Gail Halvorsen peers from the cockpit of his lumbering C-54 over embattled Berlin, his cargo at the ready. Far below gathers a crowd of children, faces upturned. He dips one wing, then the other. Recognizing his signal, the children cheer and wave. Halvorsen circles for another pass, then gives the order to unload. His crew funnels hundreds of small packages through a duct behind the pilot’s seat, and the air is quickly filled with tiny parachutes drifting slowly to the ground. “I remember it like it happened yesterday,” says the retired Air Force colonel from Provo, Utah, recalling the mission 50 years ago. “I can still see the kids’ smiling faces, waiting for a pack of gum or a piece of chocolate to come floating from the blue.”
Halvorsen’s cargo provided a bright moment in an otherwise bleak time for Berlin. In 1948 the world seemed once again on the verge of war as the Soviets blocked all roads to the western half of the divided city, an island of freedom surrounded by Communist-controlled East Germany, in hopes of driving out the Allies. Instead the U.S., Britain and France responded with a historic 11-month airlift, taking 2.3 million tons of food and fuel into the city aboard nearly 280,000 flights. Halvorsen was just one of hundreds of pilots who ran the blockade, but he became a favorite of the city’s children. Dropping gum, chocolates and sweets before delivering his regular cargo, he became known as the Chocolate Pilot, the Candy Bomber and Uncle Wiggly Wings.
Now 77 and a grandfather 24 times over, Halvorsen has returned to the reunited city, where, during the 50th anniversary of the airlift, he will re-create his famous flights by dropping 10,000 pieces of candy, from a restored C-54 on June 26. “It’s the thrill of a lifetime,” he says. Ingrid Preston, then a sweets-starved Berlin child and now a 61-year-old grandmother from Albers, Ill., says Halvorsen deserves his moment of glory. “There was never enough to eat,” she says. “It was like Christmas every time they dropped the candy. He’s a peach of a man.”
Halvorsen dreamed of becoming a pilot as a boy working in the fields of Garland, Utah, where his parents grew sugar beets. The second of three children, Halvorsen looked to the skies for relief from the heat and dust of farming. “Along would come an airplane,” he says, “and I’d think, ‘Wow, where’s he going?’ ” While working as a refrigerator repairman after high school, he won a scholarship for a civilian pilot-training program. By 1941 he could fly. Two years later he became an aviation cadet in the Army Air Corps, and five years after that he was assigned as a transport pilot for Operation Vittles, Air Force code for the Berlin Airlift. “I wasn’t shot at,” says Halvorsen of the nerve-racking flights between Frankfurt and Berlin. “And it’s a good thing, because all we had were sacks of flour to throw at them.”
During a rare afternoon off in 1948, Halvorsen hitched a plane ride to Berlin to see on foot the city he had flown over so many times. He was promptly mobbed by about 30 curious children drawn by his uniform. “I reached into my pocket to see if I had anything for them, and all I had was two sticks of Doublemint gum,” Halvorsen recalls. He tore them in half, handed them out and promised to return the next day. “You’ll know my plane because I’ll wiggle my wings,” he said. He returned many times, his buddies chipping in their rations of sweets and helping rig each piece to a tiny cloth parachute. “I didn’t want anybody to get hit in the head,” he explains.
Halvorsen had a scare when he was summoned to his colonel’s office and confronted with a German newspaper featuring a photo of candy being released from his plane. “I thought I was in deep trouble,” he says. “But the general approved. After that we started getting enough candy and gum to drop parachutes all over the city.” American manufacturers donated more than three tons of candy, and U.S. schoolchildren made parachutes. Halvorsen would eventually receive a range of awards, including the German Service Cross and an Air Force commendation.
Returning home in 1949, Halvorsen married Alta Jolley, whom he had met through friends in 1942, and together they had five children. He retired from the military in 1974 and these days raises horses on his 70-acre farm near Provo. He still looks to the skies when a plane passes overhead and marvels at the enduring goodwill his candy runs created. “I used to wonder,” he says, ” ‘What is the significance of a dumb little parachute coming down with a bit of candy?’ ” But he quickly learned the answer. “It wasn’t just the chocolate. It was hope.”
Cathy Free in Provo