A Christmas story: Hail to the Army Air Corp’s Hal
What kind of story touches your heart causing your eyes to glisten? How about a story of children needing hope and love with a happy ending?
Germany surrendered in 1945. It was divided into four zones, occupied by France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the USA. Berlin, the capital of Germany, was 100 miles inside the Russian zone. The capital was divided into four zones of occupation. France, the UK and the USA had an agreement to use the canals, roads and railroad tracks in the Russian zone to supply their Berlin zone. To make a long story short, Russia closed the canals, roads and rails to the American, British and French on June 24, 1948. Russia’s objective was to force the Allies to evacuate Berlin. The “Berlin Blockade” ended on May 12, 1949.
Cargo planes from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States flew more than 200,000 flights while delivering 775,469 tons of food and 1,550,938 tons of coal for Berliners.
Gail “Hal” Halvorsen was born on Oct. 10, 1920 in Salt Lake City. As a member of the Greatest Generation, he earned his private pilot license in Sept., 1941 in the Civilian Pilot Program, joined the U.S. Army Air Corp and was assigned to fly transport planes in the South Atlantic Theater.
On July 17, 1948 Capt. Hal had some free time after flying his C-54 “Skytrain” into Berlin as part of the Berlin Airlift. He noticed a group of German children wearing tattered clothing on the other side of the barb wire fence at the USAF base. Prompted to do something, Hal reached in his pocket finding two sticks of gum. He tore them in half and gave a half to four children. He told them if they promised not to fight, he would drop candy to them tomorrow. One of the children knew English and asked, “How will we know your plane? They all look the same.” Hal said, “I’ll wiggle my wings.”
That night Hal gathered candy from fellow pilots and crew members. Using handkerchiefs and string, Hal made parachutes which he attached a candy bar. On June 18, 1948, Hal was approaching the Berlin runway 100 feet above the children, he wiggled the wings. The cargo door opened and dozens of white parachutes tied to candy floated to children as promised. They named Hal “Onkel Wackelflugel,” Uncle Wiggle Wings.
They wrote thank you letters to Hal’s base addressed to Onkel Wackelflugel. After the press wrote a story, people began donating candy. From his childhood, Hal remembered his dad’s words, “From little things come big things.” The dropping of candy grew in popularity to 25 air crews. It was named “Operation Little Vittle.” Between donations from candy manufacturers and individuals, a total of 23 tons of candy parachuted to eager children during the Berlin Airlift. They had something to look forward to three times a day because each cargo pilot made three round trips to Berlin daily. Christmas Day 1948 became their best Christmas. Those children are in their seventies today.
Hal served for 32 years and retired as a colonel in 1974. He celebrated his 94th birthday on Oct. 10. There are two elementary schools named Colonel Gail S. Halvorsen — one at Rhein-Main USAF Base in Frankfort, Germany, and the second in a Berlin suburb. Hal has received numerous awards and medals from countries, especially Germany. Similar to the five loaves and two fish feeding 5,000, two pieces of gum gave hope to children and became “Operation Little Vittle.” Thank you for your service, Hal.
Ken Beaton of Carson City contributes periodically to the Nevada Appeal.