Berlin celebrates German reunification again this fall. One of the city’s heroes, who had his finest hour in 1948, was a pilot: Candy Bomber Gail Halvorsen
What would his long life have looked like without chewing gum? “It’s hard to imagine,” replies Gail Halvorsen, “after all, the whole thing started with two sticks of Wrigley’s spearmint.”
Halvorsen was a U.S. Air Force pilot at the time. A living legend – at least among history buffs – he turns 96 this month. But his airplane’s nickname, Rosinenbomber, or Candy Bomber, is more famous by far than his own.
Halvorsen’s story played out shortly after the Second World War. It’s a story of hope and hunger, and of a world reduced to rubble. It’s also a story of chocolate, tons of it.
Today, Halvorsen lives in the small town of Green Valley near Tucson, Arizona, where giant cactuses tower into the sky, the Mexican border lies to the south, and the sun shines almost every day. Postwar Berlin is very far away, but Halvorsen’s clear mind remembers everything as if it happened only yesterday.
“I volunteered for the tour because I wanted to put Stalin in his place,” says the son of a Utah farmer. Plus, things weren’t going so well between him and his fiancée, Alta. Photos from the year 1948 show a young man with a broad smile radiating optimism.
Despite his wrinkles and the liver spots, he still shows a striking resemblance to his younger self in the photo, not just because he was already almost bald back then. “I thought,” he recalls, “that the whole thing would be over in two or three weeks.”
Berliners were starving. We had to fly regardless of the weather
The “whole thing” he meant was the Berlin blockade, which began in June, 1948. The Soviets, who occupied the area that would later become East Germany (GDR), closed off all access routes to West Berlin overnight, making the city dependent on the Western Allies for survival.
So the Americans and the British set up an airlift to take food and supplies, among them many tons of coal and fuel, to the roughly 2.2 million people living in West Berlin. It was a huge endeavor.
“Every three minutes a fully loaded plane would land,” Gail Halvorsen tells me. He had had lots of experience flying cargo planes during the war. “The Berliners were starving and they had no provisions. That’s why we had to fly regardless of the weather. One time, visibility was so poor that I almost collided with another plane.” Halvorsen’s voice falters but his expression underlines every word.
On the ground in West Berlin one day, he had an encounter that would affect him for the rest of his life. Walking across the airfield at Tempelhof Airport, Halvorsen saw a group of 30 children standing on the other side of the fence.
“I realized that most of them would not have had any candy for years. I had two sticks of gum in my pocket, which I gave to them. Of course it wasn’t enough for all of them, and I was afraid they would start a fight.”
Halvorsen’s expression becomes entranced, as if he were standing at that fence right now. “But those who didn’t get any just eagerly sniffed the silver wrapping. That really impressed me.”
The idea was born: “I decided to buy more candy, attach it to small, handmade parachutes and drop it for the children as I approached.”
Why such a complicated plan? Couldn’t he have simply taken more candy to the fence? “Like all the U.S. pilots, I was stationed at the Rhine-Main Air Base near Frankfurt,” Halvorsen explains. “I only saw Berlin from the air, and we had to stick by the plane for the few minutes we were on the ground.” His walk across the airfield was a one-time event.
Halvorsen’s story is a lesson in humanity, an example of how small things can make a big difference. The pilot dropped the candy just as planned, and to the children’s delight, he even repeated the drop several times. Then his supervisor called him in.
A newspaper had reported on the chocolate falling from the sky, and strictly speaking, the candy drop violated various rules. Halvorsen was afraid that he would be fired, but instead, he was praised – and invited to speak at a press conference.
This set the ball rolling and other pilots soon began dropping candy over schoolyards, sports fields and streets in West Berlin. The fact that Germans and Americans were getting on so well after the war was partly due to Halvorsen and what he did.
The U.S. media picked up the story, and entire school classes sent pounds and pounds of chocolate to the Air Force, sometimes already attached to tiny parachutes.
Candy manufacturers gave generously, too, and Halvorsen and the other pilots dropped more than 25 tons of chocolate, chewing gum and raisins (hence the German word Rosinenbomber, which means “raisin bomber”) over the following months.
Soon, the aircraft themselves were fondly referred to as Rosinenbomber, and Halvorsen earned the nickname “Uncle Wiggle Wings,” because he wiggled his plane’s wings to announce a drop. German children and their parents sent stacks of thank-you letters – as well as requests.
The children’s view of events in particular – pragmatic, hopeful – touches Halvorsen to this day, and he can recall some of the letters to the word. “A 9-year-old boy named Peter Zimmermann wrote that he couldn’t catch the parachutes because he wasn’t able to run very fast. He had drawn a map and asked me to drop some candy in the backyard of his bombed-out house. We tried, but evidently the chocolate never reached him.”
So Peter wrote another letter to the Americans. “You’re a pilot! I gave you a map! How did you manage to win the war?” In the end, Halvorsen sent the boy a package – through the mail.
Gail Halvorsen was pulled out of Germany in January 1949 and married his fiancée back home a couple of weeks later. The Berlin blockade ended in May of that year, and the Berlin Airlift in August.
The story could have ended here, too, but Halvorsen returned to West Berlin. He was appointed commander of the U.S. army’s Tempelhof Central Airport in 1970. “I was very moved. The city that had been in ruins two decades earlier was blossoming. The thing had been worthwhile.”
I pass the airworthiness test each year
In 1974, Gail Halvorsen left the Air Force and dedicated his life to helping children in war zones and conflict areas, like Kosovo and Iraq, winning many distinctions, including the German Federal Cross of Merit.
Today, he travels a lot, gives talks, visits air shows and still flies occasionally. “I pass the airworthiness test each year,” he says.
When his first wife, Alta, died in 1999, he married his high-school sweetheart Lorraine. Halvorsen has five children, 24 grandchildren and 43 great-grandchildren. One sentence sticks in your mind after talking with him because he says it so often: “I’m just so incredibly grateful.”