Wednesday 4 December 2013

The Christmas Candy Bomber

For Germany, the war didn't end in 1945.  Political turmoil prevailed.  Divided up among the victorious nations, each one took a section.  The capital of Berlin was divided into two parts, the eastern block becoming Communist, the western part, democratic.  When West Germany joined the monetary reform program in 1948, East Germany complained.  Communist Russia's leader, Josef Stalin, declared a blockade of West Berlin in an effort to starve the city.  All roads, railways and waterways were cut off to the city.  For fourteen months, West Berlin's residents suffered.

However, the American military came to their rescue in the form of Operation Vittles:  almost 2 1/2 million tons of food, coal, fuel and other supplies would be dropped by air in the Berlin Airlift.  Pilot Gail Halversen, born and raised in Salt Lake City, was a big part of this operation.  He would drop his load of food and then land at Tempelhof Airport in West Berlin.  Dozens of children would congregate just outside the fence.  He started the habit of handing them candy through the barbed wire fence.

Soon he got the idea of dropping candy from his bomber via parachute.  He would cut strips of cloth to make parachutes, then attach the candy.  His fellow airmen would donate their candy rations as well as their handkerchiefs.  Donations started arriving from American citizens as well as companies.  The confectioner's Association of America donated a large amount.  Soon, Gail became known as the "Berlin Candy Bomber".

The Candy Bomber's story spread, first among Germans, and then among Americans.  Gail Halversen's commanding officer loved the idea so much he had it formally become part of Operation Vittles.  The press got a hold of the idea and word spread.  Twenty-two Massachusetts schools converted an old fire hall into an Operation Vittles headquarters, working busily to send parachutes and candy to the Candy Bomber.

Back at Tempelhof Airport, with a plane whizzing by every 3 minutes loaded with food supplies and candy, the Berlin children were not sure which aircraft contained the Candy Bomber.  So Gail started wiggling his plane's wings to identify himself:  from then on he was nicknamed "Onkel Wackelflugel" or "Uncle Wiggly Wings" by the "Kinder" from Berlin.  In the meantime, the other pilots were called "Rosinenbomber" or "Raisin Bombers".

In total, 25 plane crews dropped 250,000 parachutes holding 23 tons of chocolate, chewing gum and candy on West Berlin.  One hundred thousand children benefitted from the operation.  At one point the American Air Force even candy bombed East Berlin, but they stopped when the Communist government protested the move.

The Berlin Candy Bomber was featured on German television and played a role in improving German-American relations after the war.  In 1974, he received the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.  In 1989, he returned for a re-enactment of his candy bombing days to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Operation Vittles.  An American airbase in Germany has a school named after the pilot, Gail S. Halvorsen Elementary School.  The "Schokoladen Flieger" or Chocolate Flyer would not soon be forgotten.

For more information, read my post "Berlin Airlift by Numbers" at

Note:  For more information read Christmas from Heaven:  The True Story of the Berlin Candy Bomber by Tom Brokaw.

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