Aviation, Biographical, BYU, History, Local Heroes, Provo History, Veterans, War

Candy Smiles

Click to see original imageDuring the crucial Berlin Airlift 3 1/2 decades ago, rays of gladness were spread by human interest stories of an American “candy bomber” who dropped sweets to destitute German children.

If you are old enough to remember the historic airlift (called Operation Vittles) – the Allies’ answer to the infamous Berlin Blockade by the Soviets – you may recall the flier’s name: Lt. Gail S. Halvorsen.

The Garland, Utah pilot’s job was to fly coal and food from the Rhein-Main Airbase at Frankfurt to Tempelhof Central Airport in West Berlin.

But, mixing humanitarianism with duty, he would tie goodies to mini-parachutes made from handkerchiefs and drop them to youngsters gathered outside the airport.

Halvorsen’s efforts led to what became known as Operation “Little Vittles,” involving the public as well as many other fliers.

That was in 1948-49. Where is the “candy bomber” today?

Col. Gail S. Halvorsen, USAF (Ret.) lives right here in Provo where he is assistant dean of student life at Brigham Young University. His heart is still with the young people, and assisting students in various ways is his BYU assignment.

Gail and s fellow airlift pilot – Lt. Col. Thomas O. Nelson (Ret.) of Orem – enjoyed a nostalgic hour the other day reminiscing about the Berlin operation.

Nelson told how he and Air Force buddies supported Halvorsen’s “Little Vittles” effort with candy, chewing gum and handkerchief parachutes. “In our landings at Tempelhof we saw those children waiting expectantly and our hearts were touched.

Halvorsen has been back to Berlin many times since the airlift, which saved Allied sectors of the city from Communist domination.

For four years, 1970-74 he was commander of Tempelhof Central Airport and U. S. Air Force representative to the city of West Berlin. Just last May 12 he was keynote speaker at a reunion¬† at Tempelhof’s open house marking the 35th anniversary of Soviet Union’s lifting of its blockade.

Halvorsen is a frequent fireside speaker. He makes a strong pitch on lessons of freedom from the Berlin Airlift. Still the “candy bomber” at heart, he likes to relate the “Little Vittles” story which caught the public’s fancy and still gets space in books and articles on the airlift. “The Stars and Stripes” devoted an entire page to it last May 18.

The story began July 17, 1948. As Gail was taking pictures at Tempelhof between his own flying shifts, he saw a dozen children watching from outside the airport fence. Their patched clothes and wan faces stirred his compassion.

Concluding a conversation with the older youngsters, who had studied English, Halvorsen broke the two sticks of gum he had, into four – and felt a wave of emotion as the kids relished these and continued licking or smelling the wrappers.

He promised to drop candy and gum to them if they would share it equally. How would they identify his plane among the numerous aircraft? “Watch the wings,” he told them. “Mine will be the plane that wiggles its wings.”

One candy drop led to others. Numbers of kids at the airport increased. Mail began to arrive at the base operations office addressed to “Uncle Wiggly Wings,” the “Candy Bomber,” or the “Chocolate Flier.”

Halvorsen was fearful he would be called on the carpet for breaking flight regulations. Indeed he was summoned by the commander. But after some serious moments he was told to continue the candy drops. The generals had been impressed with the favorable headlines in the Berlin papers.

From that point, the candy lift snowballed. Other pilots joined in the operation. Airlift personnel chipped in with handkerchiefs, shirt tails and lots of sweets.

A salvage yard donated 12 surplus parachutes; wives at the base organized “Little Vittles” sewing bees.

News media told the story. Gail found himself an instant celebrity. The city of Chicopee Falls, Mass. made him honorary mayor and sent boxes of candy-loaded parachutes. The American Confectioners Association dispatched 6,500 pounds of goodies.

Soon Halvorsen was receiving sacks of mail daily. Countless envelopes contained handkerchiefs.

By now Tempelhof’s perimeter was crowded with children. Special dropping areas were assigned at parks, school yards, and recreation centers.

One young girl wrote Halvorsen: “You fly so low our chickens have stopped laying eggs – so please drop some candy.”

Candy-chutes dropped in East Berlin brought an official protest note referring to the incident as “an outrageous capitalistic trick.”

Halvorsen, under rotation procedure, returned to the United States in February 1949. “Little Vittles,” well established by now, was carried on by others.

After 35 ears it continues a fine memory. BYU’s assistant dean of student life can look back on many achievements – but probably no other captured the hearts of so many people as the memorable project he started in the dark days of the Berlin Blockade.

***

Thirty-five years ago the historic Berlin Airlift was winding down for an official ending Sept. 30, 1949 after thwarting a cruel Soviet plan to starve Berliners of the Allied sections into submission by blockading road, rail and waterway transportation.

By the post-World War II strategm, according to news accounts of the period, the Russians hoped to squeeze out the other-occupiers and gain complete control of the strategic city.

