Cold War History: Gail Halvorsen-- Uncle Wiggly Wings the Berlin Candy Bomber

Wrigley's Spearmint Gum (1940s)
Wrigley's Spearmint Gum (1940s) | Source

Two Sticks of Gum

When US pilot Gail Halvorsen dug into his pocket to give some kids candy during the Berlin Airlift after the war, he could only come up with two sticks of gum. That tiny gesture eventually blossomed into the gift of hope for an entire generation of German children who had known nothing but war, destruction and near-starvation.

Allied army positions at the end of the war in 1945
Allied army positions at the end of the war in 1945 | Source

WW2 Allies Turn On Each Other

The years immediately following World War 2 were fraught with tension as the Allied victors who had defeated Hitler's Germany now faced off over control of Europe. The Soviet Union, who had borne the brunt of the land war, had lost between 25 to 40 million soldiers and civilians. They were determined to exert control as far west as the French border to nullify any future threat from Europe. Britain, victorious yet nearly ruined by the war, feared that one day Russians would be watching them from across the English Channel. America, unscathed at home, wanted to disentangle herself as much as possible from Europe. Eastern Germany was under Russian control while the US, Britain and France controlled western Germany. The capital city of Berlin, deep inside Russian-occupied territory, was similarly divided among the former Allies-- a microcosm of the larger problem.

Berliners watch a C-54 land at Berlin's Tempelhof Airport, 1948
Berliners watch a C-54 land at Berlin's Tempelhof Airport, 1948 | Source

Russians Blockade Berlin

At the end of the war the Soviet Union and her allies had an overwhelming superiority, with forty-six armies in Europe against the western Allies' ten. The US, however, was the sole possessor of nuclear weapons. A delicate balance of brinkmanship, which would become known as the Cold War, began. Its first major crisis started in 1948 when the Russians closed road and rail traffic to Berlin from the west and stopped supplying Berliners in the non-Soviet sector with food. The only way the West could supply them was via three air corridors and so began the Berlin Airlift, a seemingly impossible task to ferry in a minimum 5,000 tons of food and fuel each and every day. The Russians scoffed at the idea (as did many in the West), but the impossible eventually became reality between June 1948 and September 1949. Russia's only recourse would have been to shoot down the aircraft which would have triggered another World War.

Halvorsen Goes to Germany

When the Russians began their blockade, twenty-seven-year-old Air Force Pilot Gail Halvorsen was stationed near Mobile, Alabama. His commander said they needed four planes to fly to Germany the next day for a mission lasting less than four weeks. Halvorsen parked his brand new car under some trees, pocketed the keys, and flew off to Europe. His mission lasted seven months and he never saw his car again.

The war was fresh in everyone's mind and there was a lot of grumbling about helping former enemies who had started the war and committed terrible atrocities. Halvorsen had no love for the Germans. He said they were bad news, but realized that Stalin, their former ally, was the new enemy and that the stakes were high in Berlin.

Bombed out buildings in Berlin
Bombed out buildings in Berlin | Source

Better to Feed Them Than Kill Them

On his first flight to Berlin's Templehof Airport, he was struck by the moonscape of jagged gray buildings below. He could see right through their skeletal remains. When the German laborers came to unload their cargo of twenty tons of flour, Halvorsen saw no arrogance, no haughtiness, no bitterness. They shook the Americans' hands and thanked them for the precious sacks of flour. The gratitude in their eyes put to rest any misgivings Halvorsen had about the mission. A friend of his who had flown bombing missions over Germany admitted “it feels a lot better to feed them than it does to kill ‘em”.

A U. S. Air Force C-74 Globemaster plane unloading more than 20 tons of flour from the United States (Aug 19, 1948) at RAF Gatow (British airfield in southwest Berlin)
A U. S. Air Force C-74 Globemaster plane unloading more than 20 tons of flour from the United States (Aug 19, 1948) at RAF Gatow (British airfield in southwest Berlin) | Source

Don't Give Up On Us

One day in July of 1948 Halvorsen saw a group of thirty children behind the barbed wire fence watching the comings and goings of the Allied transports, so he walked over to them. They told him the air crews shouldn't risk their lives when the weather was bad-- they could get by on less until the weather cleared. “Just don't give up on us” was all they asked. He talked with them as they asked many questions in their broken English and before he knew it, an hour had passed and he had to leave. As he walked away, he stopped and looked back at them. It had occurred to him that in all that time they hadn't once asked for any candy. They had in fact listened attentively and respectfully, expressing gratitude for the flour and food the Americans, British and French were flying in at great risk to themselves They were unlike any of the boisterous crowds of kids the Americans were used to who tugged at their sleeves and clamored for chocolate.

