Sweet lessons: 70th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift

  • Published
  • By Ashley M .Wright
  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs
The end of World War II brought on a new, different conflict - a cold war. An immediate battleground became the divided country of Germany. The Allies divided the defeated Germany with the French, British and Americans taking the western half of the nation spreading the ideals of democracy, and the Communist Russians taking the eastern half of Germany, but was still looking for more. In June 1948, Russian forces blockaded the Allied-controlled areas of Berlin, shutting off food, coal and medicine to two million Germany citizens. 

The 9-month-old U.S. Air Force answered the call with open arms to new allies in need, showcasing the effects of humanitarian aid to keep peace. One of the most famous veterans of the Berlin Airlift is Retired Col. Gail Halvorsen, known as the “Candy Bomber.” A few years ago, he agreed to share his story in a phone interview. On this anniversary of the start of the Berlin Airlift and as the Air Force continues to answer humanitarian calls from those in need, a first-hand look back at the first U.S. Air Force humanitarian effort is warranted. 

“We learned very clearly that the new enemy was Stalin. He was taking over where Hitler left off. We knew exactly what Stalin had in mind,” Halvorsen said.

The Soviets struck June 24, 1948, blockading thousands of Germans from food and supplies. Within a few days, their aggression was answered. 

“We knew that most of the folks in Berlin were women and children that was all that was left (after the war),” the Utah native said. “They were cutting off all the milk to the kids. That did it.”

The next day, Halvorsen and his the C-54 Skymaster were bound for Europe. 

“I had never been very far from home, but my mom and dad taught me several points of character that will make your life more rewarding to you and some of those around you,” he explained. “The first one is service before self. If a man needs help, you do it. (Dad) taught that to me from day one. You see the need, not what is in it for me.” 

This life lesson came back to him as he prepared to feed the capitol city of Hitler’s regime only three years after their surrender. Once landed in Germany, having no suitable barracks, the influx of Airmen found a place to stay in the attic of a barn on the air base. 

Some Airmen had mixed emotions at first about aiding the former enemy that was shooting at American pilots just three years ago. Halvorsen posed a question to a fellow crewmember. 

“It is a hell of a lot better to feed them, then kill them,” his friend said. “I’m glad to be back.”

That is service before self. That is what causes your enemy to become your friend, Halvorsen said, admitting that he had issues at first with the mission, but it quickly changed. 

“The solidifying factor for me was when I landed that first flight over Berlin. The Germans, some in mixed uniforms, come streaming at the airplane. I had the enemy eyeball-to-eyeball right in my cockpit. They looked down at the flour and thought it was from heaven. That sealed my thoughts, and I never looked back.”

Taking on the feeding and care of thousands would take a monumental effort and a minimum of 4,000 tons of food and fuel per day. 

“We flew in 12-hour shifts. If we started out at 8 o’clock, we would be flying all night into the next day,” Halvorsen said. “There were two major shifts, one was at daylight, and one was at night. We would get up a couple hours ahead of time and head out to the airplane and pre-flight check.”

This was not always a milk run. The weather was a particular danger. 

“Later on, we got radar, and our blood pressure went down 10 points. Radar saved our lives. Every approach we would make would be an instrument approach whether it was clear as a bell or not because you had to keep the distance between the airplanes. Every landing felt like you were in the clouds,” Halverson said.

The flights from Rhein-Main to Tempelhof were only 280 miles, but that did not make the operation easy. The beginning of the airlift was not as organized as needed for such a massive effort. The Air Force turned to Lt. Gen. William H. Tunner to change that. Tunner led the allies over the Hump in World War II, keeping China supplied to fight the Japanese in the Pacific, and prior to that, he served as commander of the Ferrying Division, which ferried 10,000 aircraft to the war zone per month.

“General Tunner was a genius, and he was one of the reasons the airlift worked well,” Halvorsen said. “When we would land, we would go into the snack bar and have a hot breakfast or supper while they unloaded the airplane. General Tunner found out that on some occasions the airplanes were unloaded, and the guys were still eating scrambled eggs (inside the snack bar). That was the last time the guys went into the terminal building. He sent it out to a little snack bar on wheels. They would eat the snacks out by the airplane. That was typical from then on. We would fly three round trips and go to bed. We were lucky if we got eight hours sleep.”

At the height of the Berlin Airlift, aircraft were landing every three minutes, supplying up to 13,000 tons of food, coal and medicine a day, according to the Air Force Historical Support Division. 

This coordinated effort relied larger on the weather. One day while waiting for the rain to stop, Halvorsen noticed something. 

“I saw all these children at the end of the runway,” he recalled.  

But he and the others did not give them much thought as they all felt the Soviets could not keep the blockade up much longer. 

“I wanted to get around town to West Berlin and get movies of all this destruction we see from the air and how these kids were living,” Halvorsen said. 

Little did he know how much those Berlin children would reinforce his Utah family’s second life lesson: Gratitude. 

