By Paul South
Col. Gail Halvorsen, 91, a pilot with more than 70 years of flight time on his wings, has a simple yet powerful philosophy: “The little decisions you make in life put your footsteps on the path that leads you to where you’ll end up, for good or ill,” he said. “Out of small things (two sticks of gum) proceeded something that was a lot bigger.”
These days, Halvorsen’s footsteps take him through Arizona’s high desert, in bloom this year thanks to heavy rains. But more than 60 years ago, in 1948, his decision to step back toward a fence where German children waited would forever change his life and make him one of the heroes of the Cold War.
Halvorsen was a U.S. Air Force pilot assigned to participate in the Berlin Airlift, one of the great humanitarian missions in global military history. As Joseph Stalin and the Soviets sought to take Berlin by starvation and, by extension, West Germany, the American, British and French governments responded. “I thought (the Soviet Blockade) would be over pretty quick,” Halvorsen said. “Stalin was getting a black eye in the international press. I just wanted to get some film of downtown Berlin.”
But when the pilots landed at Tempelhof, the American air base, in the summer of ’48, Halvorsen was not allowed to leave his aircraft’s side. A gaggle of about 30 German kids huddled nearby.
For Halvorsen and the American flyers that historic summer, this was not a case of winning hearts and minds. Their goal was to save lives and freedom for the West Berliners. Word of Stalin’s brutal totalitarian regime had already spread to the children of West Berlin from relatives in communist East Germany. The youngsters knew that the time to get the food to them was short. Winter was only weeks away, but the children were unfazed, Halvorsen said.
He recalled their reaction: “They said, ‘When (winter) happens, don’t worry about us. Just don’t give up on us. Someday, we’ll have enough to eat. But if we lose our freedom, we’ll never get it back.’ Those kids understood that freedom was more important than enough to eat. They could live with some hunger if someday they could be free.”
Something tugged at Halvorsen as he walked away from the kids. Some would call it conscience, others a still, small voice. For the pilot, a man of deep faith, it was the Holy Ghost. “I’d been standing a few feet from 30 kids who hadn’t had chocolate for months, perhaps even years. In that hour they had me at the fence not one had begged me for chocolate. In other countries, even though they had some chocolate, those kids would chase you for it. That is not anything new for military personnel. George Washington’s soldiers gave candy to kids when they passed through town. These Berlin kids asked for nothing. “They cared more about freedom than flour,” he added. “They were so grateful for freedom, they wouldn’t become beggars for something so extravagant as chocolate.”
Halvorsen heard that voice, “as clear as a bell,” with a simple command: “Go back to the fence.” He did so, with but two sticks of Wrigley’s Doublemint gum in his pocket. “That voice was so clear, there was no equivocation,” he said. “I turned on my heel and gave four half-pieces to the kids. Those who didn’t get any asked for the wrapper. They put it to their noses. Their eyes got big as they inhaled the sweet aroma from the wrapper.”
At that moment, though Halvorson didn’t realize it at the time, the small voice and those short steps to the fence would give birth to Operation Little Vittles and make him Uncle Wiggly Wings, the Chocolate Pilot.
Over a 14-month period, Uncle Wiggly Wings, Col. Gail Halvorsen, dropped more than 21 tons of sweet treats over West Berlin.
Years before the Berlin Airlift, Halvorsen fell in love with airplanes and flying, thanks in large measure to Civil Air Patrol. Reared on a small Utah farm, he was fresh out of high school when he competed for a noncollege private pilot’s license in1941, just before Pearl Harbor. He was one of 10 among 150 competitors for flying privileges. “After I got my license, the 10 of us put in 50 bucks apiece and bought an airplane, a single-engine Piper Cub. It was December of 1941 when I joined CAP and got my CAP uniform and wings.” “I still got ’em,” he said of the original wings.
Halvorsen and his CAP comrades flew the skies over Utah, helping locate lost hikers and skiers. But they were also to be ready for any military need that might arise. “I remember flying one mission to find a guy in a blizzard. But my proudest moment was wearing my CAP uniform for the first time at an air base in Ogden, Utah,” where he had his first encounter with military pilots.
