The airlift was a fascinating spectacle. Children liked to go to Tempelhof and watch the big planes land, something that changed the life of an American pilot, Lieutenant Gail S. Halvorsen.
Halvorsen had hitched a ride into the city one summer afternoon to see the sights and walked out to the end of the runway to take pictures of planes on final approach. Some children were standing on the other side of a barbed-wire fence.
Some spoke English and began asking him questions about the airlift. What amazed him, though, was “they were more concerned about their freedom than they were the flour” on the planes. “They said they could get along on very little food, anything to preserve their freedom,” he recalled for an interviewer years later, still amazed by their spirit.
They knew their friends and relatives in East Berlin could not say what they thought or do what they wanted. “They told me that freedom was the most important thing. Sometimes they didn’t get enough to eat, they said, but if they lost their freedom they knew they would never get it back. Those kids were really something.”
As he turned to leave, he realized these Berlin children, who lacked so much, had not begged him for candy like children all around the world had done during the war. He wanted to give them something, but all he had was two sticks of gum. His first thought was that he would cause a riot if he handed out so little; on second thought he went ahead, breaking each piece in two and passing them through the wire.
“The looks on their faces were unbelievable,” he remembered, and there was no fight. “I just stood there with my mouth open.” Knowing that he could not come back for a long time, he had a brainstorm, promising to drop enough candy and gum from his plane for all of them the next day. They asked how they could identify his plane with so many landing at Tempelhof. He told them he would wiggle his wings as he came in to land.
Back at Rhein-Main that night, he gathered his weekly candy ration, talked his co-pilot and engineer out of theirs, and made three makeshift parachutes out of handkerchiefs.
As his C-54 swooped in to Tempelhof the next day, he could see the small cluster of expectant children by the fence. He rocked his wings. He had a quick glimpse of the children jumping and cheering as the plane flashed by and the engineer pushed the tiny parachutes out the flare chute.
After unloading, Halvorsen and his crew taxied out for take-off. The children were there, “waving three handkerchiefs through the barbed wire. Kids were jumping up and down and waving like mad. I wished they wouldn’t do that,” he thought, “because somebody might find out what we had done.” He was worried it was against the rules and he would get into trouble. But he kept it up for two more weeks.
Then his squadron commander called him on the carpet. By then, Major General William H. Tunner had replaced Smith as the airlift commander. Tunner was a stern, no-nonsense perfectionist. He had heard what Halvorsen was doing, and German newspapers had featured the story. Tunner thought it was marvelous publicity, and Halvorsen had permission to go “full speed ahead.”
He and his fellow pilots did just that, and Operation “Little Vittles” was born. When crowds at Tempelhof grew too large, pilots began dropping all across Berlin, east as well as west. Back in the States, scout troops and wives clubs collected money to buy candy and handkerchiefs, while candy companies made bulk donations, one of ten tons.
Halvorsen, known variously as “the Candy Bomber,” der Schokoladenflieger or “Uncle Wiggly Wings,” became a world-famous symbol of the humanitarian essence of the airlift.
An exerpt from “The Air Force can deliver anything! A history of the Berlin Airlift” by Daniel F. Harrington, 2008, Ramstein, Germany: USAFE Office of History.