 24 hours on 24.
Halvorsen piloted one. And he wasn’t too happy about feeding the Germans, until one day he found himself drawn to a crowd of children outside the Tempelhof airport fence. With excited gestures, they managed to touch the heart of the pilot – which, it turned out, was just waiting to thaw. They were not enemies, he saw; they were poor, destitute children, as he had been, looking up at the sky, as he had.
In his pocket were two chewing gums. Halvorsen tossed them through the fence and was amazed to see the children who caught them split the wrappers into small pieces, which they passed around for the other children to smell. “The expression of pleasure was immeasurable,” he once recalled.
He promised to bring more candy on his next trip and devised a moving wing signal to let them know when he landed. True to his word, he dropped three packages the next day, attached to parachutes he made from handkerchiefs.
Halvorsen’s buddies brought their own rations of candy and handkerchiefs, and more candy floated from his plane. The news went up the chain of command: “Operation Little Vittles” got an official stamp and more pilots. The Candy Bombers story traveled to the United States, where it touched everyone who heard it. Candy makers offered boxes of goods. American children donated their own candies. Volunteers signed up to attach the parachutes.
Germans who had lived in fear of the sound of bombers overhead now heard, in the hum of airplane engines, the most soulful music since Beethoven. And the children who tasted the sweets of heaven grew up to see their city and country reunited four decades later.
They never forgot Lt. Gail Halvorsen – ‘Uncle Wiggly Wings’ as they called him – although he handed over responsibility for the mission to another pilot and returned home to marry the girl who had him. been waiting since he left for the war. They raised five children together. Halvorsen, who retired from the US Air Force as a colonel, took command of Berlin’s Tempelhof airfield in 1970, and the city hosted its favorite US ambassador. Well into his 90s, Halvorsen enjoyed reenacting his story by taking a plane to drop off candy for delighted school kids in Utah.
He died on Wednesday, a very old pilot at 101 – after showing the world that kindness is a superpower.