The American-British-French airlift (nicknamed Operation Vittles) was instituted within two days after the Soviets finished clamping on their Berlin Blockade June 24, 1948, leaving the Allies only three air corridors to the city.

Feisty U. S. President Harry Truman made up his mind quickly; “We’ll stay in Berlin – period.” Britain and France made similar vows.

The airlift started on a modest basis but built to a might crescendo as transport planes were summoned from farflung bases.

With remarkable ingenuity and teamwork, the Allies at peak efficiency landed one plane every three minutes 24 hours a day with life-giving supplies of food and coal for the war-devastated city.

They had no produce miracles to sustain 2 1/2 million people with the basic necessities, entirely by air. The Reader’s Digest called the accomplishment one of the free world’s fines hours.”

Finally recognizing defeat, the Soviets lifted the blockade May 12, 1949 after 320 days. The Allies continued their “aerial railroad” until end of September to build stockpiles. Thus the lift functioned a total of 15 months.

During the period, Berliners “went from defeated enemy to gallant ally,” says Robert van der Linden, an assistant curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. “They pitched in to help under incredible circumstances.”

Momentous events had preceded the Berlin Blockade and Berlin Airlift. Germany had been conquered in 1945. V-E Day May 8 saw Berlin prostrate, many of its people ragged and hungry.

The Soviets held the east; the United States, Britain and France each held a none of occupation in the west. Berlin was deep inside the Soviet zone, but because of its political importance, each of the four powers had a stake there.

The city had suffered catastrophic war damage. Bombings had destroyed 20 percent of its buildings; an additional 50 percent were badly damaged. One-third of Berlin’s people had fled or had been killed.

From the start, the Soviet Union and the Western Allies clashed over governing policies. On Oct. 26, 1946, Berlin held its first and only free postwar elections but the Russians labeled the elected mayor anti-Soviet and vetoed his election, the Smithsonian Institution News Service recounts.

In March 1948, the Western powers – seeking both to thwart Soviet ambitions to swallow up Berlin as the capital of a new Eastern German state and to breathe new life into a shattered city – united their zones into a single economic unit. In protest, the Soviets withdrew their delegate from the Allied Control Council.

Three months later, to fight rampant inflation, the Allies introduced a currency reform. Unexpectedly this triggered the infamous Berlin Blockade.

President Truman had said June 12, shortly before the blockade, that postwar “obstruction and aggression” by the Soviet Union, wartime ally of the West, constituted “the most bitter disappointment of our time.”

Many predicted the Allied airlift couldn’t possibly succeed. But succeed it did – a giant setback for the Russians.

In all, more than 2.3 million tons of critical supplies owere airlifted into Berlin in nearly 273,000 flights. Coal amounted to about two-thirds of all tonnage.

According to Richard Collier in his 1978 book, “Bridge Across the Sky,” men of the airlift flew 142,420,813 miles. “As early as May 1949, they had equaled 133 round trips to the moon or 4,000 times around the world.”

Regrettably, 75 persons lost their lives in Operation Vittles. But considering miles flown and the hazardous flying conditions especially in winter, the safety record has been called “fantastic.”

Names of the 31 Americans, 39 Britons and 5 Germans who died as result of the airlift are enshrined at the base of Berlin’s Luftbruecke Memorial.

Lt. Col. Thomas O. Nelson, USAF (Ret.) of Orem, a veteran of well over 100 missions in the Berlin Airlift of 1948-49, considers his role in flying planeloads of food and fuel to beleagured Berliners in the Allied sectors as “the most exhilarating assignment in my 27-year military career.”

Nelson was one of the first C-54 pilots on the scene after the airlift was instituted June 26, 1948.

Now with the Orem office of Bill Brown Realty, Tom was extremely helpful to The Herald in supplying information on the airlift.

“In the Berlin operation, the Allies proved to the world that we had the resolve and backbone to defend freedom and right against whatever odds,” he said.

After retiring from the Air Force in 1970 in Hawaii, he engaged in the insurance business there. He and his wife, Marlu Harris Nelson, moved to Orem in 1978, their two children already having come here to attend Brigham Young University.

Nelsen is a native of Lava Hot Springs, Idaho. He was a high school junior when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941.

He entered the military service in 1943 and was only 19 when he qualified for his wings and was commisioned a second lieutenant. Next came B-17 training. Tom was headed for Europe when V-E Day (May 8, 1945) ended that phase of World War III.

After brief duty ferrying American personnel from Europe, the young pilot was stationed in Panama in the Air Force transport service.

When orders came for Berlin Airlift duty, Nelson was summoned from leave at a nearby resort and had only three hours to prepare for takeoff , flying a C-54 plane.

He reached the Rhein-Main Airbase the evening of July 1, 1948 and flew his first mission to Tempelhof Central Airport in West Berlin the next morning. “Our cargo that day was mostly coal,” he recalls.