Gail Halvorsen's Book

Two Lousy Sticks of Gum

He dug in his pockets, but could only find two sticks of Wrigley's gum which he tore in half. He walked back and passed the four pieces through the fence. The lucky kids carefully unwrapped their prizes and handed the wrappers to the others who gratefully sniffed the foil. There was no pushing or grabbing. It had a profound impact on Halvorsen.

He promised he would drop enough gum for everyone the next day. When they asked how they would know it was him, he said he would wiggle his wings. “Vas ist viggle?” they asked and he explained.

Candy Bombs

That night he put together three bags of candy bars and gum using his candy ration and the rations of his copilot and engineer. He was surprised how heavy they were. Dropping them at a hundred miles an hour on the children would not have the desired effect so he fashioned parachutes out of handkerchiefs.

As he flew into the airport the next day, he saw the kids standing behind the wire, attentively watching the planes come in. He wiggled his wings and immediately the small crowd of children threw up their arms and jumped up and down. The bundles of candy were shoved out the flare chute behind the pilot seat and Halvorsen hoped they reached their target. The plane landed, unloaded its cargo and, thirty minutes later, was ready to take off again. As he taxied down the runway, he finally saw the children waving their arms, their mouths open with unheard cries of joy. Three of them waved three parachutes.

1st Lt. Gail Halvorsen (b. Oct 10, 1920) rigging parachutes for candy drops over Berlin during the Berlin Airlift (circa 1948).
1st Lt. Gail Halvorsen (b. Oct 10, 1920) rigging parachutes for candy drops over Berlin during the Berlin Airlift (circa 1948). | Source

Uncle Wiggly Wings

Halvorsen and his crew repeated this once a week for the next three weeks, parachuting three bags each time. One day, while his plane was being unloaded, he entered the base operations office and found the planning table loaded with letters, returned parachutes and artwork addressed to Onkel Wackelflugel (“Uncle Wiggly Wings”). He knew he was in a world of trouble. They stopped the drops for two weeks, but the crowd of kids kept growing, so they decided to do one more drop of six bundles and that was it.

Except it wasn't. His colonel showed him a big newspaper article with a picture clearly showing the tail number of his plane and demanded to know what was going on. Halvorsen told him and awaited his fate, which clearly could include a court martial. When General Tunner, who was in charge of the Berlin Airlift now nicknamed Operation Vittles, heard the story, he recognized the propaganda potential and simply said “Keep it up”. Operation Little Vittles was born.

Kids All Over the US Wanted to Help

From three bags once a week, it exploded. He'd get back from Berlin and his bed would be covered with candy from his buddies' rations. Word got back to the US and he started receiving mailbags full of candy and handkerchiefs from parents and children all over the country. Then the National Confectioner's Association said they'd give him all the candy he could use. When the sheer volume became too much, schools in Chicopee, Massachusetts organized their students to make the parachute bundles and all the candy was rerouted to them.

DC-3 at Berlin's Tempelhof Airport named "Rosinenbomber" (Raisin Bomber) commemorating the planes that dropped candy over Berlin during the airlift
DC-3 at Berlin's Tempelhof Airport named "Rosinenbomber" (Raisin Bomber) commemorating the planes that dropped candy over Berlin during the airlift | Source

Hope For The Future

More planes started hauling cardboard boxes full of candy parachutes and dropping them all over Allied-controlled Berlin. The German children called these planes Raisin Bombers, but only Halvorsen was known as Uncle Wiggly Wings and Uncle Chocolate. To the rest of the world he became known as the Candy Bomber.

By the time the airlift ended, twenty-five air crews had dropped more than 40,000 pounds of candy on the city and it was a major propaganda coup. The spontaneous generosity of ordinary people not only gave the children and their parents hope for the future, it had softened the attitude of the western Allies to the German people by putting a face on them.

Colonel Gail S. Halvorsen leans out the window of a C-54 Skymaster during ceremonies at Tempelhof Airport commemorating the 40th anniversary of the airlift (May 12 1989).
Colonel Gail S. Halvorsen leans out the window of a C-54 Skymaster during ceremonies at Tempelhof Airport commemorating the 40th anniversary of the airlift (May 12 1989). | Source

Later Life

Gail Halvorsen went on to become an Air Force colonel. In the seventies he commanded Templehof Central Airport in Berlin where he'd delivered cargo during the airlift. In 1994, at the age of 73, he participated in a humanitarian food drop over Bosnia. In 2014 he received the Congressional Gold Medal for his humanitarian efforts. On his many trips back to Berlin over the years he always met with “his” children, now parents and grandparents, who adore their Uncle Wiggly Wings. He and his second wife live on a farm in Spanish Fork, Utah.

