PROVO — In recent weeks, retired Air Force Col. Gail S. Halvorsen has received large amounts of mail, including cards, letters and even video messages.
Among the well-wishers are leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the president of the United States, political leaders and a lengthy list of longtime friends.
The reason for the celebration is that Halvorsen, the Latter-day Saint pilot who dropped hope in the form of candy tied to tiny parachutes for starving children during the Berlin Airlift, is about to hit the century mark on Saturday, Oct. 10.
“Oh, I can’t believe I’m going to be 100,” said the smiling Halvorsen, more commonly known as the “Berlin Candy Bomber” or “Uncle Wiggly Wings.”
“I’m glad to be alive. I’m still feeling good and kicking my heels.”
Although Halvorsen is slowing down and needs a walker to get around, he’s still the same warm, friendly and energetic person, said his daughter Denise Williams.
“It’s wonderful,” she said. “He never supposed he would reach this age. His father died when he was just 60. He lost a sister and a brother at a young age. We’re just excited that he could make it this far. We want our children and grandchildren to know and remember him. We’re so grateful.”
A big event was originally planned to celebrate Halvorsen’s 100th birthday but organizers were forced to cancel it due to COVID-19. Plan B is a family gathering complete with ice cream and cake. Halvorsen’s posterity includes five children, 24 grandchildren and by the end of the year, 60 great-grandchildren.
“Chocolate cake with chocolate icing and vanilla ice cream,” Halvorsen said. “That’s top notch.”
Halvorsen’s story is internationally well known.
Born on Oct. 10, 1920 and raised in Garland, Utah, Halvorsen first became fascinated with flying as he worked in a sugar beet field behind his home and saw airplanes passing overhead.
He later joined the Army Air Corps Pilot Training Program shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor and flew under the command of the Royal Air Force.
In the years following World War II, a time known as the Berlin Airlift, Halvorsen was assigned to fly supplies into West Berlin during the Berlin Blockade when the Soviet Union blocked the flow of supplies into Allied-controlled areas of the city.
One day after landing his C-54 cargo plane in West Berlin with supplies, Halvorsen noticed a group of about 30 children near the Templehof Airport fence and he spoke briefly to them. As he turned to leave, Halvorsen felt prompted by the Holy Ghost to give the children two small sticks of gum he had in his pocket.
Seeing how they valued his little gift, Halvorsen felt inspired to start dropping candy rations using little parachutes as a way to help the children. When his commanding officer found out, Halvorsen thought he would be reprimanded. Instead he was encouraged to keep going. Word spread and donations poured in. His efforts blessed many lives and endeared him to people around the world.
“Two sticks of gum in July 1948 turned into 23 tons of chocolate and goods that were dropped before the airlift was over,” Halvorsen told the Deseret News. “It’s a testament to what we’re taught in Primary: ‘Do what is right; let the consequence follow.’”
Halvorsen shared his experience with a new generation in 2014 as part of the Church’s feature film, “Meet the Mormons,” in which the pilot said, “Service is the bottom line to happiness and fulfillment.”
What is life like for Halvorsen now?
He currently lives with his daughter’s family in Provo.
He continues to tell his story. In recent months and years the retired Air Force pilot has fielded numerous interview requests from reporters and film crews. His family has also helped him produce short videos for a variety of audiences of all ages.
Halvorsen often likes to call his friends on the phone and let them know he’s thinking about them. The conversations are short but sweet.
“He asks, ‘How’s your family? How are your kids? Tell me where you are and what you’re doing?’” Williams said. “Then you have to answer pretty quick because he’s done after a few minutes.”
Halvorsen delights in reading the scriptures with his family and still strives to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Perhaps the most tender image Williams has of her elderly father comes each night as he kneels with difficulty at this bedside.
“He thanks the Lord for his blessings and asks for strength and health to be able to do the right things the next day,” Williams said. “It warms my heart every time. It’s special to see that.”
When asked about important lessons learned over his lifetime, Halvorsen expressed gratitude for his parents and the Church.
“I’m most grateful for having a great dad and mom who taught me the principles of life, how to serve others before yourself and the teachings of Jesus Christ,” Halvorsen said. “Those are the principles that have carried me throughout my life.”
While some he served with in the military viewed religion as restrictive, Halvorsen said living his faith gave him an “advantage” and helped him to make the right decisions.
“It has been a strength to me all through my life,” he said. “It’s where real happiness lies.”
As he prepares to enjoy his 100th birthday, Halvorsen encourages others to not give up, find joy in life and live to serve as long as you can.
“Don’t give up too quick, there is something for you along the way. Don’t graduate when you are 60, 70 or 80. There are still a few things you can do to help even when you are 100 years old,” Halvorsen said. “It’s still exciting for me to be alive. It’s a real testimony to me of the fruits of the gospel.”