Following the end of World War II, the Allies (England, France, United States and the Soviet Union) divvied up the spoils of war as they divided the country of Germany and its capital city, Berlin, into four sections. Josef Stalin, seeking to gain additional power, soon blocked all ground transportation in and out of the city of Berlin. In doing so, he put the city’s population at risk of starvation. U.S. President Harry Truman soon directed a massive effort, named The Marshall Plan, as a way to bring relief to the German people. Included in this effort was an operation consisting of landing planes with relief supplies in Berlin round-the-clock. Known as the Berlin Airlift and “Operation Little Vittles,” it took place in 1948 and 1949. One of the American pilots involved in the airlift was Colonel Gail Halvorsen.
Assigned to fly flour into West Berlin during the Airlift, Halvorsen remembered being up near a fence in Berlin. With camera in hand, he shot movies of the various supply planes coming in for a landing. On the other side of the fence stood approximately 30 German children. Halvorsen was amazed by the fact these children, unlike others who pestered American soldiers for candy and sweets, acted totally different. They told him, “Don’t worry about us, even if we don’t have enough to eat. 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.”
As Halvorsen began to walk away from the fence, he was drawn back by a still, small voice. Having nothing to offer the children but the two sticks of gum in his pocket, Halvorsen returned to the fence. Remembering something his father had told him, “From little things come big things,” he took out the gum and tore each of the sticks in half, then passed them through the fence. As he did, the children’s behavior totally stunned the young lieutenant. The four children he handed the gum to tore the wrappers into smaller pieces and shared them among the others so they could smell the paper, taking delight in the peppermint scent it held.
The down side of Halvorsen’s behavior was he had broken regulations by being at the fence; however, he felt the need to do something for the children. As another C-54 passed overhead to come in for a landing, Halvorsen envisioned a way to deliver chocolate to the children - dropping it from a plane as he flew above the city prior to landing in West Berlin. Telling the children of his idea, they asked how they would know which plane was his. He said he would signal them by “wiggling his wings”. All he asked for in return was their promise they would share the candy he brought. Each of the children promised to do so.
Before the day was over, Halvorsen discussed his plan with his crew, all of whom agreed to forgo their chocolate rations in favor of giving it to the children. They also made handkerchiefs into parachutes and attached them to the chocolate bars.
As Halvorsen began his descent to land in Berlin the following day with his cargo of foodstuffs for the German people, the grassy area where the children waited for him came into view. He wiggled his wings and the children began to run and jump with excited anticipation. As they did, members of his crew pushed the candy through the flare chute. The handkerchiefs quickly opened to gently deliver the sweet delights to the children waiting below. One could only wonder which group enjoyed the event more, the children on the ground who received the candy, or the guys in the plane who delivered it to them.
“Uncle Wiggle Wings’” mission became a daily event, with hundreds of candy-laden parachutes making their way into the hands of children every day. The news quickly spread with the help of the press. It did not take long before Base Operations was overrun with mailbags, filled with letters for Halvorsen. As nice as this may have been, the operation now put Halvorsen in the position of possibly being court-martialed. Thankfully when his commanding officer addressed him, it was with good news; “General Tunner thinks it’s a good idea.” Soon candy and handkerchiefs began arriving from people the world over. Uncle Wiggle Wings soon gained two more titles – “The Candy Bomber” and “The Chocolate Pilot.”
As children across Berlin gathered to receive the candy, they returned to their benefactors sincere appreciation in the form of thank you notes by the hundreds. One even arrived with directions, “Fly along the big canal to the second bridge, turn right one block. I live in the bombed-out house on the corner. I’ll be in the backyard every day at 2:00 p.m. Drop the chocolate there.” As the parachutes continued to bring chocolate delights to the children, their parents’ hearts were softened with renewed hope and the desire to make friends of their former enemies.
By December, candy makers had shipped 18 tons of chocolate for the air lift. An additional three tons were sent through private donors. The spirit of Christmas was beginning to be felt throughout Berlin.
Christmas Eve, 27-year-old Halvorsen was blinking back tears as he gazed at the stars overhead and felt for the first time their beauty paled to the striking display of parachutes which filled the sky and carried with them Christmas love and joy to the children waiting below.
At age 93, retired Colonel Halvorsen took part in a re-enactment of the Berlin Airlift at the South Texas Regional Airport in Hondo, Texas. The community and service men and women gathered to participate in the event, watching as more than 160 children ran to gather the 2,000 candy bars, which descended from a vintage C-47 Skytrain.
In attendance that day was a special visitor, Heike Jackson. A native of Berlin, Heike was a 6-year-old child during the Berlin Airlift and remembered watching Halvorsen's plane approach and the candy drop from above. Like the other children in the area, she anxiously awaited Uncle Wiggle Wings’ plane. "He was our savior," Jackson said. "We had nothing to eat; we would've died." After she grew up, Heike married an American soldier and moved to the United States. Much to her delighted surprise, 65 years later she met Uncle Wiggle Wings face-to-face. She commemorated the event by bringing candy with her. "It's kind of like déjà vu,” she said. “The feeling is hard to describe. To see that wonderful man alive is amazing. It's a full circle somehow. I'm very touched and overwhelmed."
The efforts of Gail S. Halvorsen played a major role in post-war Germany’s perception of Americans. His father’s words from years gone by still rang out loud and clear, “From little things come big things.”
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“If you don’t serve others, you’ll never find full happiness.”
Gail S. Halvorsen