Uncle Wiggly Wings

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Comments 12 comments

gmarquardt profile image

gmarquardt 11 months ago from Hill Country, Texas

In addition, he had the honor of carrying the German flag during the opening ceremony for the Winter Olympics in 2002, when it was in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Germans still respect and honor this inspirational and humble man.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 11 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

You are so right, gm. He has been honored many times in many ways including receiving the Order of Merit from Germany and other medals, having schools have been named after him, etc. He is also the author of "The Berlin Candy Bomber".


Larry Rankin profile image

Larry Rankin 11 months ago from Oklahoma

Another wonderful read!


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 11 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

As an American, Halvorsen would not have had to witness the 'Blitz' at first hand. The Germans (and Austrians) brought the fate upon themselves. Maybe they expected to have to dig themselves out of a deep hole, having brought about two European wars.

They were resigned to it, although only a few years earlier had trampled first across Poland and then the rest (including the Channel Islands). The figure for Russian military and civilian deaths was 20 Million, but half that would have brought Uncle Joe down on their backs. When you've seen half European Russia reduced to ruins, civility is the last thing on your mind.

The Cold War was needless, brought on by misunderstandings. Some US chiefs of staff had wondered why the Western Allies didn't side with the Germans in 1944; others thought we should let the Nazi and Soviet regimes bleed one another dry, such was US antipathy toward the Russians. On their part the Russians didn't want the Germans jackbooting into their back yard a third time, hence the generous 'buffer zones' (East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary) demanded. They were of the opinion the US was going to use the Germans against them (allowing them a defence force with US jets and tanks).

That was what was behind the blockade.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 11 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks, Larry. Glad you liked it.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 11 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Alan, thanks for your comprehensive comment, as usual. Russia was so devastated, that it is difficult to arrive at a single estimate. In 1993, the Russian Academy of Sciences put the figure at 26.6 million, while independent Russian researchers put the figure in excess of 40 million. We will never know the true number, but can agree it was horrendous and it was the Eastern Front that determined the outcome of the European Theater. And don't forget also that Churchill ordered plans be drawn up for war against the Russians called Operation Unthinkable. It was deemed unworkable. Nations and governments being what they are (opportunistic, self-serving, fair-weather friends and erstwhile enemies) it is a wonder to me that nuclear war has so far been averted.


emge profile image

emge 11 months ago from Abu Dhabi

The blockade was a Russian reaction to a west buildup of Germany. The us and its allies were scared of Stalin and hence began a a process to bring Germany in there sphere. It was seen by Russians as a grave provocation. This started the cold war a needless episode. Excellent post


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 11 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks for commenting emge. While the Russians saw the build-up as a provocation, the West saw the existing massive Russian presence in the same light. Who's wrong? Who's right? Both sides. It still applies today-- the Russians occupying the Crimea after promising to observe Ukrainian sovereignty in return for Ukraine surrendering their nuclear weapons and the current NATO build-up in response to Russia's aggression. On the other hand NATO foolishly ignored Russia's fears of encirclement. Don't get me wrong, I support whole-heartedly the independence of the Baltic states for example, but NATO discussions with Georgia, for example, is an example of NATO's overreach and disregard of Russian concerns. There may be plenty of stupidity on both sides, but it's stupidity that gets out of hand (see World War 1). If we're lucky, we might get away with a "small" Second Cold War.


PAINTDRIPS profile image

PAINTDRIPS 11 months ago from Fresno CA

Politics and reasons aside, I loved this piece of humanity in a sea of hate and misunderstandings. I think we forget that history isn't about numbers, names and dates, but also about people and how things beyond their control affected them. Thanks so much for this piece of history.

Blessings,

Denise


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 11 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks, Denise. As I researched this, I was struck by the children being so respectful, mature and restrained when Gail first talked to them. I have to admit I got a lump in my throat when he first wiggled his wings and the kids erupted into cheers and jumped up and down waving their arms. They were able to be just children.


FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 11 months ago from USA

I loved this very human story. Touching!


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 11 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thank you, FlourishAnyway. Although those in charge of the Berlin Airlift recognized its powerful propaganda potential, it still remains an everlasting human story that grew from the ground up.

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