The young American pilot was perplexed — and a little bit angry. A veteran of World War II, he was now flying nerve-rattling missions in his Douglas C-54 transport plane over the menacing artillery of an army of enemies (who used to be allies) to deliver supplies to allies (who used to be enemies).
This was the head-scratching fate of the earliest Cold Warriors. Many of them had been shot at by Germans. They all knew men who had been killed or maimed by Germans. The Soviets had been allies, and reliable ones — hard fighters who shortened the ordeal considerably by giving Hitler a two-front war. Now, three years after the German surrender, Americans were defying Soviet guns to feed hungry Germans. Something about that did not sit right.
Wasn’t there a story about the Romans leveling the conquered city of Carthage, then plowing the ground with salt? That’s how this young man felt about Germans.
The pilot’s name was Gail Halvorsen. He was a Mormon from a hardscrabble farm life in Idaho and Utah. In the Depression, he would look up from his chores at the pale blue sky and imagine himself flying. As a young man he joined the Civil Air Patrol and made those dreams come true. His wartime assignment was to fly transport planes in the Atlantic theater over waters haunted by prowling U-boats.
Conquered Germany was divided among the former allies into four occupied zones, and its capital, Berlin, was similarly divided, though the entire city lay in the Soviet zone. The U.S., British and French parts of Berlin were accessible by only one road and one railway across Soviet territory, and as competitive tensions rose in the post-war period, the Soviets came to see those arteries as a tool for driving their rivals out. “What happens to Berlin happens to Germany,” explained the Soviet foreign minister. “What happens to Germany happens to Europe.”
In June 1948, Moscow ordered the routes cut. Determined not to give up Berlin, President Harry S. Truman settled on an unprecedented, and unproven, solution: an airlift to supply roughly 2 million people with everything they needed to live. Coal for heat. Wheat for bread. Meat, potatoes, soap, paper. Everything. The necessary logistics prefigured FedEx; the air-traffic control augured O’Hare. At its peak, after German volunteers built a third airport with millions of bricks from their city’s rubble, Operation Vittles — the Berlin Airlift — landed an average of one plane every 63 seconds around the clock.
Halvorsen flew one of them. And he wasn’t too happy about feeding Germans, until one day he found himself drawn to a throng of children outside the fence at Tempelhof airport. With excited gestures, they managed to touch the pilot’s heart — which, it turned out, was just waiting to thaw. These weren’t enemies, he saw; they were poor, deprived children, just as he had been, watching the sky, just as he had done.
In his pocket were two sticks of gum. Halvorsen handed them through the fence, and was astonished to see the kids who grabbed them portion the wrappers into tiny pieces, which they passed around for the other children to smell. “The expression of pleasure was unmeasurable,” he once recalled.
He promised to bring more candy on his next trip, and devised a waggle-wing signal to let them know when he was landing. True to his word, he dropped three packages the next day, tied to parachutes he made from handkerchiefs.
Halvorsen’s buddies contributed their own candy rations and handkerchiefs, and more sweets floated from his plane. Word climbed the chain of command: “Operation Little Vittles” gained an official stamp and more pilots. The story of the Candy Bombers traveled stateside, where it touched everyone who heard it. Candy makers offered boxes of goods. American children donated their own sweets. Volunteers signed up to tie parachutes.
Germans who had lived in fear of the sound of bombers overhead now heard, in the droning of aircraft engines, the most stirring music since Beethoven. And the children who tasted sweets from the sky grew up to see their city, and their country, reunited four decades later.
They never forgot Lt. Gail Halvorsen — “Uncle Wiggly Wings,” as they called him — though he handed off responsibility for the mission to another pilot and returned home to marry the gal who had been waiting since he went to war. They raised five children together. Halvorsen, who retired from the U.S. Air Force as a colonel, took command of Tempelhof field in Berlin in 1970, and the city welcomed its favorite U.S. ambassador back. Well into his 90s, Halvorsen enjoyed reenacting his history by borrowing a plane to drop candy for delighted Utah schoolkids.
He died Wednesday, a very old pilot at 101 — having shown the world that kindness is a superpower.