Gail “Hal” Halvorsen who, at age 96, still flies, and does candy drops at American schools, as a way of helping understand that a little kindness can go a long way.
Seventy years ago, American pilot Hal Halvorsen’s mission won the heart of a city in its darkest hour.
In July 1948, three years after the war’s end, Soviet leader Josef Stalin was making a grab for Eastern Europe. “West Berlin, an island of freedom in a sea of red, was in his way,” Halvorsen said.
Berlin stood divided between east and west. The Soviets cut off land supply lines to the 2.25 million Berliners living in the west.
In response, the allies organized an airlift. American pilots began flying tons of flour, milk, meat, even coal to desperate Berliners.
“We had freedom and flour; they needed both,” Halvorsen said.
At age 27, Halvorsen was one of the pilots dropping necessities into the city of Berlin. As he did, he noticed children standing behind barbed wire at the end of the runway who were so grateful for the delivery.
“And then I realized, suddenly,” Halvorsen said. “Not one of those 30 kids had put out their hand and said, ‘You got any chocolate?'”
Halvorsen gave the kids a stick of gum. After seeing their deep appreciation, Halvorsen was compelled to act.
Without even asking for permission, he began fashioning tiny parachutes out of handkerchiefs and tied candy to each one. But to get the attention of children on the ground below, he had to get creative.
“I’d wiggle the wings of that big plane,” Halvorsen said.
The “wing wiggle” became Halvorsen’s trademark.
“In the base op, there [was] a big stack of mail,” Halvorsen said. “On the letters it said, ‘To Uncle Wiggly Wings.'”
As he dropped dozens of tiny parachutes from the sky, grateful German children gathered and then spread the word: Their former enemies, the Americans, were dropping candy from the sky.
“They fell in love with America and went home and convinced their parents,” said Andrei Cherny, author of “The Candy Bomber”
With Halvorsen’s actions, the candy bar became a symbol of hope. The military did not know who the candy bomber was until a reporter saw Halvorsen’s tail number.
“I thought I was going to be court-martialed,” Halvorsen said.
After his identity was discovered as the mystery candy bomber, Halvorsen was called up before a colonel, who unexpectedly encouraged Halvorsen to continue his mission.
After receiving the colonel’s tacit approval, other pilots joined his effort and the candy bombing went on until the airlift ended in 1949.
Americans in the United States also were involved, sending lots of candy and handkerchiefs.
“Word came back also that I was a bachelor, and some of the handkerchiefs came black laced, perfumed. I got three wedding proposals,” Halvorsen said with a smile.
As a result of Halvorsen’s initiative, America’s legions of candy bombers dropped about a quarter million tiny parachutes over Berlin with millions of pounds of candy.
“The Berlin we see today is in many ways a testament to what Hal Halvorsen did,” Cherny said. “Berlin would not have been able to survive through that terrible winter of 1948 were it not for the spirit of the people of Berlin.”
Halvorsen called the airlift the “healing balm on the wounds of war.”
“The gratitude breaks down the wall between people — when one’s grateful,” Halvorsen said.