Col. Gail Halvorsen, Ret. and the Berlin Airlift

Faye Higbee

‘Uncle Wiggly Wings’ was coming! The roar of the aircraft at the sight of the wiggled wings signaled treats would soon be dropped for children who were hungry for things they would not be able to get thanks to a Soviet blockade. Col. Gail Halvorsen was known as “the Candy bomber” in the Berlin Airlift in 1948-1949. He passed away on February 16, 2022 at the age of 101. But he will never be forgotten, as hundreds of thousands of children remember the treats he dropped in Berlin as the Soviets blockaded railway, road, and canal access to the sectors of Berlin controlled by the West.

Operation Vittles was the name of the flights to send food and supplies to Berlin, but “Operation Little Vittles” was Halvorsen’s mission. Altogether, the mission dropped 23 tons of candy to the children of West Berlin.

Halvorsen told the children they would know him when he “wiggled” his wings
Halvorsen gave some children two sticks of gun, and after their reaction, he promised to bring more each day. He made good on his promise.

On 24 June 1948, the Soviets closed all land routes into West Berlin and put the city under siege. Their intent was to starve and freeze the people of West Berlin into surrendering to Soviet control. By doing so, they would prevent West Berlin from becoming an outpost of freedom inside enemy territory – a launching point, home base, and observation post for the spies, psychological operators, and subversives who would undermine brutal Soviet control. Two days after the blockade began, the Allies — in particular the United States with its newly independent Air Force and its older cousin, the British Royal Air Force – began to resupply the city by air. It was an emergency operation, initially set to last two weeks, but it would last far longer.

No one had ever attempted such a feat. Berlin – even half of it – was a major city of two and a half million people, and aviation was still relatively new technology. The greatest airlift accomplishment prior to this had been resupplying Chinese allies in the China-Burma-India (CBI) theater during World War II. That had required flying over the Himalayas (“the Hump”), but that’s another story. The flying here would be somewhat less difficult (remember harsh German weather), but the scale would be far more demanding. The air corridors into West Berlin were narrow, and anyone who strayed outside of it would be subject to shootdown by East German air defenses. There was no GPS, and on a dark night a math error could cost you your life.

John Hennings, LinkedIn

Into this tense situation came Col Gail Halvorsen, an Air Force Lieutenant at the time. His flights through the narrow corridor became a legend for a man with a kind heart. He put the candy in handkerchiefs like parachutes so as not to harm the children anxiously waiting for the treats. Lt. Gail Halvorsen helped drop 23 tons of candies, chocolate and chewing gum wrapped in tiny parachutes.

The method became a mainstay during the Iraq War, when airmen also dropped candy for children who had nothing special.

Gail Halvorsen inspired my generation and we also dropped candy bombs with candy, volleyballs and school supplies to Iraqi children during our service. May he rest in peace.

Tammy Duckworth

Halvorsen retired in 1974 as a Colonel with 8,000 flight hours. Eventually the “Air Force awarded him the Legion of Merit and the Cheney Award for Humanitarian Services. The service’s Halvorsen Cargo Loader is named for him as well as the C-17 Aircrew Training Center in Charleston, South Carolina. He also received the German Order of Merit Service Cross, the Congressional Gold Medal, and was inducted into the Utah Aviation Hall of Fame,” according to wearethemighty.

“During Berlin’s darkest hour, he was the light that shone through. My heart goes out to the friends and family of Gail Halvorsen… the ‘Candy Bomber.’”

Sgt Maj Joanne Bass, USAF

Inspiring indeed. Rest in peace, Col Halvorsen.

“Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

Mark 10:15


Featured screenshot. Col Gail Halvorsen- US Air Force photo