Halvorsen and his crew finished their flights around noon one beautiful mid-July day. Normally, the aircrews would catch a few hours of sleep before the next 12-hour shift. But today was different, Halvorsen still hankered to see the ground of Berlin and he had his movie camera with him that day. 

“I told my co-pilot and crew chief to go to bed; I was going to Berlin,” he announced. 

On the flight line, a colleague was about to start engines. Halvorsen had already called ahead to arrange a jeep for his sightseeing visit when he hopped on the cargo plane. 

“When I landed, I told the Jeep driver to hold on I would be right back,” he said. “I ran to the end of the runway and shot pictures of the airplanes coming up over the bombed out buildings. Eventually, the children came up to the fence. Those kids were friendly. I was there for almost an hour. I was just taken with them as they spoke English pretty well. We were having a great time.” 

Turning back to the car, a voice chimed into his head.

“I had been to other countries where the kids had chocolate,” he said recalling that moment nearly 70 years later. “When George Washington visited his troops, he had little hard candies in his pocket for the kids. That was nothing new. But these kids had not had chocolate for a couple of years. Not one out of the 30 broke ranks and said ‘Do you got candy?’ When I realized that, it just hit me like a ton of bricks; black and white. I just could not believe that quality of character called gratitude. They were so grateful. They were thankful for their freedom. When I realized that, I thought I got to do something. I reached in my pocket, and all I had was two sticks of gum.”

Convinced that everyone deserved a treat or no one did, Halvorsen took about three more steps and the little voice came back clear as a bell directing him back to the fence. 

“Boy, when I stopped and started back, those kids came to attention,” he said. “I pulled out two sticks of gum and broke them in half and passed it to the kids doing the translating. I couldn’t believe what I saw. The other kids didn’t push or shove or try to grab it. The kids that got half a piece of stick of gum tore off the wrapper and passed it. The kids that got a strip of paper, put it up to their nose, smelled it and their eyes got big. They were dumbfounded. They clutched it in their hands to go home and show their parents, if they had any.”

An idea came to Halvorsen - return tomorrow.

“I will be flying overhead, and I will drop enough chocolate for all of you,” he announced to the children. “When that translated to everybody, there was a celebration going on.”

Halvorsen made one demand of the children. They must share the candy. They agreed, but another question arose. With planes arriving every few seconds, how would the children know which one was Halvorsen’s?

“When I would fly over the farm (back home), I would wiggle the wings back and forth. So I said, ‘Kids, you watch the airplane. When I come over the center of Tempelhof, if it is clear, I will wiggle the wings.’ That is how it began.”

The candy bomber was born and the act would soon be named Operation Little Vittles.

With his mind made up that he was doing the right thing, Halvorsen used his candy ration cards for chocolate bars and planned for the flight. 

Flying between barbed wire and bombed-out buildings, Halvorsen instructed his flight engineer to push the candy wrapped with a small, cloth parachute out of the a flare shoot.

“Every day, we would see a few more kids come out there. We did that about three weeks before we got caught. It turned out okay,” he said.

By the time the news hit the papers of the candy bomber, it was too late to stop the momentum.  

What started as a few bars of chocolate because of the gratitude of a few dozen kids turned into worldwide news as the donations of chocolates and little parachutes allowed a total of 23 tons of candy to be dropped to children in their war-torn town. Letters came in through the mail, a volunteer packing station was set-up in Massachusetts. 

“It was just a synergy that went crazy,” he said. “I couldn’t believe where it all came from. It just warmed my heart to see the generosity.”

The other quality his father instilled in him and made the operation a success was attitude, Halvorsen said. 

“The kids thought someday we will have enough to eat, but if we lose our freedom, we will never get it back. One philosopher said something like, ‘I can really control how I feel about 95 percent of the things that happen to me.’ That is attitude...It makes good things happen and makes lemonade out of lemons.”

Eleven months after the start of the blockade, the Soviets caved and in May 1949, the seizure ended. However, for Halvorsen things would never be the same. 

“That little decision with two sticks of gum changed the rest of my life,” he said. “Little decisions you make put your footprints on the path that leads to your destination - good or bad.”

The reputation of the man who brought joy at such a dark hour lives on to this day. 

“It is just unbelievable to me. It was a crisis point,” said the Candy Bomber as to why Germany named a high school after him in 2013. “The Berliners that were there, that are still alive, just never forgot and kept it in the forefront of their memory. It changed world war history. Stalin was heading west. It was a tipping point in history where his expansion west was stopped. Thirty-one of my Air Force buddies and 39 of my British comrades gave their lives for the enemy - the Germans, who had become friends. They never forgot that. The kids, and what parents were left, in Berlin at the end of the war knew what the Soviets were like. It made an imprint that never faded.” 

Halvorsen’s dedication to helping those in need didn’t end after he retired with 31 years of service in the Air Force. In 1994, his request to assist in another humanitarian airlift was approved. He would fly with the Air Force again, this time delivering food to 70,000 refugees fleeing from the conflict in Bosnia. 

“We have our freedom to choose, and when the freedom is taken away, air power is the only quick way to answer a crisis like that,” he recalled.