The Candy Bomber – The Berlin Airlift & Operation Little Vittles
In a 2021 newsletter, I mentioned that I would be writing about the Candy Bomber who dropped handkerchief parachutes with chocolate payloads for the children of Berlin during the Airlift.
One of my readers, Dorothea Thunig Smith, reached out to me with a lovely memory. “I lived in Berlin at the time, not too far from the airport. I was 10 years old.” She went on to tell me, that she got 2 parachutes. “My brother had to climb trees to get the candy, because we lived in front of a park”.
Dorothea’s email spurred me on to dig deeper. She put a name to the many hundreds of children who waited for a parachute dropped by the pilots of the Berlin Airlift, who flew around the clock to keep the people of Berlin supplied with food and coal in the postwar operation codenamed Operation Vittles. When then Lieutenant Gail Halverson, the Candy Bomber, dropped his first payload of candy, he started something bigger than he’d ever imagined. The candy drops, known as Operation Little Vittles, were far more than just a sweet treat from the sky. The parachutes were a morale booster for the city, but they also changed attitudes in the United States. Candy for kids turned much of the animosity against Germany around, and alleviated much of the resentment of feeding the former enemy.
Update- Gail Halvorson, the Candy Bomber, passed away on Feb 16, 2022. May he rest easy knowing he made a difference to so many people.
Let’s start with some background about WHY the Berlin Airlift happened, to give the story some perspective.
At the end of World War II, Allied nations (the United States, England, France, and the Soviet Union) divided Germany into Zones for oversight. Although Berlin was 110 miles within the Soviet zone, as the former capitol, it was divided into zones as well. Each country with a different idea of what to DO with Germany. The United States and Great Britain hoped that Germany would self-govern. The Soviets, on the other hand, wanted to maintain control, and push the West out of Berlin. In June 1947, General George Marshall announced the Marshall Plan, which essentially pledged the United States to bringing back the European economy. (aside- Why would the USA help their enemy? Remember, after WWI, the Treaty of Versailles broke Germany’s economy. Reparations were devastating. It’s not difficult to see that the absolutely impossible demands led a straight line to WWII. And no one wanted to go back into that cycle).
The first move towards restoring the nation was propping up the economy, which meant replacing the worthless Reichsmarks with new the Deutschmark. On June 23, 1948, all Germans were given 60DM in exchange for the old bills. The Soviets saw their control slipping away… and on June 24, they shut off access to Berlin. HOW could they do this? The original treaty dividing the city did not guarantee travel into Berlin over land or water, only by air. In the western zones of Berlin, 2 million people were essentially cut off from the rest of Germany.
But it seems that the Soviets didn’t understand 2 things. The determination of the Berliners to remain free… or the tenacity and military strength of the United States and Great Britain. On June 25, 1948, the first RAF (Royal Air Force) plane landed at Gatow Airfield loaded with supplies for the city. Later that same day, the USAF (United States Air Force) landed at Templehof. Operation Vittles was underway.
Under the expert supervision of Air Transport specialists Lt General William Turner and Albert Wedermeyer, the massive operation was set in motion. 3/4 of ALL US Military Transport Planes, mostly the Douglas C-54 Skymaster, from around the globe were pulled into service. The RAF provided 1/4 of the needed planes and pilots. This massive undertaking was non-stop, 24 hours a day. Over a thousand flights arrived daily… one landed every 60 seconds! Dorothea told me, “The planes didn’t shut down the engines, they were quickly unloaded, a food truck came to the door to serve coffee and donuts to the airmen while it was unloaded and off they went again.” A little tidbit from Airman Morgan Dunbar: “They always had the prettiest girls/ women serving the coffee and donuts” Each plane allotted 20- 30 minutes for unloading, and in some cases re-loading… and off it went again. Around the clock. (Yes, reloading… in order to re-stimulate the economy, the cargo planes loaded up with goods manufactured in Berlin factories. They also carried passengers needing to get out of Berlin, people needing medical attention, and children, like Dorothea, who were sent to live in the countryside.)
