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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Gail Halvorsen, in memory of West Berlin

Updated: Jan 12, 2022

A true ordinary hero, Gail Halvorsen lived through the post-war events in Germany and left an unforgettable memory in West Berlin. Simply human. We talk about the Allied presence against the Soviet forces.

Beginning of a military career

As a young Utah native, Gail Halvorsen discovered a passion for aviation. As World War II raged in Europe, he began training to become a pilot and volunteered with the Civil Air Patrol. He was assigned to scouting flights, transporting mail and, most importantly, to the further training of future pilots. This is important because, once mobilised for operations in the Pacific, Halvorsen is not assigned to a fighter unit. His involvement was more logistical than strategic.

The young man with the jovial temperament never had to engage in combat or bomb military or civilian targets. His passion and above all his personal relationship with aviation remain unchanged. Continuing his commitment to the Air Force, he was sent to Europe in July 1948 as a pilot of large aircraft.

The Berlin Blockade

Pilot Halvorsen was dropping sweets to children in West Berlin.
Halvorsen and his little parachutes

For some weeks, the Soviets had been closing the land routes between West Berlin and the Allied Trizone. They challenged the introduction of the Deutsch Mark in the American, British and French sectors to the exclusion of the areas they controlled, which they considered a breach of the 1945 agreements on joint administration.

West Berlin and its approximately two million inhabitants were isolated in the heart of the Soviet occupation zone and could only count on one month's food supplies. Only the air corridors established in November 1945 to connect the Allied forces with their respective zones of occupation remained accessible.

Under American leadership, the most formidable air logistics operation in history began: Operation Vittles. For the success of the operation, the experts on the Allied side were counting on a minimum daily tonnage of 4,500 tonnes of supplies and raw materials, the transport of which would require the total mobilisation of hundreds of airliners every day for an indefinite period. More than 280,000 flights were carried out until the blockade was lifted in May 1949.

Candies for personal initiative

Children in West Berlin crowded around Tempelhof airport to receive sweets.
Children waiting for the Rosinenbomber

Gail Halvorsen was one of the first American airmen to fly between Frankfurt and West Berlin. Once on the tarmac at Tempelhof airport, the young man who had become an officer waited for his plane to be unloaded before setting off for his departure port.

It was then that he noticed a small group of Berlin children on the other side of the barbed wire fence, who had come to observe the incessant ballet of planes in the sky. Engaging them in conversation, Halvorsen is distressed by their state of malnutrition and the fact that they smoke to stave off hunger.

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 was generally not very tasty for the youngest children. He promises to bring them sweets the next day: he will drop them from his plane with small parachutes so as not to hurt anyone. The children will only have to wait for his plane, which will distinguish itself by waving its wings during the landing phase.

He keeps his word and continues to drop treats, taking the men of his unit with him. At the same time, the number of children waiting for these famous sweets that have fallen from the sky is growing. The matter is brought to light and Gail Halvorsen is summoned by his superior, Lieutenant-General Tunner, who is in charge of the airlift.

A successful operation

Tunner was a pragmatic man. He immediately realised the benefits of such an initiative among the German public, some of whom still doubted American legitimacy. In addition to the initial plan, he set up Operation Little Vittles under the direction of Halvorsen himself. Until May 1949, more than 23 tons of sweets and other goodies were dropped by US Air Force pilots.

In the United States, the phenomenon became even more widespread. The candy collections were taken up by the public. Dozens of primary schools classes on the East Coast organised workshops to make the famous parachutes, while a special office was set up to handle Gail Halvorsen's correspondence on his return from Germany in January 1949.

An unforgettable memory for Berliners

Gail Halvorsen left a strong impression in Berlin.
A smile for eternity

Gail Halvorsen lived through the events of his time without losing his empathy for others and his unshakeable faith in mankind.

His personal and selfless initiative had a major impact on the evolution of relations between Americans and Germans, for let us not forget that the planes that dropped candies on Berlin in 1948 were the same ones that dropped their bombs of destruction and death a few years earlier. These planes were called by the Germans the "Rosinenbomber", literally the raisin bombers. See Allied Museum too.

Obviously, Halvorsen's initiative was used for this purpose, to ensure the German position in the Western fold against the Soviet bloc, because of course history is a complex process where multiple factors interact and one will always find reason to question the validity of such action.

But beyond the overly 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. This is priceless. Halvorsen is an indispensable figure for anyone interested in (West) Berlin. Even today, the local press celebrates the birthday of the now 100-year-old every year.

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