Candy Bomber Halvorsen: “People had their doubts about the Airlift”

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift. Steve Kettmann spoke with the original “Candy Bomber,” US pilot Gail Halvorsen, about his memories of the unprecedented logistics feat that kept West Berlin free.

Candy Bomber Halvorsen:

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.

See The Local’s photo gallery here.

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.

For members


EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.