He enlisted in 1943 and began training with the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force, which had its training bases in Canada and the mainland U.S. because of unfriendly weather in Britain. He finished second in a class of 144 pilots during his RAF training in Miami, Okla., success he credits to his CAP training. “CAP is responsible for how well I did,” he said. “The reason for that is when I joined the Civil Air Patrol, I had no money. I’d spent every dime on my airplane. But when CAP would send us on a mission, they paid for the gasoline. It made it possible for me to fly enough that I could really fly that aircraft when I went into pilot training. That CAP experience made it so much easier.”
He almost lost his CAP wings after performing a daring midair spin to impress his family. He was forgiven if he would wiggle his wings instead of doing spins. Combined with CAP experience in the skies, the RAF’s emphasis on advanced training helped prepare Halvorson for the Berlin Airlift and Operation Little Vittles.
Another experience contributed as well. During World War II, he flew logistical support missions in the South Atlantic Theater, providing a lifeline to support bases as well as the men who would liberate Europe from its Axis captors.
In a few short years, world events would take Halvorsen to Germany, where his wiggling wings would come in handy, sparking a global sensation.
Halvorson re-enacts the candy drop in 1959 at Tempelhof Central Airport in Berlin.
“Everybody’s got a conscience,” Halvorsen said. And after seeing the German children near Tempelhof relish the mere aroma of American chewing gum, he knew he would return, and with more chocolate. “I got the idea to come back,” he said. “I rationalized, and that’s how you get into trouble. I thought, ‘What’s a few candy bars when Stalin is starving over 2 million people?’”
He made a simple promise to the children of Tempelhof. “I’ll drop enough chocolate for all of you, if you promise to share,” Halvorsen told them. “Jawohl! Jawohl!” they cried. They would know the friendly American from the flock of aircraft by his wiggling wings. Uncle Wiggly Wings was born. “I asked my buddies for their rations of chocolate,” he said. “They asked me, ‘What are you going to do, buy a camera on the black market?’ I told them what I was going to do. They asked, ‘Do you have permission?’ I said, ‘No,’ but I’d take full responsibility. They gave me their rations.”
That first delivery, to about 30 children near Tempelhof, grew. There would be more deliveries, despite a temporary decision to stop dropping the treats that floated gently to earth with the help of handkerchief parachutes. After three weeks, a newspaperman heard of it and published a photo with Halvorsen’s plane, tail number and parachutes coming down. The buzz over the Chocolate Pilot caused an international stir, hitting newspapers around the world and landing Halvorsen on his commanding officer’s carpet.
Lt. Gen. Bill Tunner, “the man who made the Airlift work,” Halvorsen recalled, contacted the commanding officer. “What are you doing, dropping parachutes in Berlin?” the officer asked. “We’re not dropping parachutes in Berlin,” he was told. “Read the papers,” Tunner said. “Find out what’s going on in your outfit.” Halvorson feared the worst. “I thought I was going to be court-martialed,” Halvorsen said, “but Tunner said, ‘That is a good idea. Let him do it.’” Two German secretaries were hired by the Americans to answer mail addressed to Uncle Wiggly Wings.
Halvorson downplays his role in one of the great stories of American history. “When it started, I didn’t want anyone to know about it. It was against regulations. That was my attitude about it,” he said. “I had no idea it would go anywhere. But it was the kids who made it happen, not me.”
The real heroes of the Berlin Airlift, he insisted, are the 31 American and 39 British aircrew members who were killed feeding the former enemy.
The drops would continue, with housewives and schoolchildren, the American Confectioners Association and even a Massachusetts junior college pitching in to pack the sweet tastes of freedom. Some of the chutes landed in the communist East, triggering an international incident.
In the next 14 months more than 21 tons of treats were dropped by Halvorsen and his squadron buddies over West Berlin. And more than 3 tons were delivered on the ground to children’s Christmas parties in West Berlin the day before the holiday in 1948.
Berlin would continue to be a hot zone in the Cold War. A wall would rise between East and West Berlin, a symbol of the difference between the authoritarian communists and democracy. From John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan, U.S. presidents called for the Wall to be torn down and for Berlin and all of Germany to be one city, one nation — a free nation.
Halvorson would continue to be involved. He eventually became commander of Tempelhof Central Airport in Berlin, where the children had been the beneficiary of Uncle Wiggly Wings’ work. The children, now grown, would shake his hand as adults, their eyes moist with gratitude.
