Gail Halvorsen, In Memory of West Berlin
Updated: Jun 21
Gail Halvorsen, an unassuming hero, left an unforgettable mark on West Berlin with his response to post-war events in Germany. Simply a human being, his story underscores the Allied presence in opposition to Soviet forces.
Beginning of a Military Career
Born in Utah, Gail Halvorsen discovered a passion for aviation at a young age. As World War II raged on in Europe, he trained to become a pilot and volunteered with the Civil Air Patrol. His duties involved scouting flights, mail transport, and most crucially, training future pilots. When later mobilized for operations in the Pacific, Halvorsen was assigned to a logistics role rather than a fighter unit.
With a jovial personality, Halvorsen never had to engage in combat or bomb military or civilian targets. His passion for aviation and his personal relationship with it remained unchanged. Continuing his service in the Air Force, he was dispatched to Europe in July 1948 as a pilot of large aircraft.
The Berlin Blockade
The Soviets had been blocking the land routes between West Berlin and the Allied Trizone for weeks. They opposed the introduction of the Deutsch Mark in the American, British, and French sectors, to the exclusion of the areas they controlled, viewing it as a violation of the 1945 agreements on joint administration.
West Berlin, with its approximate two million residents, was isolated in the heart of the Soviet occupation zone and had only about one month's food supplies left. Only the air corridors established in November 1945 to connect the Allied forces with their respective zones of occupation remained open.
Under American leadership, the most formidable air logistics operation in history began: Operation Vittles. For the operation to succeed, the Allied experts anticipated a minimum daily requirement of 4,500 tonnes of supplies and raw materials. This requirement would necessitate the full mobilization of hundreds of airliners daily for an indefinite period. More than 280,000 flights were carried out until the blockade was lifted in May 1949.
Candies for Personal Initiative
Gail Halvorsen was one of the first American airmen to fly between Frankfurt and West Berlin. While waiting for his plane to be unloaded at Tempelhof airport, he noticed a small group of Berlin children observing the constant ballet of planes from the other side of the barbed wire fence.
Struck by their malnutrition and their use of smoking to stave off hunger, Halvorsen engaged them in conversation. The city was still in ruins, and many of the children had lost family members during the war. The food supply was mostly coal and freeze-dried food, which did not appeal to the younger children. He promised to bring them sweets the following day, dropping them from his plane with small parachutes to prevent injuries. The children would merely need to watch for his plane, which would signal its arrival by waggling its wings during the landing phase.
He kept his promise, enlisting the men of his unit in his candy dropping campaign. Meanwhile, the number of children waiting for the famed sky-falling sweets grew. The situation caught attention, and Halvorsen was called before his superior, Lieutenant-General Tunner, who oversaw the airlift.
A Successful Operation
Tunner was a pragmatic man. He immediately recognized the public relations benefits of such an initiative among the German public, some of whom still questioned American legitimacy. In addition to the initial plan, he launched Operation Little Vittles under Halvorsen's direction. Until May 1949, more than 23 tons of sweets and other goodies were dropped by U.S. Air Force pilots.
In the United States, the initiative took off. Candy collections were organized by the public. Dozens of East Coast primary school classes set up workshops to make the famous parachutes, while a special office was established to handle Gail Halvorsen's correspondence upon his return from Germany in January 1949.
An Unforgettable Memory for Berliners
Gail Halvorsen's impact on Berlin was profound. He navigated the events of his time without losing his empathy for others or his unshakeable faith in humanity.
His personal and selfless initiative significantly influenced the evolution of relations between Americans and Germans. It's crucial to remember that the planes dropping candies over Berlin in 1948 were the same ones that had dropped bombs of destruction and death a few years earlier. Germans dubbed these planes the "Rosinenbomber", or "raisin bombers."
Certainly, Halvorsen's initiative was instrumental in securing the German position in the Western fold against the Soviet bloc. History is a complex process, with multiple factors interacting, and it's easy to question the validity of such actions.
But beyond the pragmatic and disillusioned considerations, Halvorsen remains an ordinary hero, a symbol of West Berlin, and a wonderful memory for all those children who waited hopefully for the flapping plane to drop its candies. His contribution is invaluable and essential for anyone interested in (West) Berlin. Gail Halvorsen died in 2022.