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The Candy Bombers, America's finest hour after WWII
The inexplicable heart warming story after a war
For soldiers to be able to fight in war they must learn to hate their enemy, at least that is what most training manuals say to enable people to kill another whom they neither know nor have personal issues with. Yet this leads to a larger question of how do these soldiers feel once the war is over from both perspectives, the winning and losing side. In "The Candy Bombers" we see the story of a very simple act of kindness by a couple of air force pilots that quite possibly changed the course of events in Germany and possibly much of Europe. This book not only speaks to that simple act but the entire emotional state of affairs in Germany following a horrendous war that had encompassed unspeakable atrocities. The Candy Bombers tells the story of how a winning army should act towards civilians whose only crime was living in a country that went to war. It puts to test what it really means to turn the other cheek and welcome our brothers and sisters once a terrible war is over. This wonderful book is one of my favorite and is guaranteed to put a smile on any reader's face.
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Sometimes a candy bar can change everything
To understand a story of post-war Germany it is critical to start by looking at the state of affairs during the last stages of the war. This was a terrible war with horrible losses on both sides and certainly no forgone conclusion as to who was going to come out on top. Andrei Cherny takes the reader into the world of this war torn region beyond the facts and figures but into the emotions of the time. He is able to personalize the time period and some of the most fascinating everyday heroes that we would never know about without his research and wondrous story telling abilities. This story revolves around three main themes that are all interrelated. The first being the politics that led to the cold war between the US and the Soviet Union that was sparked literally as the last bullet was being fired. The second theme was concerning the technology challenges of supplying an entire major city exclusively from the air, and if this was even possible. And finally, the one alluded to in the introduction, the simple act of a couple of pilots that ended up winning the hearts and minds of a beaten people.
The book starts with the political state of affairs that were created at the end of WWII. The United States made the decision in the final days of the war to let the Soviet Union make the final push into Berlin to end the war. That last push cost the Soviet Union tens of thousands of lives but bought them a very strong bargaining position in the post-war negotiations. In fact, so strong was that position that the United States was kept out of Berlin for several days after the end of fighting and was to set the stage for the beginning of the cold war. Following the war there was the question of where should new country boundaries be drawn and who should help oversee them. The Soviet Union was in an expansion role and wanted of course as much territory as possible to make up for the terrible loss of lives, as well as their goal of increasing the global role of communism. While England and France wanted assurances that Germany could never wage another world war like the two in the same half-century. Thus, Berlin was split into regions with England, France and US keeping the western half and the Soviet Union overseeing the Eastern half. What sounds good in theory is rarely that easy after a major war.
One of ways the Soviet Union expanded their control as thoroughly as they did after WWII was by subverting the democratic process in war torn countries. They brought in food, coal for heating and other free gifts to the population as an incentive to join the communist political party, hoping to ensure an easy win during the 'free' elections and turn the country into a communist state. This was exactly their goal with Germany. While they only owned part of Berlin their troops controlled all land access into that city thus preventing England, France and the United States to bring supplies overland. Following most wars, a vast amount of the infrastructure in the home country is destroyed leading to shortages of food, clean water, medical supplies heating resources (coal or oil). Yet the United States was required to shift from invading army to builders of a self-sustaining post war country literally overnight. Trying to create a local police force to help prevent crime, build up stable political systems for free elections and begin the process of rebuilding are monumental tasks, even more so when these are tasks that most military units are not trained for. To make this even harder, the Soviets, who wanted all of Berlin, blocked all land routes into Berlin preventing any supplies including food and water from being brought in and thereby, they hoped, turn the Berliners to the Soviets for support. How to rebuild and gain the trust of a local population when there is no food or shelter while prevent Germany from turning into a communist state? This was the question now facing the allied powers.
Proving the impossible can happen by air
This began the second theme, this crazy and foolhardy belief that a city could be supplied by air. Never before in the history of mankind has a large group ever been able to be supplied for any extended period of time from the air let alone a large populous city. With all the resources available at the end of the war the US tried to do just that. They brought in every available cargo plane in the entire western theater to begin the impossible. Stories of pilots flying round the clock, sleeping in barns near the air field only to be woken up a few hours later to begin another round of flights were common. Hundreds of flights were needed to just bring in enough coal, food and water for a few days, let alone rebuilding supplies. If this wasn't enough there were only 125 cargo planes available and limited runways in working condition in Berlin. But all this changed with Bull Tunner who was brought in to organize a better airlift and changed aviation forever. A pilot by training he was incredibly analytical and loved paperwork. He quickly realized that the more organized a system, the less waste and chances for error. He created a system where exactly every 90 seconds a plane would take off and go along a narrow corridor either to or from Berlin. Every plane had to be exactly 3 minutes away from each other; if a plane was unable to land due to mechanical or weather challenges it would be sent back to start again. Clockwork precision was the name of the game, in other words monotonous, predictable, and not at all heroic to the pilots. But to the people they kept alive that summer it was a heroic. They were able to do the impossible and supply an entire city thru the winter and not only maintain but increase supplies over time. There was much more to this story than can possible shared in this brief article, but suffice to say with the efforts of the pilots, and now the planners and the people of Berlin, for the first time in history an airlift was able to supply an entire city.
