Warriors in their Own Words

Remarkable stories of war told by the men who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.

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COL Gail S. Halvorsen: The Candy Bomber

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After World War Two, Germany was split up and occupied by the United States, France, Britain and the Soviet Union. In June of 1948, the U.S., France, and Britain announced they were creating a unified West German currency. Joseph Stalin opposed this unification, and cut off land routes from Berlin to West Germany.

In order to bypass the land routes, bombers transported supplies (primarily food) and delivered them to West Berlin in what was called Operation Vittles. Colonel Gail S. Halvorsen was one of several pilots recruited to fly these missions.

One day, after sneaking out and flying to Berlin for some R&R, COL Halvorsen met some local children who were survivors of the war. Talking with them changed his life, and he decided he wanted to do something to help them. He returned to base, gathered as much candy and gum as he could, fashioned parachutes with handkerchiefs, and put all the goodies inside. The next day, he flew over West Berlin and dropped the parachutes full of candy out of his bomb bay.

The children were delighted. COL Halvorsen did this several more times, and gained international acclaim for his actions.

To learn more about COL Halvorsen, check out his book, The Berlin Candy Bomber.

Ken Harbaugh:

Hi, I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. If you love listening to this show as much as I love hosting it, I think you’ll really like the Medal of Honor Podcast, produced in partnership with the Medal of Honor Museum. Each episode talks about a genuine American hero, and the actions that led to their receiving our nation’s highest award for valor. They’re just a few minutes each, so if you’re looking for a show to fill time between these warriors episodes, I think you’ll love the Medal of Honor Podcast. Search for the ‘Medal of Honor Podcast’ wherever you get your shows. Thanks.

I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.

Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.

Today, we’ll be hearing from COL Gail S. Halvorsen. Known far and wide as “The Candy Bomber,” Halvorsen earned this title for dropping handmade parachutes filled with gum and sweet treats for the children of Berlin during the Soviet blockade.

COL Gail S. Halvorsen:
Well, I just come back from a trip to South America, was relaxing in a swimming pool at Brooklyn Air Force Base in Mobile with some of my buddies and having a good time and I was feeling especially happy because, almost being baldheaded then, I needed all the help I'd get to get a date. And I was able to get a brand new four door red Chevrolet and I was able to get this from a dealer down in the islands. And he couldn't sell them down there and after the war they were hard to get in the states and I was able to buy one.

So I was pretty proud and I was in a glow. Peace was at hand, the war was over, good time at the swimming pool. And then we got a call from Colonel Cassidy say, "Hey, we got a rush pilot meeting, everybody over there in an hour." And that's how I first heard the blockade of Berlin is occurring, that Stalin was cutting off all supply route that they'd already been flying some supplies into Berlin in C47's. “We need bigger airplanes.” They said “We want four of yours as fast as you can get them.” So it was a surprise.

Well, so we thought things are going to be okay now in back of our mind. And we had heard and read about Stalin and his aggressiveness pushing westward and it was a little concern. But here we faced reality. Now it looks like, ‘Man, here we're going, we're going to leave our comfortable places here and stake out in West Germany and start flying night and day, 24 hours a day.’ Sounded like a little bit of the same old theme that we'd been used to before. We're hoping there weren't going to be any shooting, but we already heard that a yak fighter buzzing a British transport plane and just earlier in April had misjudged his closing rate of speed and both airplanes were crashed and everybody was killed. So we didn't know whether the guy was going to, if we were going to overtly support Berlin against Stalin's desire to starve those two and a half million people. We didn't know what those yaks would do. And we'd heard the fighter fields were beneath the three air quarter in Berlin and they were loaded with fighter airplanes and of course we knew they had ammunition. So there was a concern in the backs of our minds.

But my girlfriend wasn't being too friendly. She was out west in Utah and I was in Alabama, and my handwriting's not too good, and she didn't know that I really cared about her. So her letters weren't too friendly. Hey, I just, well go on the Airlift. As far as my love life was concerned at that time, so I volunteered to go. A buddy of mine, Pete Soa was supposed to go, he had a new set of twins, come back from Panama. I volunteered to get him off the list and put me on because he would feed us Sunday dinner, me and another bachelor and his wife certainly didn't want him to go to Germany. And that's how I got started to go. A little concerned at the backs of our minds, but he thought it'd be pretty interesting.

