His Has Been a Lifetime of Compassionate Service With Some Incredible Plot Twists Along the Way
This is the story of a man who was born in 1920 and grew up on farms in Idaho and Utah dreaming about flying airplanes- always looking up when anything with wings flew over. He graduated from high school in 1939 and earned his private pilot license under the Civilian Pilot Training Program in September of 1941. He quickly joined the Civil Air Patrol as a pilot. When war came to the United States, Gail Seymour “Hal” Halvorsen did what many pilots did. In May of 1942 at the age of 22 he joined the newly-formed United States Army Air Forces (USAAF). From there Hal’s life took a few unexpected turns.
Flying Anything With Wings
Hal said goodbye to life on the farm and hello to the Spartan School of Aeronautics in Miami, Oklahoma, where he underwent his initial flight training- ironically at a Royal Air Force Flying Training School for fighter pilots located there. After completion of his flight training (and receiving his RAF wings), Halvorsen was transferred to the USAAF and assigned instead to fly transport aircraft to Africa via Natal in Brazil, Ascension Island in the middle of the South Atlantic, and points east. Pushing supplies to Ascension Island driving a C-54 Skymaster or a C-47 Skytrain wasn’t glamorous, but it was important. Hal also ferried replacement aircraft to England, but he stresses he was never shot at- not even once. He maintained his single-engine piloting proficiency in Navy Douglas SBD Dautlesses down south of the equator for antisubmarine patrols. After all, he was an RAF-trained fighter pilot.
Called to Serve
After the War in Europe ended in May 1945, Hal flew personnel home from the ETO via the southern routes for a time, then returned to the United States and was still flying for Uncle Sam when the United States Air Force was born in 1947. When, on 24 June 1948, the Berlin Blockade began, Hal was a Lieutenant flying Douglas C-54 Skymaster and C-74 Globemaster transports out of Brookley Air Force Base (AFB) near Mobile in Alabama. Transport pilots were immediately needed in Germany to supply the encircled city of Berlin. Halvorsen parked his new car, dropped everything, boarded a Europe-bound C-54 transport, and arrived in Germany on 10 July 1948. There he immediately began flying those old familiar Skytrains and Skymasters full of every kind of cargo imaginable to the desperate Berlin residents behind the wire.
Living In the Aftermath
A typical mission during the Berlin Airlift, quickly dubbed Operation Vittles, took Halvorsen over the ruins still present after World War II while on approach to Berlin-Tempelhof airport where the supplies were unloaded and distributed. Halvorsen flew as many as three missions per day down the 20 mile-wide air corridors into Berlin- occasionally with Russian fighters for very unwelcome company. Halvorsen had never seen such devastation as he saw in Germany, but amid the rubble around Tempelhof there were signs of life. Children, fascinated by the near-constant stream of transports overhead, lined the barbed-wire fences around the airport. Lieutenant Halvorsen saw them from the air.
That Seminal Moment
On 19 July 1948, Halvorsen took advantage of some time off to look around and capture some footage using his ever-present movie camera. He found himself near one of those groups of children on the other side of the airport fence while filming arrivals and departures of the transports and decided to talk with them. Now the children by this time knew exactly how important those transports droning overhead were. In Halvorsen’s words, “I met about thirty children at the barbed wire fence that protected Tempelhof’s huge area. They were excited and told me that ‘when the weather gets so bad that you can’t land, don’t worry about us. We can get by on a little food, but if we lose our freedom, we may never get it back.’”
The Beginnings of a Larger Plan
Halvorsen was in a rush to get back to Rhein-Main, but something (he maintains he doesn’t know exactly what) made him stop, reach into his pocket, pull out his last two sticks of Wrigley Double-Mint gum, and hand them to the kids. He instantly felt gnawing regret that he didn’t have enough for everyone. So he promised the kids that he would bring gum for everyone the next day- via air drop. When asked how the children would know which plane he was flying, Hal told them he would wiggle his wings for them as he flew over on his approach into Tempelhof. Back at Rhein-Main airport near Frankfurt that night, Hal and his crew put their candy rations together and quickly realized air-dropping the candy to the children might not be such a great idea- somebody could get seriously hurt. The solution: Handkerchief parachutes. The guys made three of them and the next day the first three-box candy air-drop mission went off without a hitch.
The Candy Bomber Never Dropped an Actual Bomb
Hal and his crew, including “bombardier” navigator/crew chief Technical Sergeant Herschel C. Elkins, kept the aerial resupply missions going- on a fairly small scale. They air-dropped their entire candy and gum rations once a week over the next three weeks- always utilizing the C-54’s flare chute. With each passing week, the crowd of children at the Tempelhof fence grew almost exponentially. Halvorsen was confident the kids didn’t know his identity so he was getting away with the unauthorized candy-bombing, but increasing amounts of thank-you mail from the children and their parents reached Airlift commander Lieutenant General William H. Tunner. When asked by Tunner to explain, Halvorsen was afraid his goose was well and truly cooked. But word of the “Berlin Candy Bomber” (Berlin Süßigkeiten Bomber) or “Uncle Wiggly Wings” (Onkel Wackelflugel ) had also reached the Berlin press. Tunner said, “You almost hit a reporter in the head with a candy bar in Berlin yesterday. He’s spread the story all over Europe.” But rather than halting the missions, General Tunner actually embraced and expanded the effort, even naming it Operation Little Vittles.
Operation Little Vittles officially began on 22 September 1948. At first Hal and his friends and fellow transport crews provided the “ordnance” for the drops, but in short order his entire squadron, and soon the entire base, were involved in the effort. When word of Operation Little Vittles reached the United States, children, families, and confectioners from all over the country began contributing candy and handkerchiefs. In just a couple of months the sheer volume reached unmanageable proportions-but Hal and his fellow pilots still had missions to fly. They got a helping hand from Mary C. Conners, a college student in Massachusetts, who took charge of what had quickly become a project national in scale and scope. She worked with the National Confectioners Association to package the candy and make parachutes for them, staging the items through nearby Westover AFB.
What’s In a Name?
By this time Hal and his fellow Little Vittles pilots were dropping candy every other day. The children of Berlin were provided with hope, candy, and perhaps a cavity or two. The Air Force had built a rapport with the people of Berlin remarkable in both its depth and speed- it would be years before that rubble around Tempelhof reminding the people of Berlin of what (in large part) the US Air Force had inflicted on them so recently would be cleared. But thousands of thank you letters and artworks from the children of Berlin were sent to the “Raisin Bombers” (Rosinenbomber) and to Halvorsen himself, who had also been dubbed “The Chocolate Uncle” (Der Schokoladenonkel), “The Gum Drop Kid“ (Das GumDrop Kid), and “The Chocolate Flier” (Der Schokoladenflieger) by then. One of the Berlin children later told Halvorsen, “It wasn’t [just] chocolate. It was hope.”