Ken Beaton: The Berlin Candy Bomber
Kevin Bacon, the actor, said, “The world is connected within six degrees.” This means someone you know, knows someone, who knows someone, who knows someone, who knows someone, who knows a certain person of fame or importance.
As a resident of Carson City, some of you didn’t know you’ve had a connection to Lt. Gail S. Halvorsen a USAF pilot flying a C-54, “Skymaster,” for the Air Transport Command in June 1948. Lt. “Hal” Halvorsen’s wife’s name was Alta. Alta’s sister, Venus, married Charles B. Marriage. For decades Charles sold insurance in Carson City. Charles and Venus have since passed away. The Charles B. Marriage Insurance office was located where the restaurant, Mangia Tutto, is now located on the corner of N. Stewart and E. Musser Streets.
Some of you may know Dr. Val D. Jensen, a retired dentist who has lived in Carson City for more than 23 years. When Val was 10, he lived in Tremonton, Utah and worked for Hal’s dad “bucking bales” of hay during summer vacation. In 1941 Hal was almost 21 and had his pilot’s license. He’d rent a single engine plane to increase his flying hours. While flying around the skies of Box Elder County, Utah, Hal would “buzz,” over his dad’s ranch. Everyone on the ground would wave to Hal.
Gail “Hal” Halvorsen earned his private pilot license in September 1941 in the Civilian Pilot Program. He joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942 and was assigned to fly transport planes in the South Atlantic Theater, mostly Brazil.
Over the years, Val remained in contact with his friend. Col. Hal Halvorsen retired in 1974 after serving for 32 years in the USAF. Hal’s book, The Berlin Candy Bomber, was published in 1990. He gave Val an autographed copy, a prized possession.
What kind of story touches your heart and causes your eyes to glisten? How about a story of children living in Berlin’s war-torn rubble? Those children needed food, warmth, hope and love.
Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945. The country was divided into four occupied zones, French, Russian, British and American. Berlin, the capital of Germany, was 100 miles inside the Russian zone. Berlin was also divided into four zones of occupation. The French, Russians, British and American 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 Americans, British and French on June 24, 1948. Russia’s objective was to force the Allies to evacuate Berlin. The “Berlin Blockade” was a failure for the Russians and ended on May 12, 1949.
Cargo planes from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Britain and the United States flew over 200,000 flights delivering 775,469 tons of food and 1,550,938 tons of coal for Berliners.
On July 17, 1948 Lt. Hal had some free time after flying his C-54 “Skytrain” with ten tons of cargo into Berlin. He noticed four German children wearing tattered clothing on the other side of the barb wire fence at the runway. Prompted to do something, Hal reached in his pocket to find two sticks of gum. He tore them in half and gave a half to each child. He told them if they promised not to fight, he would drop candy to them tomorrow. One of the children who knew English 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, they made parachutes which he attached to 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 letters to Hal’s base addressed to “Onkel Wackelflugel.” After the press wrote stories, people began donating candy. From his childhood, Hal remembered his Dad’s words, “From little things come big things.” The demand grew to 25 air crews dropping candy. 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. Christmas Day 1948 became their best Christmas, ever! Today, those children are grandparents or great-grandparents.
After reporters wrote about “The Berlin Candy Bomber” being an available handsome officer, a number of “red-blooded” American women began donating candy and writing letters to catch Hal’s attention. He married his sweetheart from Tremonton, Utah in 1949.
After serving for 32 years, Hal retired in 1974 as a colonel. He celebrated his 100th birthday this year 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 fishes feeding 5,000. Two pieces of gum torn in half gave hope to four children and became “Operation Little Vittles.” Thank you for your service Col. Halvorsen, USAF Ret. “No matter what the question, Love is the answer.” (Leo Buscaglia)