There were thoughts about helping the Germans, former enemies who we are trying to destroy each other, trying to kill each other. And now they're asking us to fly night and day to give him food. And Colonel Cassidy explained to us a bit what the political situation was. The Soviet Union was pushing toward the west, looking to take over control of satellite countries. Berlin was an island in a Red Sea, the focal point inside their territory, and that was the focus of the Soviet drive. They wanted to get rid of that island of democracy, that island of free enterprise, of capitalism behind the Iron curtain because they couldn't convince the 300,000 soldiers around Berlin their system was the best when they could go to West Berlin and see the change was occurring. And he explained that to us and said, "Hey, this is where you draw the line. If we don't draw the line, we don't know how far West Stalin will go. He wants Berlin. The people there, women and children, he's trying to starve them." And that's all it took. Everybody says, hey, let's go.

We left on the 10th of July. We got there on the 11th of July, 1948 to begin our operations into Berlin. When we first got our orders, they said, oh, this won't be very long. We just got to go for a little while to, until the politicians get their act together, and nobody's going to stand the world for Stalin starving the people. You get a black eye, it's going to be over pretty quick, don't worry about it. So we had our summer flying stuff, we weren't very well equipped and I took my red Chevy four door, that was really the apple on my eye and didn't have time to do anything with it. Drove it up under the pine trees outside the bachelor officer's quarters, locked it up and took the keys with me and thought, well, I'll be back pretty quick. So really we didn't think, I don't believe anybody thought this thing was going to go on too long.

Our last leg going into Rhine-Main from the states was leaving the [inaudible] abreast France then to Frankfurt. And we knew there was chaos long before he got to Frankfurt. We could see the airport tuning in the frequencies for control. It was just disaster. We tried to call two or three times, couldn't even get in. And so we were prepared for the worst as far as traffic congestion, of control problems that were involved with that. We came into the airport, it was pretty visual. We had to make a letdown, but we had a good scene underneath. There seemed to be airplanes everywhere on the approach lined up to take off, large numbers of aircraft lined up to take off at the takeoff in, some with still the engines running. They changed that procedure later, but it was airplanes all over the field interspersed with large semi trailers in wherever the space where they could fit them. So it was a really interesting mosaic that greeted us when we arrived at Frankfurt Rhine-Main.

Well, on arrival after flying, we didn't stop except for gas and something to eat and we had three crews on my airplane and we just kept coming. But we thought, boy, we're going to get a real reception here. Here we are, pilots with a lot of experience, they're going to be glad to see us. And boy, the guy acted like that we'd had 24 hours in the sack and who's going first? And so the freshest crew, John Kelly in our group was the first one to go and he said, "Hey, we'll be ready to go to Berlin about an hour and a half." And so the rest of us wondered where we're going to sleep. And we thought, well they'll have a nice place for us. Well, all the normal barracks were loaded, they were filled, there was no place in the end. And they said, "Okay, you got two choices. We got some tents that are set up or we've got a displaced persons camp across the autobahn where we've got these displaced people from all over the world the Hitler's pulled out of their countries and been doing probably slave labor and they're in some tar paper shacks. You want the tents of the shacks?" So we said, "Well, we'll take the tar paper shacks, we'd had enough of tents." So we went over across the autobahn to Zeppelinheim and they were just moving these displaced people out of the tar paper shacks and trucks loading up their belongings. There's nothing in the shacks except a black potbelly stove. And that was the scene, said, "Hey guys, we got a job to fit yourself into the schedule and hope you get some sleep and we'll have a mess hall set up for you near where you're sleeping soon." So that was a situation, we very well, very quickly decided, “Hey men, we're not that important. Important thing is to get the stuff to Berlin, that's the mission.”

We soon got the importance of food in this whole equation. That's what it was all about, Operation Vittles. And one of the cases was there was some flour spilled on the ramp from a bag and already they would take the little pieces of coal and sweep them in a place. And in this case the coal was mixed with flour and this person carried a bag with them, a lot of them carried a little bag with them in case of such an emergency and would scrape that into a bag and worry about separating it later. And this occurred a number of times. Just the coal in little pieces they'd saved to carry away in their pocket was just amazing. I didn't see anybody stealing stuff but stuff that was on the ground or spilled, if they could get it before somebody else did, why they'd take it?