Nelson was rotated back to Panama after his last airlift mission Jan. 6, 1949. His next assignment was at Hill Air Force Base in Utah where he met and married Marlu. Among later Air Force assignments was a tour of duty in Pakistan as a military advisor to the government of that country.

In the Berlin Airlift, it was a case of “the show must go on” no matter how bad the weather and visibility. Flying “on instruments” was commonplace.

Besides poor visibility, the pilots oft-times had to contend with Soviet harassments, says Nelson – things like ground searchlights, radio inteference, flares, and “buzzing.” Yet the airlift safety record was exceedingly good.

Among his awards, Nelson received the Air Medal, presented for his Berlin service after he arrived at Hill AFB.

One of the memorable experiences for Nelson came Dec. 24, 1948, when the Air Force flew movie star Bob Hope’s troupe from Rhein-Main to Tempelhof to entertain American forces on Christmas.

“Hope was in the plane just ahead of me,” he recounts. “Three girl entertainers were in my C-54. During the flight Hope and the girls went on the radio with our check station reports. They cracked jokes and really enlivened things for surprised Air Force personnel listening in.”

Nelson also recalls the poignant scenes when on a couple of return trips he flew Jewish people to Rhein-Main on their way to Israel. “Apparently not yet recovered from concentration camp life, those people were walking skeletons. It was a pathetic scene.”

At the Rhein-Main barracks Nelson, an active Mormon, became acquainted with a German member who was assigned to make the beds. “He apparently had been severely persecuted and was obliged to keep his membership secret,” Tom related.

“I befriended him and he seemed to grateful to meet and converse with a ‘real live Mormon.'”

Tom and Marlu’s two children, both BYU graduates, are Thomas N. Nelson, a first lieutenant in the Air Force at Shaw AFB in South Carolina, and Virginia Nelson Jenkins, wife of John Jenkins. The Jenkins currently are living in Boston.

Gail S. Halvorsen has combined military and civilian pursuits for an interesting career that started “on the farm” and finds him today as assistant dean of student life at Brigham Young University.

In between came the military part of his career which included:

– Four years as a pilot in transport operations, then seven months (126 missions) flying C-54 planes in the Berlin Airlift in which he was credited with originating the “Little Vittles” program.

– Nearly two decades in key Air Force research and development programs.

– Four years as commander of the Tempelhof Central Airport in West Berlin.

In June 1982 Halvorsen was honored at Montgomery, Ala. by the Air University of the U. S. Air Force with 13 other living aviators – including Jimmy Dolittle and Neil Armstrong – in a “Famous Moments in Aviation History” painting and celebration.

Other honors have included the Cheney Award which Gail received for typifying the humanitarian self-sacrifice of the Berlin Airlift personnel, Legion of Merit, Commendation Medal, the German Service Cross to the Order of Merit, and the Medal for Humane Action.

Halvorsen was born in Salt Lake City and grew up on farms in Southern Idaho and Garland, Utah. He is married to Alta Jolley, formerly of Zion National Park, Utah. Their five children include two sons serving in the Air Force.

Gail has been a high councilman, a bishop, and currently is president of the BYU Tenth Stake.

He owns a farm, still flies, and hopes to write a book on his experiences, which have appeared in a number of publications and are the subject of a television script.

Halvorsen has masters degrees in aeronautical engineering, and guidance and counseling. He is a member of the Honorary Scholastic Society of Phi Kappa Phi and the Honorary Engineering Fraternity, Sigma Tau.

A continuing cultural exchange program between high school German language students of Provo and a college preparatory school in West Berlin resulted from contacts by Gail S. Halvorsen, now of Provo, a pilot in the Berlin Airlift of 1948-49.

Under arrangements set up by Brent Chambers, teacher of German at Provo High School, and chemistry teacher Peter Wild of the Gottfried Keller Gymnasium in Germany, the exchange program began in 1980.

Eight PHS students attended the Berlin school in June of that year as guests. Then in October, 33 students and three teachers from Berlin stayed a month in Provo, attending school, touring Brigham Young University, visiting the governor, etc.

Language wasn’t much of a barrier to the Germans, said Chambers, because study of English generally is required of them beginning at fifth grade level.

In 1982 Chambers invited Timpview High teacher Barry Olson to join PHS in the exchange and 30 local students were guests for two weeks at the Berlin school.

This year 20 Provoans took the tour, with Ray Jones of the PHS faculty as an added chaperone. Plans are under way for a Provo visit by Berlin students in April 1985.

Peter Wild is the husband of a West Berlin girl who first wrote to Halvorsen during his candy drops to German kids in the airlift period. The friendship has continued through the years.

The Berlin students refer to the exchange program with Provo as Luftbruecke der Freundschaft (air bridge of friendship) coined from the West German nickname of “air bridge” given the airlift.