Retired Air Force Col. Gail Halvorsen gives a thumbs-up to the crowd before boarding a vintage C-47 Skytrain in November at the South Texas Regional Airport in Hondo. The event featured a candy drop. (Air Force)
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This undated file photo shows a C-54 flown by Halvorsen during the Berlin Airlift. (The Associated Press)
Gail Halvorsen spent his first 20 years on small farms in Idaho and Utah. When he earned a private pilot’s license in the fall of 1941, he dropped treats from his airplane to the neighborhood children.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Halvorsen trained as a fighter pilot with the British Royal Air Force and went on to serve in the Army Air Corps, flying transports in the South Atlantic Theater of Operations. When the war ended in 1945, he expected to settle down and start a family. Halvorsen was instead called up to deliver food and supplies to the former enemy during the Soviet Union’s blockade of Berlin in 1948 and 1949.
One month into the mission, Halvorsen met 30 German children at Tempelhof Airport in Berlin. The cargo pilot realized none had asked him for anything — not even a piece of candy. Overcome, Halvorsen gave them the two sticks of gum in his pocket and promised to bring more. As he had back home, Halvorsen dropped candy from the sky, now rigged tohandkerchief parachutes.
“That small gesture,” according to the Air Force, “led to Operation Little Vittles, a humanitarian mission that continued for 15 months.”
Halvorsen became known as the “Candy Bomber.” Now 93, Halvorsen, who retired as an Air Force colonel in 1974, continues to make ceremonial candy drops around the world from a vintage cargo plane and share his story.
Q. Were you surprised when your act of kindness took on a life of its own?
A. I desperately hoped nobody knew about it. After about the third drop, some newspaper guy in Berlin heard a rumor there was chocolate coming from the sky. When I came back from a mission, a colonel met me at my airplane. He said, “What have you been doing in Berlin?” I told him, “Flying like mad, sir.” The colonel said, “Halvorsen, that’s not all you’ve been doing.” I knew then he knew. I thought I was going to be court-martialed.
Q. How did you reconcile saving the lives of people who had so recently been the enemy?
A. One friend had bombed Berlin during the war. His plane was shot down. I said to him, “How do you feel about flying day and night for the enemy?” He said, “It’s a hell of a lot better feeding them than killing them.” That was the attitude. It changed enemies to friends. It was a healing balm on the wounds of war. That was the Berlin Airlift.
Q. Do you ever get tired of telling your story?
A. No. As long as it’s understood the only reason I’m involved is because of the kids I met [in Berlin in 1948]. At age 14, they understood freedom was more important than food. They were so grateful to be free. When I realized that, it hit me like a ton of bricks. They talked to me for about an hour. They didn’t ask for anything. They said, “Just don’t give up on us. Someday, we’ll have enough to eat. But if we lose our freedom, we may never get it back.” They’re the ones that get the credit [for what I did].
Q. What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?
A. In my life, I am most grateful to have been married to Alta Jolley, the mother of my five children — three boys and two girls. Then came 24 grandkids and 43 great-grandkids. Alta’s love and example resulted in many of the good choices [our children and grandchildren] have made in their lives. In my military career, I was most rewarded to have been part of the Berlin Airlift team composed of dedicated American, British, French and German personnel, civilian and military, who stopped [Soviet leader Joseph] Stalin’s march west.
Q. Why do you remain so active at 93?
A. I just got back home after about 10 days and I had at least four huge manila envelopes from kids all over the country. I’ve made air drops over schools from the East Coast to the West Coast. I talk to kids all over the United States. When they find out [German children in 1948] were living on dried potatoes and dried milk — that freedom was more important to them than food — you see a change in their behavior. Kids are the future of our country, and they are worth whatever we can do to help.