When he was 8 years old, Dieter F. Uchtdorf looked up at planes flying in and out of Berlin. He and his sister had traveled there from their home in Zwickau for an LDS youth conference in 1949. The planes were part of the Berlin Airlift. Years later, he learned that one of the airlift’s pilots was a fellow Latter-day Saint, Gail Halvorsen, the renowned “Candy Bomber.”
President Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency, has no idea whether he saw Brother’s Halvorsen’s C-54 as it flew into and out of Berlin; but when he looks at a photograph of boys and girls standing on one side of a fence and Gail Halvorsen on the other, he can see himself at the Templehof airport. “I was their same age. I looked the same way that they did. I can picture myself there,” he said.
Although young Dieter and the American pilot didn’t meet during the airlift, they eventually became good friends. President Uchtdorf was honored on Jan. 22 to present to his friend in behalf of the Living Legends of Aviation the Kiddie Hawk Children’s Award for his lifelong positive impact on children. President Uchtdorf, a former air force and commercial pilot, and Brother Halvorsen are fellow recipients of the Order of Merit of Germany. The ceremony was held in the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California.
In a conversation with the Church News, President Uchtdorf described Brother Halvorsen, who has received many awards, as a man who “has a humility that is just marvelous. When he talks about people, he talks about service over self.”
President Uchtdorf said that 1948-49 “was a crucial time for us, for Germany, a decision time whether West Berlin would stay connected to the Western world. I saw the airplanes up there. At that time I didn’t know what the airlift was. Just for a short time, I was right there when Gail Halvorsen was flying in.”
President Uchtdorf said his first contact with the Allied forces came during that youth conference. “They helped organize the camp. We stayed in big American tents typical for the army. There were all kinds of activities: concerts, plays, games, cultural music, devotionals, classes.”
President Uchtdorf said, “I really believe that since we are all brothers and sisters and we live for a certain time on this planet Earth life’s paths intersect in many ways. Often we don’t even know it. Somehow we can touch, like a sunbeam, these intersections of lives in a way that can bring about something good or even great. I think back on what Gail Halvorsen did, what so many others did, and see how they made a difference in our lives. If we don’t learn from that, then we’ll miss a beautiful piece of life. If we go through life with a locked view instead of seeing around us, we’re missing out.”
He said Brother Halvorsen, as he had down time during his flights into Berlin, “took the time at Templehof to walk around and see these children at the fence, where they stood and watched these big airplanes bringing whatever the city needed there. He didn’t just focus on what he had to do and then rest. He looked around and, at this intersection of lives with these young children, made a big difference. He initiated the candy drops and others joined in. It became a big process.
“He touched a lot of lives. I’m sure a lot of those kids received their first positive experience of contact with a former enemy. When I met members of the armed forces in Berlin as an 8-year-old, I saw they were good people, even though they were our former enemies. That influenced my attitude for the rest of my life. I think that’s what Gail did. He built bridges of hope between peoples, nations and individuals — not only an air bridge for temporal supplies.
“Gail Halvorsen added something special to this airlift operation. He put a human face on it. He added a face of compassion, of thinking outside the box, as he reached out to those kids and saw who they really were. His creativity led to more than candies being dropped from airplanes. The intersection of his life with the lives of children of former enemies has become a great influence for good.”