Thousands of pounds of supplies like diapers, baby wipes and school supplies — together with candy and handwritten notes — recently landed in Berlin, Germany, and from there went to Ukraine in an effort named “Operation Little Vittles Two.”
Volunteers drew on the example and legacy of Col. Gail. S. Halvorsen, a U.S. Air Force pilot and member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints affectionately known as the “Candy Bomber” for his efforts during the Berlin Airlift after World War II.
This new relief effort grew to include several organizations along the way. Many people collected and organized goods and then loaded the plane in Utah, while others unloaded the plane in Berlin and got the supplies into Ukraine.
Halvorsen’s daughter helped send off the plane from Utah, while people who had been children during the original Berlin candy drops greeted the plane and unloaded the supplies at Tempelhof in Germany, therefore in a way blessing the effort and bringing it full circle.
Throughout February and March, Utah resident Cynthia Merrell kept thinking about what was happening in Eastern Europe. She thought there could be a way to “candy bomb” Ukraine, like what had been done in Germany.
“Col. Halvorsen did more than drop candy, he bridged the gap between two countries,” Merrell said.
She knew of a charity called Spendenbruecke Ukraine to find exactly what the people needed the most — and more often than not, they needed supplies to help women, mothers, children and babies.
She approached James R. Stewart, the executive director of the Gail S. Halvorsen Aviation Education Foundation, who immediately lent assistance. The foundation not only promotes education, but also humanitarian aid.
Stewart said, “When it comes right down to it, we have a soft spot in our hearts who have been forced to leave their home and [for those] who have lost everything. That resonates in the culture of this state, whether your family came here in 1847 or in 2017. It just resonates here.”
Linnea Weller, event director with the Halvorsen Foundation, watched the idea blossom and grow into a huge effort: “People hunger and thirst for the goodness in life that comes from doing and serving.”
The volunteer effort brought together different faiths, groups, businesses, students and others who all wanted to help. For example, Merrell is Catholic, and her boss, who is Jewish, donated money to the cause and a workspace to assemble everything. Another co-worker is a Latter-day Saint, and got 25 people from his ward to help package the donations.
A company in Spanish Fork, Utah, donated hundreds of boxes. Weller said wards and stakes in Utah County and Davis County, Utah, helped collect and sort items. Brighton High School students in Cottonwood Heights, Utah, collected “carloads of donations,” said Merrell.
The Larry H. Miller and Gail Miller Family Foundation and Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and first lady Abby Cox’s Show Up initiative had already been collecting thousands of pounds of school supplies and notes from schoolchildren across Utah.
“We knew we’d have 6,000 pounds, and the Miller Foundation added another 6,000 pounds so we could fill the aircraft,” said Merrell.
Stewart was inspired by the outpouring of donations and help: “When there is need, people step up. It’s just amazing to watch.”
U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, helped get the paperwork done to have the effort qualify under the Denton Program, which is a U.S. Department of Defense transportation program that moves humanitarian cargo.
The effort was also able to qualify for the U.S. Navy to use training hours, and the Navy sent a crew of five from the VR-56 to fly the plane.
Weller helped load the cargo onto the plane at the Salt Lake City airport on March 29. “We filled every seat and overhead bin with 12,000 pounds,” she said.
Merrell was also there to help load, along with staffers from Lee’s office, members of the community and others who had been helping along the way.
She said Col. Halvorsen’s daughter Marilyn Sorensen spoke to the Navy flight crew before they left. She gave them each a chocolate bar, like her father had dropped from a plane over Berlin, and told them they were continuing his legacy of love, hope and giving.
Stewart said the volunteer effort in Utah was mirrored in Eastern Europe when the plane landed.
“That heritage of caring extended across the Atlantic and half of Europe into Berlin, and some of these now are in their 80s and beyond who were kids and received the candy, it struck a chord in their heart and they went out and served,” said Stewart.
He said members of wards and stakes in the area also helped unload the supplies: “There were young single adults that were there as well, shoulder to shoulder with what we call the Berlin kids, and they were partaking of this heritage as well.”
Merrell heard from Spendenbruecke officials when the supplies reached those in need in Ukraine. She also received pictures of the boxes being unpacked and children discovering the candy and encouraging notes.
“Candy and school supplies, that might not seem a lot to us, and it may seem trite compared to the needs of the families, but it goes a long way. It shows these families someone is thinking of you, hang in there, don’t give up,” she said.
Weller said spiritually, this new “Operation Little Vittles Two” was a gift that people from across the community created — and something that had a real palatable impact on the givers and receivers.
“That was Col. Halvorsen’s legacy — out of small things, great things happened,” said Weller.
Stewart saw how the whole experience from start to finish created something new that united rather than divided.
“The overarching story is, care for our brothers and sisters in need reaches across physical, spiritual, political, any kind of border you can think of,” he said. “That’s why at this particular junction, this type of effort is so important. Because we recognize the humanity of people who we may term as ‘other.’ We realize there is actually a brotherhood of man that exists.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the place where the place was loaded on March 29. It was at the airport in Salt Lake City, not the Provo, Utah, airport as originally reported.