Candy Bomber returns to German base

Fifty years after ferrying supplies into West Berlin, retired U.S. Air Force Col. Gail S. Halvorsen returned May 14 to the city he helped save from a suffocating blockade following World War II.

He was greeted with the cheers and gratitude of an estimated 7,000 spectators as part of the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift.Brother Halvorsen, who in 1948 was nicknamed the Candy Bomber for his efforts to drop candy and gum attached to handkerchief parachutes to children, has become something of a symbol of the Berlin Airlift of 1948-49.

"It wasn't the candy that was important," said Brother Halvorsen in a Church News interview prior to the commemoration, "it was the hope it offered that someone cared, and that someday, in a world gone crazy with grief, all would be right."

A year-long tribute of the Berlin Airlift began May 14 when Brother Halverson joined U.S. President Bill Clinton and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and others on the tarmac of Tempelhof Airport in Berlin. There, he was among speakers who paid tribute to the U.S. and British servicemen who made more than 277,000 flights over the isolated city and delivered more than 2.3 million tons of relief goods.

"My thoughts [go] back to those two sticks of gum and the 30 kids at the barbed wire fence in July 1948," he said, reflecting on that day 50 years ago when the idea to drop candy first came to him.

Then an Air Force lieutenant, Brother Halverson had been talking to a group of some 30 children through a barbed wire fence near the Tempelhof airport in West Berlin. After an hour, he needed to leave or risk missing his return flight to the Rhein-Main air base where he was stationed," he wrote in his autobiography, The Berlin Candy Bomber.

Yet, he couldn't take his attention away from these children huddled along the fence outside the airport. Most had gone without candy or gum for two or three years since the end of World War II.

He was intrigued by these children. Despite their deprivation, not one was willing to beg. These children were different, he thought, remembering how after the war children tagged alongside soldiers, clamoring for candy.

Brother Halvorsen began walking toward his driver, but felt he couldn't leave. This was a moment of truth. He glanced over his shoulder at the children who were now pressed against the fence waving to him.

He reached into his pocket. Only two sticks of gum. "Thirty kids and only two sticks of gum to divide among them, there will be a fight," he thought to himself.

"I didn't know it at the time, but returning to the fence would change my life. On impulse, he turned abruptly and headed for the fence.

The two sticks of gum were divided among four children. "It was the greatest expression of joy I'd ever seen," he said in the Church News interview.

There was no fighting, only requests to touch and smell the wrappers.

Watching the children, Brother Halvorsen wondered what joy he could bring with 30 sticks of gum. Just then he heard a plane overhead and was struck with the idea of dropping gum and chocolate out of his plane during his flight the next day. He knew that waiting for permission would probably doom the idea, so he decided to keep his plan secret.

Since planes were landing on an average of every 90 seconds, and the children wouldn't know which plane was his, he told the children he would wiggle the wings of his aircraft as a signal. Children began to refer to him as Uncle Wiggle Wings. (See Church News, March 14, 1970.)

Excitement over the idea left him sleepless. He lay in his cot that night, wondering how to safely drop candy, realizing that a small bundle of candy traveling at 115 mph would become a small missile.

He decided to tie handkerchiefs to three small bundles of candy to act as a parachute. Using his ration card, and the two cards of his flight crew, he gathered enough candy for the 30 children.

The next day, as he approached Tempelhof Airport during a noon flight, he saw the children huddled on a grassy strip straining to see each plane. He wiggled the wings. The recognition was instant, his autobiography stated.

With a quick thrust, the little packages were pushed out the flare chute. Brother Halvorsen wasn't sure if the children caught the parachutes until his plane was unloaded and was ready for takeoff.

There, poking through the fence, were three little parachutes being waved by excited children at each flight crew as they taxied by.

Brother Halvorsen and his crew continued these little drops once a week for six weeks. Each time, the group of children grew larger, and each time he was careful to keep the drops secret.

But the day after returning to his base following his sixth drop, he was called into his commander's office.

"Look at this," said the colonel, pointing to an article in the German newspaper, Frankfurter Zeitung.

"You almost hit a reporter in the head with a candy bar in Berlin yesterday. He's spread the story all over Europe.

"The General called me with congratulations and I didn't know anything about it. Why didn't you tell me?" recounted Brother Halvorsen his autobiography.

With the blessing of the military, candy drops became more frequent until it was dubbed Operation Little Vittles.

Brother Halvorsen would return to his cot at night to find cases of candy bars and chewing gum donated by other flight crews who used their ration cards to supply candy, stated his autobiography.

News of the candy drop spread throughout the world. Brother Halvorsen was invited to speak on national television in the United States, which generated an outpouring of candy and parachute donations.

Many years later, after retiring as a colonel, Brother Halvorsen and his wife, Alta, were called in 1995 to serve in the Russia St. Petersburg Mission among a people who had once been military enemies.

"We were on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall for four years," Brother Halvorsen responded when first asked if they would serve.

But after a night of prayerful consideration, they accepted.

The Halvorsens knew only two words of Russian when they landed in St. Petersburg in October. "We found a beautiful, caring people, eager to learn about Jesus Christ," he said in his autobiography.

Their assignment as missionaries was to train institute teachers, visit institute classes and plan youth activities.

In the beginning, the biggest challenge for Brother Halvorsen came during rush hour travel. On the crowded public transportation, he occasionally brushed against the uniform of a Russian soldier, the uniform of a former enemy.

"The more we looked at them," he said in his book, "the more we realized we were similar. We learned to love these people, and at the end of our 18 months - we knew that we had left part of our hearts here."

Brother and Sister Halvorsen live in the Oak Hills 1st Ward, Provo Utah Oak Hills Stake, where he serves on the high council of the BYU 9th Stake and she serves as a visiting teaching coordinator in their home ward.

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