Gail S. Halvorsen, a U.S. military pilot known as the “Candy Bomber” who, during the Cold War, dropped sweets from his plane to German children in West Berlin, passed away on February 16 at age 101, report Colleen Slevin and Kirsten Grieshaber for the Associated Press (AP). He died in his home state of Utah after suffering a brief illness. His funeral took place this week in Provo, Utah.
Remembered in Germany as Der Schokoladen Flieger, the Chocolate Flyer, Halvorsen first served as an Army Air Force pilot in World War II, flying transport planes in England, Italy and North Africa, reports Angela Cullen for Bloomberg in the Boston Globe.
After the war, when Soviet Union leader Josef Stalin occupied West Berlin in 1948, Halvorsen participated in the Berlin Airlift, a joint military effort between America and the United Kingdom to deliver food and aid to the German city.
At first, Halvorsen wasn’t fond of the idea of helping a country he had just been at war with, citing the loss of his fellow servicemen.
“Several of my buddies had returned from the war to see their previously conceived child for the first time,” he said, per his foundation website. “Many did not return. They would not see their newborn child in this life.”
However, Halvorsen tells HistoryNet’s David Lauterborn that an encounter with a group of young German children watching Allied soldiers arrive at the Templehof air base helped put things into perspective. Through a barbed-wire perimeter fence, they spoke to him.
“These kids were giving me a lecture, telling me, “Don’t give up on us. If we lose our freedom, we’ll never get it back,” Halvorsen tells HistoryNet. “I just flipped. Got so interested, I forgot what time it was.”
The pilot then handed the children two sticks of gum and told them to come back the next day, when he planned to airdrop more sweets. He would wiggle the wings of his aircraft so they would know it was him, reports the Boston Globe.
Halvorsen lived up to his promise, asking other pilots to donate their candy rations and having his flight engineer rock the airplane during the drop. Things grew from there, as more and more children showed up to catch his airdrops and letters began to arrive “requesting special airdrops at other points in the city,” writes the Air Force. The peculiar wing maneuver was how Halvorsen earned his other nickname: 'Uncle Wiggly Wings.'
After newspapers got wind of what was happening, Halvorsen’s superiors realized what he was doing and the PR opportunity it offered, writes Kat Eschner for Smithsonian magazine. Chocolate and candy donations began to pour in from the United States. Though Halvorsen himself was recalled by the military for a promotional tour, he had begun an international effort to get candy to the children of West Berlin.
For months, the Air Force pilot would continue this mission—nicknamed “Operation Little Vittles”—dropping more than 21 tons of candy in 250,000 small parachutes, per Stacy Roman of Stars & Stripes in a 2020 article. Dozens of other pilots followed his example and also dropped candy to children.
During the airlift, Allied planes carrying supplies landed every 45 seconds at Templehoff Airport in Berlin. From June 1948, the pilots delivered 2.3 million tons of food, coal, medicine and other necessities on 278,000 flights up until the end of the Soviet blockade in May 1949, according to the AP.
Halvorsen remained in the military after the war, retiring as a colonel in 1974 from the Air Force, reports Richard Goldstein for the New York Times. He moved back to Utah and became assistant dean of student life at Brigham Young University in Provo.
That same year, Halvorsen received the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany for his efforts as the “Candy Bomber,” per the Boston Globe.
In 1980, he helped kick off the Airlift of Understanding, an exchange program for students in Berlin and Utah, according to Richard Goldstein of the New York Times. Over the years, he made about 35 goodwill trips to Berlin and wrote of his experiences in the book The Berlin Candy Bomber. In 2016, he established the Gail S. Halvorsen Foundation to share the pilot’s legacy of service, fostering “gratitude, hope, service before self,” according to the website.
Halvorsen’s actions still resonate with the German people, who fondly remember the young pilot who dropped flour, oil and butter during desperate times when the city was bombed and its residents were starving, per the AP. He was honored in a final visit to Berlin in 2019 during the 70th-anniversary celebration of the end of the Soviet blockade.
“Halvorsen’s deeply human act has never been forgotten,” Berlin Mayor Franziska Giffey said in a statement, according to the AP.
Dagmar Weiss Snodgrass, an 89-year-old German woman who was in Berlin at the time, shared how Halvorsen’s actions brought her family joy, “I remember his face because he was smiling at me and he was pointing into a duffel bag,” Snodgrass tells a group of students at Pittsburgh University in 2018. “I reached in, grabbed something, and it was a little wrapped gift. My first Christmas gift. All I could think about was that I need to get home and share it with my mom.”
For Halvorsen, his experience with the German people left an equally deep impact.
“The airlift reminded me that the only way to fulfillment in life, real fulfillment, is to serve others,” he told CNN on the Berlin Airlift’s 40th anniversary, per the New York Times. “I was taught that as a youth in my church, and I found when I flew day and night to serve a former enemy, that my feelings of fulfillment and being worthwhile were the strongest that I’ve felt.”