For Halvorsen, Operation Little Vittles and the larger Berlin Airlift were miracles. “Two things changed postwar history and made the airlift succeed,” he said. “Gratitude and service above self. The gratitude was on the part of the Berliners. The thought of being taken over by the Soviets was a nightmare for them. They would come to Tempelhof with gifts for the aircrews.”
As for service, Halvorsen recalled talking to a friend who was “shot up” bombing Berlin during the war. The two men spoke of the airlift. “How do you feel about feeding people who a few years ago were trying to kill you?” Halvorsen asked. The friend replied: “It’s a lot better to feed them than it is to kill them.” Halvorsen added, “When you serve somebody, you get a reward greater than money or a new car. If you get outside yourself on behalf of one another, there’s no reward that can compare.”
And in 1989, it happened. The Wall came down. Freedom was soon to ring out in a unified Germany. The seeds of that freedom, some have argued, were, at least in small part, planted with chocolate and Doublemint gum. “It is my opinion that if it had not been for the success of the airlift, the outcome in Germany and Europe would have been much different,” said Halvorsen. “The Wall would not have come down or Germany reunited. I believe it was the catalyst that brought down the Wall and contributed to the reunification of Germany.”
From an elevation of about 1,000 feet, a Civil Air Patrol plane drops chocolate-coated cookies tied to parachutes over the football field next to Bay-Waveland Elementary School, Mississippiʼs last remaining tent school set up after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005.
Halvorsen signs an autograph for Lt. Col. Clarence Hauck, who handled ground logistics for the Mississippi Wing candy drop in 2005.
Among the Germans Halvorsen met at Tempelhof in the years after the airlift were Mercedes and Peter Wild. Young Mercedes’ home had been missed by Uncle Wiggly Wings, but in response to a letter she received a package of treats. Later, as a grown woman, she and her husband Peter helped Halvorsen create an exchange program between German and Utah high schools, the Airlift of Understanding. For this initiative, he was awarded the German Service Cross to the Order of Merit.
His life also took him into higher education, where he served on the faculty at Brigham Young University, all the while placing service above self.
Others would follow Halvorsen’s lead. In 2005, in the wake of America’s worst natural disaster, two squadrons from Civil Air Patrol’s Mississippi Wing used a candy drop to save Halloween for kids on the coast whose homes had been battered by Hurricane Katrina. The Col. Berta Edge Composite Squadron at Kessler Air Force Base in Biloxi and the Diamondhead Composite Squadron in Bay St. Louis executed the mission.
Lt. Col. Clarence Hauck’s eyes still mist up at the memory. Said Hauck, who was then the Mississippi Wing’s director of aerospace education, “When the assignment came down, the wing commander, John Wilkes, said it was an aerospace education thing, so go ahead and run with it.” It was the mission that saved Halloween.
In the wake of Katrina, the childhood joy of tricks and treats would have been lost but for the CAP pilots. Hauck has been a CAP member since he was 13, and he served in the Air Force and Air Force Reserves for 35 years. He handled ground logistics for the Katrina candy drop. “Robin Roberts, a Mississippi Gulf Coast native and anchor of ABC’s ‘Good Morning America,’ was talking to a man who said, “We’re not going to have a Halloween. There’s no candy anywhere,” Hauck recalled. “As I understand it, and this is what I was told, someone in the Pentagon said we want to do a candy drop, and that Col. Halvorsen wants to do it. I will never forget the look on those kids’ faces.”
Halvorsen was on hand for the Mississippi drop. “He is a real gentleman,” Hauck said. “He is quite the individual.”
There have been similar stories across the globe: Teddy bears and soccer balls in Afghanistan and Iraq. Toys and treats for kids in tornado-ravaged Arkansas and Alabama — all from seeds planted more than six decades ago. And it all began with a single footstep, back to a fence in Germany, a single decision that would transform his life. Halvorsen, however, deflected credit from himself. “The bottom line is that every person is born on this earth with the innate desire to make choices for themselves,” Halvorsen said. “Those individual choices determine what their lives will be. That’s part of the package.” He added, “It’s innate in the human soul to have a say in what happens to them. It’s not in the politics, but in the people. We call it freedom.”