The other kind of thing that impressed me a great deal was in Rhine-Main and Frankfurt, a midnight mess. We were coming in from a flight, three round trips and eating, and when it was over, we'd take our dishes out and clean off anything that was left and then put the dishes in another barrel to be washed. And as we left, started to leave, I could see somebody come out of the shadows and go in the barrel that we'd scrape some of the food and pull it back out and scrape it out in a plastic bag to take back to a child or a wife. There were workers who, German workers who were there, but we come and stayed in the States. We didn't clean up our plate all the time. Many times we did, but then we learned to do that because how important that food was.

Coming into Berlin the first time, fortunately the weather was pretty good, we'd get a visual look at the city and laid out, but I wasn't prepared for what I saw. I'd heard about Cologne, had heard about Canterbury in England, and of course seeing the devastation in London from the bombing, but I wasn't prepared for what I saw in Berlin. It looked like a moonscape. The walls of the buildings were up. You could see right straight through, no windows of course, only one building in five was partially usable. It was just desolation. And I said, two and a half million people, how in the world could they live in a place like this? So the first thing was shock. I mean, how can people live in this place? And of course the same thing was in Russia in Leningrad, it was destroyed the same way. And really the impact of what war had done sunk in and says, wow, if these guys are here, they need food all right. And it just verified the understanding we had that this is important to be here.

The corridors that served Berlin, there were three. The Southern, Center and North, all of them were 20 miles statute, 20 statute miles wide. Of course, Stalin wasn't kind enough to give us a radio fix in the middle there to navigate. He just told us, ‘Guys, you get out of the corner and you're going down, you're going to force you down.’ And over east of Germany on the southern route, I can't remember for sure, it's about 120 miles without any navigational aid. But leaving West Germany into the corridor, we had an ILS leg, a various precise navigational aid that would let us kill the drift. By the time we got out a range of that leg into the corridor, we'd pretty well have our drift set unless we had a very strong crosswind that varied before we got in range of the low frequency homer in Berlin.

Now, when we were there early July, we didn't have any radar operational in Berlin, when I first started getting into Berlin. We had GCA on and off, but not very long. Not this wasn't totally functional. We didn't have any long range radar. So we'd kill our drift going into the corridor toward Berlin and then pick up a homer. We had a homer, low frequency homer, and also a radio range in Berlin. And we'd hope to stay within the corridor until we picked that up. So well, I didn't have any qualms about us. A little bit concerned, and night flying and thunderstorms at night were a problem because the low freq is not very good. The ILS leg coming in was okay. But then from there on in, before we got the radar, besides the thunderstorm activity interfering with the homer and the radio campus, the Russians set up an alternate side on the same homer frequency. And I missed it totally one night through the thunderstorm in that case, went part way into almost Poland. It's only 30, 40 miles. And finally got turned around and came back in. And that's the night I lost the engine. So things were pretty hectic for that night, but we didn't have a lot of qualms about that. We knew the fighters weren't going to give us much trouble in the thunderstorm. So we knew that if we got out of the corridor in the bad weather at night, that we weren't going to get intercept because they didn't have the all weather capability that we had and were used to using in most cases. I'm sure in some of their Air Force areas, that they had people who were highly qualified in weather. But these fighters were mostly, they visual fighters are clear whether or not.

The aircraft were harassed in the corridor. The British had a tougher time maybe than we did because Gata in the British sector, it was right near right on the border, practically at the east. And they would position spotlights. They could blind them as they were coming around the pattern and they had spotlights focusing in their eyes. They had ground exercises, ground firing. You could see tracers at night and this sort of thing. And they were supposed to keep it on the ground or very near the ground. So that was, there were aircraft exercises in the corridor, but the most common, and there were some balloons with some cables here and there if you weren't in the right spot. But the ones that I experienced most was the buzzing of the Yak-3's or our corridor went right over the air fields and they were loaded with fighter airplanes. And they'd come up head on, not all the time, but often enough to keep you awake, from head on and peel off at the last minute. And again, I remembered that Yak-3 had done that with the British transport in April and before we got there, and they both crashed and killed everybody. So I hoping their depth perception was all right and on target. And the first time in the corridor we were looking for these guys to see if they're going to shoot at us because we're still already in the Airlift. And the precedent in our minds hadn't been set yet about what the protocol was of our aircraft access in Berlin. But after we'd been buzzed a number of times, come up under, come up behind us and come up over, even over our wing and come down the other side, when he didn't shoot, we found out why. President Truman had put 60 B29s on the runways. And England had said, come on, bring them on. And he told Stalin, you know what that capability is of a B29, and you know what we got, keep your hands off those transports. And after a while when we got comfortable with these Yak, except for their depth perception, now they enjoyed seeing him buzz around and break the monotony because it was just hours of boredom flying through there. And if the guy came by, it was kind of fun to see him buzz you.