Dorthea says “My grandparents lived 2 blocks from the landing strip, when you’d go onto the balcony, you automatically ducked when the planes came. You could see the pilots. The lights (to guide the planes) were right there on the roof.”
According to Living History Farm, for 2 million people, “Berlin officials estimated that the city could get by with 4,500 tons of supplies a day – 646 tons of flour and wheat, 125 tons of cereal, 64 tons of fat, 109 tons of meat and fish, 180 tons of dehydrated potatoes, 180 tons of sugar, 11 tons of coffee, 19 tons of powdered milk, 5 tons of whole milk for children, 3 tons of fresh yeast for baking, 144 tons of dehydrated vegetables, 38 tons of salt, and 10 tons of cheese.” As well as coal for fuel. By Spring of 1949, Luftbrücke (Air Bridge) brought in 1383 flights per day!
The Candy Bomber
Lieutenant Gail Halverson had been a pilot with transport operations during World War II. After the war, like many other pilots he was called in to work the Berlin Airlift, a job he started with some uneasiness. After all, just a few years earlier Germany was the enemy. One day, everything changed. An avid hobby photographer, Lt. Halverson decided to spend his downtime touring the city taking photographs. The jeep driver took him to the end of the Tempelhof runway where he found a group of around 30 kids watching the planes land. When he got out of the jeep, they asked him a lot of questions about what was in the planes. But it was what they DIDN’T ask that surprised him. Not one child begged for the candy that GIs got as part of their meals.
Although he only had 2 sticks of gum with him, he handed it to the kids, who tore it into smaller pieces so they could share. Impressed by their behavior, he promised to come back the next day, and to drop candy from his plane for them. With all the planes overhead, how would they know it was his? He assured the children he would wiggle the wings.
That evening he gathered up as many chocolate bars from the other crew members at the base as possible (a big ask, candy could be traded for services like laundry…). But how to get it safely to the kids? A big box wouldn’t work. Parachutes were the answer! He carefully tied his handkerchiefs to the candy bars so they could safely fall to earth. On his next flight, true to his word, he had the pilot wiggle the wings of the plane as they came in to land… and he dropped the parachutes out of the planes emergency tubes. When he looked back he saw smiling kids sharing the candy.
So he did it again
And before long, groups of kids waited for Onkel Wackel Flügel (Uncle Wiggley Wings) and his little parachutes. The word spread, and a reporter wrote up the story about the Candy Bomber for a news article published across Europe. When Lt. Halverson got called in to his superior’s office, he was certain that he’d be court-martialed. Instead, he was commended for his work, and told that it would expand… Operation Little Vittles got underway.
Operation Little Vittles drops Candy from the Sky
“It wasn’t just chocolate, it was hope”
What started out as a generous gesture grew into a massive military and civilian operation.
Lt. Halverson would find his bunk covered in chocolate bars, gum, and handkerchiefs, all donated by fellow airmen. There were letters, more every day addressed to “Uncle Wiggle Wings” with instructions on where to drop parachutes…’the house with the white chickens’ or ‘the house with the red roof’. The base hired civilian secretaries to cope with all of the mail! And fabric for the parachutes was becoming scarce, all the extra handkerchiefs were used up, and shirts were being cut into squares.
The public relations were golden. Historian Keate O’Connell in Smithsonian Magazine said it best… “Halvorsen provided a face for the airlift and the U.S.’s humanitarian mission at large, while successfully enlisting the American public in an early Cold War contest for hearts and minds”. “Americans previously weary of continued food aid for Europe eagerly embraced the opportunity to gift candy and chocolate to German children.” (Smithsonian Magazine The Sweet Story of the Berlin Candy Bomber by Kat Eshner, Oct 10, 2017) After years of war, and before that, years of deprivation brought on by the Great Depression, Americans united behind the cause everyone could appreciate… helping children. And in Germany, people were reminded that America wasn’t there as an occupation force, they were there to set the country back on its feet.
