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