Well, flying the corridor into Berlin, we were right over the Yak-3 fighter airfield, the Soviet Union. They had a lot of them, and they'd come up at the end of the corridor. They weren't supposed to be in the corridor, they'd come in the corridor and come head on to you. You'd see that old guy and that fighter coming right to your windscreen and the last minute he'd just pull on up and peel off and disappear. And we didn't, we'd just hope that he could see well enough and gauge it well enough, he's going to miss us. But we'd be on the controls anyway to watch track him, determine if he was a little above us or a little below us and the last minute, if he wasn't going to duck, we're either going to push it down or pull it up. So we were prepared for that. And a lot of my buddies, it'd be fun to talk about it, but we were concerned whether or not this guy was good enough to miss us.

I know that one particular night in the middle of winter when it was just… we had snow and even gusts popping us around and was able to get on a secondary frequency and just tell them, "Hey guys, saved our life again." Because they're real pros. They didn't get enough credit after the Airlift, I don't believe, that the important part that they played in making the Airlift work. I remember Jake Schiffer's, I've always laughed at Jake Schiffer's cartoon. Here is the Radio Shack. Of course the radio shacks out between the runways out in the field and they want to make sure the guys are laying the runways not in the shack, but here's this crew of all he's got is a control yolk in their hand and smoke coming out all over them, and they're knocking on the GCA door. And he said, "Would you repeat that last transmission?" I thought that was great, but these guys were so good that they need all the credit in the world.

The weather in Berlin in November particularly, and low visibility was very bad. And it stopped us. There were some periods of time, hours and so forth that we couldn't deliver the goods in Berlin, we couldn't because of the weather. And severe either icing or extremely low ceilings, that would be dangerous. And by this time, we're putting a lot of tons into Berlin. We're building up a little reserve. We're doing better than the 4,500 tons a day required. So Tunner says, "Hey, we're not going to kill anybody doing this thing. We got to be reasonable." But there were times when we couldn't deliver to Berlin, but we didn't wait till the weather was okay in Berlin to take off at Rhine-Main, we'd take off anyway, Berlin's closed zero-zero. We'd take off out of Rhine-Main for Berlin. You got an hour and 45 minutes and the hope is that as soon as you can see enough to land, that there's an airplane in three minutes from that time, three to five minutes from that time, that that thing opens so you can land. There'll be an airplane in the final approach, if you wait till it's clear enough to land, come is two hours before I deliver anything. And so I really liked that. I really like going for the [inaudible] saying, “Hey, by the time I get there, it might be open.” And only once when I took off, and it wasn't, it was well below minimums, I didn't even take a chance. Just poured the coal too and it got a little bit below minimum so we took it back.

When we first got to Rhine-Main and started flying to Berlin, it was critical to get as much tonnage there as soon as possible. We didn't have enough aircraft available, enough crews available. And so we're flying three round trips a day. Now, three round trips, I mean in 24 hours, it might be night and half a day. And that would take three round trips to take about 17 hours. And by the time he unloaded, loaded and got around the horn, traffic control and the rest. And then you have six hours of sleep, if you're lucky at first to do it again. And when we've got more crews on more aircraft, it was two round trips a day out of Rhine-Main or Wiesbaden. And it was two round trips more than it was three round trips, just the first one was tough.

So those were the times, now the people in the north had a shorter distance in the British Zone, Fassberg and Sully. And we had half of our C-54s up there. And a lot of people forget to honor Fassberg and Sully for what they did. Now they could fly three round trips easier then we could, because we had a lot longer. And two airplanes in Fassberg could fly as many tons into Berlin as three airplanes in Rhine-Main, because the difference in length of the two corridors.