"Once we were enemies yet you now gave your lives for us. We are now doubly in your debt" -- Plaque where a US C-47 crashed as part of airlift
Loving thy Enemy is Never Easy
This begins the final theme of the story and the origin of the title of the book, the mission to win the hearts of a beaten people. War, by its very nature, teaches hate for how else can you try to kill people you have never met? In fact, with all the food shortages in Berlin after the war, US soldiers were prohibited from giving any scrap of food to a German who were still seen as the enemy. Garbage was burned or doused with chemicals to ensure they could not be scavenged by starving locals. It did not take long for soldiers to begin to feel sorry for these locals who, of no fault of their own, were brought into this war and had their homes, their families, and their lives destroyed. One pilot, Lt. Gail Halvorsen wanted to do something for the children that he saw watching his plane land every time he arrived in Berlin with a load of supplies. Against specific military orders he took a candy bar, tied it his scarf and just before landing tossed it out of his plane cockpit window. Having no idea if it was seen or retrieved, his aircrew continued to do this for each run, spending their own money on scarves and candy. Soon the crowd of children grew and grew knowing that on rare occasion a piece of chocolate, a long lost food in this land of scarcity, might appear. At first his commanding officer turned a blind eye, but once military and civilian officials realized that these simple candy drops was actually endearing the Germans to the Americans they actively encouraged it. Soon children were on rooftops of ruined buildings hoping for those silk parachutes to fall from increasing number of planes. Candy companies started to donate candy, for at this point it was still funded by the pilots themselves. Thru that long winter of 1948 the United States and Berliners bonded in a way almost inconceivable from opposing sides of a war. Pilots that were working tirelessly not only to supply food and heating supplies to their former enemy but also to provide some little glimmer of hope in the form of candy to the children of a war.
To look back when America's policy of isolationism had the potential be changed to a member and leader of the world and to realize this change in policy that would define America for the next 6 decades was neither a forgone conclusion nor one universally held. A reader who only reads this book for its basic historical facts would miss a far greater impact. To see a country fight one of its most horrific fights of its young life and not treat its vanquished enemies as a hated mass, rather as individuals to be treated with humanity and forgiveness, is both humbling and awe inspiring. It is no exaggeration for many to say this was America's finest hour. In a day and age when many individual's public hatred is hotter than ever against Muslim extremists , Middle Easterners, even Wall Street Bankers; a lesson that hatred only begets more hatred is one we could all use a refresher in. To understand that sometimes friendship starts with nothing more than a stick of gum and a smile. I highly recommend this page turner to all who need a reminder that a country that can use just as many resources to bring peace as it did to bring war can be known to the world as a moral compass and not a school yard bully. Andrei Cherny, we tip our hats to your story telling expertise.
"Germany will not be occupied for the purpose of liberation but as a defeated enemy. The principal objective is to prevent Germany from ever again becoming a threat to the peace of the world." It was an audacious goal--and the plan was to accomplish it through unremitting strictness. -- Eisenhower's directive to the troops
"I was not afraid of the Gestapo which destroyed my family. I kept on working, and gentleman, I am not afraid of the 'consequences' with which you threaten. For I have only one life to lose, and this life belongs to freedom. And if it should cost my life on your account, gentlemen, and Berlin could remain free, I declare myself ready for death." -- Jeanette Wolf in response to the Soviet political pressure
"I only wish the Statue of Liberty could talk. She'd take one look at the job you're doing and say, 'Men, you're not only lifting coal, you're lifting men's hearts. You're raising the Iron Curtain. And the touch in my right hand? You're putting it in every heart in Europe" -- Bob Hope visiting pilots in Berlin
"Sunday, two days ago, I saw my last retreat in Berlin. I saw our flag being lowered with the full knowledge that it would be raised again on the following morning. I felt that in these four years it has become a symbol of firm justice and not of oppression, of a rule of law and not arbitrary law, and that indeed it had become to millions of people not of our land, the same symbol of freedom and of the dignity of man that it means to us." -- Gen. Lucius Clay upon completion of the airlift
"Once we were enemies yet you now gave your lives for us. We are now doubly in your debt" -- Plaque where a C-47 crashed as part of airlift
What we can learn from this story
Normal people do not have an easy time killing another whom they have never met and have nothing against. It one of the reasons the military spends so much time trying to desensitize their soldiers so they can kill strangers. Some of this involved the process of making them hate the enemy. During WWII this was made slightly easier by nature of the fact that the Nazis were in many ways the embodiment of evil. The fascinating thing is how fast US soldiers went from attacking the Germans to protecting them from the Soviet Union. While not easy, they were able to accomplish this about-face in a very quick time period.
This concept of turning the other cheek and trying to forgive is incredibly tough especially when you know friends or family who have been killed. If it is terrorist actions or traditional wars, being able to distinguish between an enemy leader and those who might have only been following directions is quite important. I think we can all learn to try to forgive those who might have made mistakes or followed the wrong leader. Try to remember forgiveness makes everyone feel better.
Favorite letters from children to Gail Halvorsen
Dear Candy Bomber,
Some days ago I read in the morning paper something about AMericans throwing sweets for German kids. How lucky I was last Sunday. I played at a ruin with some friends of mine opposite of our house. SUddenly we saw about ten white parachutes coming out of the sky! One of them set down at the roof of our house. There were three stripes chocolate in the parachute. My sister, my mother, and grandma were very glad about the chocolate too! I want to thank you for you love to the German kids. And I want you to say all your friends many thanks. Please tell them we were very glad.
Your little friend,
Hand Loewy, 14 years. Berlin
Dear Uncle Wiggly Wings,
When yesterday I came from school, I had the happiness to get one of your sweet gifts. First I did not know what do of joy and I could not come home quickly enough, to look at your wonderful things. You cannot think how big the joy was, they all, my brother and parents stood about me when I opened the strings and fetched out all the chocolate. The delight was very large.
Learn more than I can share in this article
This is honestly one of the favorite books I have ever read. It is guaranteed to make you feel better about the nature of humans after war, so would strongly recommend it to all readers!