Remembering Col. Gail Halvorsen
The winged candy man
The news broke on Feb. 27, 2022, that Col. Gail Halvorsen, known as the Berlin Candy Bomber, had died at 101 years of age. Halvorsen was the descendant of Norwegian immigrants from Vang i Valdres.
It was the first time I had heard of him, and I was immediately intrigued by the juxtaposition of “candy man” and “bomber.”
How could a bomber pilot have been beloved by children? Isn’t that counterintuitive?
I soon learned that Col. Halvorsen was deserving of the name. I learned about how he got that nickname and the ripple effect his actions had.
Halvorsen was born in Salt Lake City in 1920. As a child, he lived on farms in both Idaho and Utah. He developed an interest in flying, and in 1941, he began working toward obtaining his license by joining the civilian pilot training program.
He then enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force, serving until the war’s end and way beyond. Eventually, he was chosen to be part of “Operation Vittles,” better known as the Berlin Airlift in 1948. His mission was to deliver food to the famished population, not only in Berlin but also in places under Soviet jurisdiction.
Halvorsen had a keen interest in photography and documented much of what Berlin was experiencing with his simple movie camera. One day, he befriended a bevy of kids, giving them the gum he had in his pockets. They had so little, and there was not enough to go around. He promised to come back the next day and drop off enough gum for all of them from his plane. When the children asked how they would identify him, he responded, “I will wiggle my wings.” He became known as “Uncle Wiggly Wings.”
Halvorsen was like the Pied Piper, as more children followed his deliveries. He worked with others in his crew to pool their rations of candy, gum, and chocolate, even wrapping them in mini parachutes created from handkerchiefs, so the candy would not hurt anyone when it fell from the sky.
They had been continuing their weekly drops for three weeks, when Halvorsen’s action caught the ear of his lieutenant general. Halvorsen feared repercussions because their shipments were outside of regulations. To Halvorsen’s surprise, his commander loved the idea of increasing its capacity and giving it the name “Little Vittles.”
The sweets kept dropping from the efforts of his entire squadron, but demand was high—and growing. Word of what they were doing traveled across the Atlantic, inspiring children, adults, and candymakers, including the American Confectioners Association to contribute both goodies and handkerchiefs.
Within two months it became too time-consuming for Halvorsen to handle it alone. So, Mary Connors, a college student, graciously took over organizing what had become a national project. Halvorsen continued to be one of the many pilots who distributed the floating candy throughout Berlin. Their expeditions lasted for about 20 months. It is estimated that Operation Little Vittles was responsible for dropping over 23 tons of candy from over 250,000 parachutes.
After returning to the United States, Halvorsen made sure to thank the many contributors on this side of the Atlantic in person, including Dorothy Groeger, his largest donor. She was homebound and enlisted the help of her friends and acquaintances to sew handkerchiefs and donate funds. He also thanked schoolchildren and Little Vittles committee of Chicopee, Mass., who were responsible for preparing over 18 tons of candy and gum from across the country and shipping it to Germany.
In 2004, Ursula Yunger, who had been one of the beneficiaries of Halvorsen’s packages reminisced about him in the Tucson Citizen: “He enchanted the children of Berlin … It wasn’t the candy … it was his profound gesture, showing us that somebody cared.”
Halvorsen was highly regarded and garnered near-celebrity status. Two women, complete strangers, even proposed marriage to him, but he had his eye on his college sweetheart, Alta Jolley. They married shortly after his return home and raised a family of five children in various parts of the United States and Germany.
Their shifting residences were a result of his continued career in the Air Force. He chose to remain in the military, because it offered him an education and because he was guaranteed a stable commission. There he stayed until his retirement from the Air Force in 1974, having served for 31 years.
The Berlin Candy Bomber continued building bridges between the United States and Germany by working with students. A school was named after him. The Federal Republic of Germany honored him with the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit from the Federal Republic of Germany. In the United States, his humanitarian efforts garnered the U.S. Air Force’s prestigious Cheney award. He also won the highest honor any civilian can achieve, the Congressional Gold Medal in 2014.
Halvorsen not only participated in commemorative candy drops in Germany, but also extended them to the Republic of Kosovo five decades later. His ripples reverberated even further, as service members replicated his acts by dropping candy to children devastated by a later conflict in Iraq in 2014.
Upon hearing the news of Halvorsen’s death Utah’s Gov. Spencer Cox ordered flags to be flown at half-mast, and the citizens of Berlin mourned. Berlin Mayor Franziska Giffey said, “Halvorsen’s deeply human act has never been forgotten.”
During the darkest times, small gestures, nurturing acts, and simple human kindness can bring tremendous hope. One evening, I was watching the news program “Amanpour & Company.” José Andrés, creator of the humanitarian World Central Kitchen was being interviewed in Ukraine. He spoke of the 5 million meals they have already served in this war-torn country.
Andrés will soon bless the recent astronauts/cosmonauts with a meal of Paella Valencia, giving those who cooperated in that mission and were far from our beautiful blue marble when Russia invaded Ukraine. They refused to allow the politics and carnage below to break the bonds they developed above. Andrés calls those involved food fighters and speaks of building longer tables, not higher walls, believing that sharing food “brings hope to millions.”
And so did the candy that was tenderly tethered to hankies. Looking back, Halvorsen told CNN, “The airlift reminds us that the only way to achieve real fulfillment in life is to serve others.”
Takk og farvel til the Berlin Candy Bomber, Uncle Wiggly Wings, the great gentleman Col. Gail Halvorsen.
This article originally appeared in the May 6, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.