When I first got to Rhine-Main, I thought the Airlift would be over right away. And when I saw Berlin from the air, the desolation, I'd heard in history class about the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, and of course Hitler's bunker. Everybody knew about that and I wanted to see it. And of course landing in Tempelhof, you couldn't leave the airplane, let alone go around town sightseeing. And so one day I got through with my round trips about noon in July, about 17th of July. And my buddy Bill Christian was flying, getting an airplane ready to go right back to Berlin with a load of dry potatoes. And I thought, [inaudible], instead of going to bed, it's a beautiful day, I better get to Berlin or this thing will be over and I'll never see Berlin. And so I grabbed my movie camera and hoping, I had it with me most of the time, and told my co-pilot John Pickering, I said, John, get to bed. And Herschel Elkins, my engineer, because I'm going back to Berlin and get some pictures and I'll be back before we have to start flying again. So go to bed.

I jumped on the airplane with Bill and head to Berlin. I had a buddy there in traffic control who had a Jeep and said, I'll take you, drive you, chase you all over Berlin, get your pictures. Before I did, I wanted to get a picture of the airplanes coming over the bond out apartment houses because a bad approach, and I wanted to get some movies of those. And so I went around the inside of the barbed wire at Tempelhof, the opposite end of the field from the terminal before I went sightseeing to get the landing pictures. And inside the barbed wire, barbed wire here, bombed out buildings here and grass place in between. I was shooting the airplanes. Right behind me was the runway, standing right at them, the picture coming over. All of a sudden those, across the barbed wire, about 30 kids, eight to 14 years old, right up against the barbed wire, looking at me in the uniform, was bombing them three years before. And I was wondering, hey, they going to be friendly or throw rocks at me. But the boy, they were friendly. They were saying, "Hey, how many sacks will fly you got in this airplane?" And they were keeping notes on how often airplanes were landing. He said, "We've noticed the last two weeks there's more airplanes coming." He said, "That's great." And then the little blue-eyed girl is translating. She said, "Hey look, Blake, weather's not going to be this good all the time. If this thing's still going on in the wintertime, it's going to be really tough." That was the thing that really hit me. She says, "Look, you don't have to give us enough to eat in those times. Don't worry about that. Just don't give up on us. Just give us a little. Someday we'll have enough to eat. But if we lose our freedom, we may never get it back." And those kids are teaching me about freedom and an American was supposed to know, a new depth that I didn't. Really started to realize what it meant to these Berliners. They saw what Hitler did destroying the country. Their dads and moms were killed, half of them. And they knew what Stalin was like. He was right across that artificial border. No wall. They could come back and forth, their aunts and uncles would come over to get in the library to see what was really going on in the world. Because Stalin wouldn't put in their library what was happening. And they told them what it's like, if you go to another town, you got to register with the police, even if it's 30 miles away, you got to register with the police. They can't say what they, couldn't elect who was going to direct. Well, these kids really were fantastic. And I've looked at my watch had been there too long. I said, "Hey, I got to run. I got to go. I got a Jeep waiting for me." Took off, started to run. And the little voice came to me and said, hey, these kids are different. How come? Wow, they got a postgraduate degree in international relations. And they're not out of elementary school yet. They know what value is. The freedom's more important than thin the rations, that something's more important than food, that principle to be free. And those kids know it now. I said, boy, that's fantastic.

