Sixty years ago this month, Gail Halvorsen was an ordinary US military cargo pilot who had opted to stay in the service after World War II almost on a whim. He wound up flying air freight to various destinations in the Caribbean, but he felt he was leading a lonely and directionless existence.
Halvorsen and his fellow pilots vaguely followed the news about the “food crisis” in West Berlin, where the Soviet Union had cut off all access to the outside world starting on June 24, 1948. The blockade against the Western Allies threatened to crush a city that was already struggling against starvation. But Halvorsen wasn't sent to Germany until that July, shortly after US President Harry Truman had vowed in a White House meeting to strengthen the then-brand-new Berlin Airlift “even if it takes every Piper Cub in the United States.” He became an anonymous member of an unprecedented logistics endeavour, as he and scores of other Western pilots began landing with precious food and supplies at Berlin's Tempelhof airport like clockwork.
But Halvorsen had an unlikely inspiration that would end up making him famous. He had stockpiled his candy rations and had decided he wanted to do something worthwhile with them. So he started dropping chocolate, gum drops, and other candy out his plane's window as a treat for the emaciated Berlin kids often huddled together on the edge of the airport. He even used spare handkerchiefs to rig up a little parachute for each load so the candy wouldn't be squashed upon impact.
At first, Halvorsen was worried about being disciplined by the US military and so he kept his identity as the original “Candy Bomber” secret as long as he could. But to the children of Berlin he was an instant hit, and he soon began receiving bags of effusive thank-you letters, sometimes addressed to “Uncle Wiggly Wings,” for his habit of signaling to the kids he had arrived for another drop. Halvorsen, now 87, recently visited Germany and talked to The Local about his experiences during the Berlin Airlift.
The Local: We think now about the Berlin Airlift and what a great moment it was for the United States and its allies and what an amazing logistics accomplishment it was. At the time, did everyone expect the Airlift to work?
Gail Halvorsen: More people had their doubts about the Airlift than had confidence about the Airlift. How do you feed two million people by airplane? The feeling was: You're going to fail, and then it's going to be worse than if we don't do anything.
The Local: And you yourself?
Gail Halvorsen: I thought we were the best in the world. We had very experienced pilots at that time, because the ones that stayed in already had experience. I'd flown all over the world: South America, Europe and Africa. I thought certainly we could it.
The Local: What do you think would have happened if the Airlift had not succeeded?
Gail Halvorsen: If the Airlift had not succeeded, it was possible that Stalin with 100 divisions would be in West Germany today, because he had just taken Czechoslovakia, he had taken Hungary, and the reason he couldn't get to West Germany was because West Berlin was in the way and he had to get rid of it, and so by starving the people he thought that he could – through whatever subterfuge – could make the allies leave Berlin. And a lot of people were thinking about doing it.
The Local: A lot of people thought if the Airlift did not succeed, the United States would have been forced to abandon Berlin?
Gail Halvorsen: If the US had left Berlin, the whole continent of Europe would be threatened. The Soviets would control West Germany, control the outcome, whatever happened it would never be reunified except as a Soviet state. The Soviets had made great inroads that some people don't realize in the governments of France and Italy, and they had it all paved and you had more people in the West thinking that communism was a great idea and all he had to do was go one more step and Stalin would have had world power. I believe that, yeah.
The Local: For people in Berlin who lived through the Airlift, it remains a very emotional subject. What about it made the deepest impression on the people?
Gail Halvorsen: Because at one point they had to decide. The (West) Berliners had to make a decision. Many of them thought, “Well, we're not going to make it.” Some capitulated, but percentagewise it was very low. And they had to make that soul-searching decision. We're in it or we give our life. It was almost that critical.
The Local: Because of pressure from the Soviets?
Gail Halvorsen: Yeah...when you make such a decision, you face life face to face. The rest of your life, it's this way and that way and you never forget it. You remember, “What caused me to go this way? It was the Airlift.
The Local: It seems the Airlift is probably one of the most successful cases of winning hearts and minds. Attitudes about the United States have changed dramatically around the world in recent years. What can Americans do to bring back more of that good will that was there before?
Gail Halvorsen: That's a really, really important question: What can we do? We're (still) flying supplies into people that aren't friendly. When the tsunami came along, we were down there with people that criticized us. We need to keep doing that and not forget the purpose, like the attitude of going into Berlin. Don't go sour. Don't go sour on what we believe.