As we approach the 70th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, an event which was not only a historic occasion in the history of aviation but also the war of ideas at the heart of the Cold War, we ought to take a moment to remember the most incongruous of all Cold Warriors—the Candy Bomber.
At the end of World War II, the victorious Allied powers agreed to occupy Germany jointly by dividing it into Soviet, American, British, and French Zones. Berlin, deep within the Soviet zone, was also divided into four sections. While the Soviets favored a unified, neutral Germany on the model of Austria, the Western powers saw this as a ruse to slowly move Germany into the communist camp. The democratic republic that had been formed in postwar Czechoslovakia, for instance, had succumbed to a coup by pro-Soviet communists in 1948 right in the midst of Allied discussions over Germany’s future.
The decision on the part of the three Western powers to introduce a new currency in their occupation zones had unintended consequences. The Soviets saw it as a ploy to divide Germany. In protest, they launched the Berlin Blockade in sudden and dramatic fashion, blocking all land access to the city and turning back allied convoys, thus preventing food, coal, and all other materials from reaching Berlin.
The Berlin Blockade, which lasted from June 24, 1948 to May 12, 1949—nearly a year—posed a significant challenge for the Free World. How would they feed the people of West Berlin without capitulating to the Soviets or risking war?
The United States began looking for ways to circumnavigate the barrier, with humanitarian aid flights emerging as the best option. One of the more cinematic exchanges of the Berlin Airlift occurred when US Army Gen. Lucius D. Clay, the military governor of the American zone, called famed Air Force general Curtis LeMay, the ranking US Air Force commander in Europe. Could air force transports carry coal?
“General,” LeMay replied, “We can haul anything. How much coal do you want us to haul?”
“All you can haul,” Clay replied.
The airlift would involve crews from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, South Africa, and New Zealand. A call was sent around to Americans stationed in Germany for volunteers. One of those who was eager to participate was First Lieutenant Gail Halvorsen, a young pilot from Utah. “My squadron didn’t get the call, but my sister squadron did, so I transferred so that I could take part in the Berlin Airlift,” he told me in an interview.
The Soviets, it was feared, would shoot down any aircraft attempting to lift the siege. For the most part, those fears proved unfounded. Instead, the Soviets began violating West Berlin airspace, which resulted in some mid-air collisions and numerous close calls. In total, 101 allied personnel died during the Berlin Airlift, including 31 Americans. Crashes were the leading cause of such fatalities.
The British who began aerial re-supply to British troops in Berlin perhaps deserve credit for starting the Berlin Airlift. However, it was Gail Halvorsen who is credited with the most important strategic communications victory of the operation. With some 8,893 tons arriving in the city each day, planes had to be unloaded quickly, with German civilians doing much of the work. While his plane was being unloaded one day, Halvorsen passed a piece of gum through a fence to a group of German children and watched as they patiently divvied up the gum into several pieces. “I was fascinated. The kids were very grateful and didn’t beg at all.”
Halvorsen decided to start secretly giving candy to the children of Berlin. But then how to distribute it? Perhaps he could drop it from the plane as it approached the landing field, but a boxful of candy dropped from a plane traveling at 110 mph as it prepared to land could be dangerous.
“When I was a kid on the farm, we didn’t have TV then—we would invent distractions for ourselves. We used to tie a rock on a handkerchief and watch it drift down from the top of the barn.” With that memory in mind, Halvorsen tied up mini-parachutes to drop bunches of candy to German children. As he approached, he would wiggle his plane’s wings to signal that he was preparing to drop his candy cargo, and thus the candy bomber was born.
However, with World War Three on the horizon, his candy bombing drew the attention of senior Air Force personnel. “When my superiors found out, I figured my career was over. I was sure I was going to get court-marshaled. They chewed me out, but in the end, they let me continue, and in fact our operations expanded.”
“Operation Little Vittles,” as it became known, began on September 22, 1948, and delivered some 18 tons of candy bombs. A further two million tons were distributed on the ground to orphanages and Christmas parties—sans parachute. Halvorsen believes Operation Little Vittles made clear the stark contrast between Americans and Soviets in the minds of ordinary Germans. “When it became clear that Stalin was willing to let men, women, and children starve, it was a turning. It made people all around start to think, wait a minute, who are these communist jokers?”
The Berlin Airlift saved over 2.5 million people from Stalin’s expansionism. At a strategic level, it also ameliorated tensions between the French, British, and American allies. In the context of the Cold War, it highlighted the value of NATO—Norway, Italy, Portugal, Iceland, and Denmark all joined soon after the crisis began. Finally, the Berlin Blockade showed many in Europe and beyond the real face of the Soviet regime.
Though many Americans have forgotten it, the Berlin Airlift is still very much alive in German memory. A memorial to the airlift stands where the Frankfurt am Main airbase once was. Despite being 96, Halvorsen still travels to Germany to attend reunion events and has had a school named after him in Germany. Over the years he has made similar “Candy Bombings” in the Balkans and the Middle East. An effort is underway to have a statue built to honor him at an airport in his native Utah. The nonagenarian stays in touch with his fans on both sides of the Atlantic via his website. These bonds of personal affection are a testimony to the core of Halvorsen’s motivation: his empathy for the children of Berlin as humans and as individuals, not merely as geopolitical pawns. His story reflects the issues at stake within the Cold War itself.
Photo: US Air Force