When word reached the United States, candy companies stepped up to donate chocolate and gum. The Hershey Chocolate company, Lifesavers, Paris gum all sent crates of goodies. The American Confectioner’s association sent 6500 pounds of candy! 800 candy bars arrived from the Springfield Turnverien. And fabric…hundreds of handkerchiefs! The Budd Manufacturing Company of Philadelphia donated 11,000 yards of Irish Linen, all cut to tiny parachute size.
To coordinate all of this, the town of Chicopee, Massachusetts volunteered to act as stateside headquarters for the massive operation. All donations were directed to a local schoolhouse. Every afternoon after school from 2 – 5pm, and Saturdays from 9 – noon, young people from 22 local schools, from elementary to college, volunteered by tying the candy to parachutes. (The kids were compensated with candy!) Then the completed parachutes were loaded into boxes and sent to Berlin for delivery. These kids helping other kids sent an astonishing 12 TONS of candy to the children of Berlin!
More Parachutes, More Airmen
Naturally, all of these drops were too much for just one man, Halverson, the original Candy Bomber, stayed the face of Operation Little Vittles, but his entire squadron dropped their candy payloads over Berlin. Dorothea and her son had the opportunity to meet airman Morgan Dunbar, and hear his stories about the drops. She shared, “I lived in Britz, Hufeisensiedlung. When the planes came they made the turn to get ready to get lower for landing (at Tempelhof). Would they have gone straight, they would be over East Berlin. You can see on a map, how close we lived to East Berlin. Morgan told us that they stopped throwing candy there because on several occasions it floated to the East and they made a big stink.” Big stink might be an understatement. The Soviet Government complained about parachutes landing in their zone because they claimed the candy violated the propaganda agreement.
Operation Little Vittles MATS pilots (Military Air Transport pilots) even hand carried candy and gum to children’s wards in Berlin hospitals, where they taught kids to blow bubbles with the gum… much to the distress of the nurses!
Crowds of people waited near the end of the runway to watch for the Candy Bombers, locally and affectionally called “Rosinenbomber” (Raisin Bombers). The sound of plane engines no longer meant bombs… now it meant hope.
By May of 1949, it was clear to the Soviets that the blockade had failed. Not only weren’t they keeping essential food and fuel out, the blockade also prevented them from bringing important resources in. At the end of the war, factories in Berlin, and all of the eastern part of Germany were stripped of machines and parts that were shipped east. The only way to get replacements, and get industry up and running again was to bring it in from the west. On May 12, 1949, the roads and rail lines to Berlin were quietly reopened.
Although the roads opened in May, the Berlin Airlift delivered it’s final load on September 30, 1949. Vittles, delivered over 2,326,406 tons of food and fuel into Berlin on 277,804 flights. (And took 83,000 tons back out!). The success of the Luftbrücke (Airlift) did come at a cost. Planes lost, and airmen died. But, the first battle of the Cold War was won.
And just as importantly, much of the animosity and hostility between the United States and Germany was wiped away, all because a humble man from Utah came through on his promise a bunch of kids. The Candy Bomber, Gail Halverson, affectionately known as Onkel Wackel Flügel, and his crew made thousands of candy drops in his time in Berlin. Operation Little Vittles was an unqualified success.
A Very Special Thank you!
I want to give extra special thanks to Dorothea Thunig Smith for her stories, and for her inspiration. Dorothea lived in Britz, Hufeisensiedlung in Berlin (near the East Zone), and came to the United States in 1959 with her husband, a soldier.
With her emails, she made the story of the Candy Bombers more than just words on a page.
Want to Learn MORE?
The Candy Bomber by Michael O Tunnell
PBS American Experience- The Chocolate Pilot
Smithsonian Magazine- Sweet Story of the Berlin Candy Bomber
Stars and Stripes Europe- The Berlin Candy Bomber
MassLive- The Candy Bombers
Farming in the 40s- The Berlin Airlift
Berlin: The Story of a City by Barney White-Spinner