And then I took off. The little voice says, hey, that's good, but that's not the answer. And then it bothered me so much I was worried about the Jeep so much. And this little voice brought me, I stopped and said, how come? And then it came to me very quickly. I'd flown to South America, to Africa, and many countries during the war and after the war, you walk down the street in American uniform, kids like that and those groups, even though they had some gum and candy, they chase you, grab you, shake you by the arm, say, "Want some gum, give me some chocolate." But of those 30 kids, not one of them would lower themself to be a beggar. They hadn't had gum and candy for months, none. And looking at me, American, they know I must have something, but not one would even hold out their hands, let alone say anything. They're so grateful to have food to be free that they wouldn't be beggars for something so extravagant as chocolate or gum. And it just blew my mind how mature they were. I reached in my pocket, just broke out in a sweat. I hope I've got something. I reached in my pocket and all has two sticks of gum. About two sticks of gum, 30 kids, you'll have bloody noses. That stuff's like gold. But I said, I just, I'll never see them again. I better give them what I got. So I broke it in two, passed it through the barbed wire. Boy, the kids just went bananas. The ones that got it looked like they got $1,000. And the kids that didn't get any were real disappointed, crowded in. I thought, here comes a fight. But they didn't. Were asking for something. And that was obviously one piece of the wrapper. And the kids that got half a stick carefully tore off the outer wrapper, tore off the tin foil and handed it to them and they smelled it. And their eyes got big and they remembered what it was like when they had gum. And it just blew my mind, coming out of the states all we needed and to see what a piece of the wrapper and to have a stick of gum meant to a kid right then, held it in their hand, put it in their pocket, or kept it in their hand like it was a precious jewel. Well, I thought for 30 cents, I could give them a whole stick and the wrapper and everything, but I didn't know when I'd ever, I'd be flying 24 hours without sleep. I don't know when I can deliver or when I'll see these kids again. About that time, an airplane came over, they bombed out buildings right over my head and landed behind me. And I got a flash that says, “Hey, if I air mail it, I deliver it tomorrow and I won't have to lose any sleep.” And so I said to the kids, I was a little worried because I didn't have permission. And if you're going to push things out of airplanes, you got to have permission. But I rationalized quickly and said, this whole Airlift's not according to [inaudible] anyway. Starving people. What's dropping a little parachute? So I said, "Look, kids, come back tomorrow if you share it, I'll drop enough gum for all of you have some if you'll share it. So you have all if you all share it." Be jumping up and down. I started leaving, call me back and “We got to know what airplane you are. Every few minutes there's an airplane landing. We got to watch for the airplane.” I said, I'll wiggle the wings. The big 54 when I come over the beacon at the airfield, when you see that, get ready, that's got it. And he said, "Hey, get out of here. Let's start this thing."

We couldn't buy much gum and candy, it's rationed. So when I got back to Rhine-Main a few hours before I had to take off again, I asked them for their ration and they wouldn't know why. And I said, this is what I'm going to do. And they said, you're going to get in trouble. And I said, I'll be responsible. Give me your ration. So they did. And we had a big double handful and you had chocolate bars. And boy, it was heavy and it smelled, boy, I just smelled that thing and thought, what did I do to those kids? And then I thought, wow. Hit them in the head with that going 110 miles an hour, make the wrong impression. I thought, how am I going to do this? And then I remember the old handkerchief in the rock trick, tied three handkerchiefs, broke it up in three pieces, slowed it down so the kids could see it. And so if they lost one, they wouldn't lose it all.

Went back the next day. First time was still dark. And next time, just before noon, clear, looked down there. There was those 30 kids right in that open place between the bombed out building and the barbed wire fence right there. They hadn't told another soul, wiggled the wings of the airplane and they just went crazy, came over the bombed out building, their arms were up, their faces were up. And right behind the pilot seat is a flare shoot where emergency flares can be pushed out of the airplane emergency. And Sergeant Elkins standing between the pilots is right there. And I says, you push that when I tell you. And just as we crossed them and push it out, the flare shoot. I was worried that the pilots lining up to take off would see it and report me, get a tail number or we drag it across the barbed wire on the runway. But as they unload the 20,000 pounds of flour in about 15 minutes, taxied out to take off along the barbed wire. There was those three handkerchiefs through the barbed wire waving at all the airplanes. And all our mouths were going like this, said, wish they wouldn't do that. An old Pickering says to me, he says, "Hey, those kids know who you are?" And I says, "No, I didn't have my name tag on. I was non-standard that day and I had my hat on. They didn't know I was bald. They don't know who I am." And he says, "Good. We won't tell anybody."

Kids are out there every day waving that week. And we thought, there's a few more kids. Do it again, do it again. Did it again. Bigger crowd. Did it again, three times we did it. And then the weather was terrible in West Germany. I went into base operations to find out what the weather, weatherman didn't come around the airplane. So Ford and Lloyd ran in there to see huge stack and mail on the big planning table. Looked at it and the letter said, to Uncle Wiggly Wings, Tempelhof, Base of Operations, the Shaka Laden figure, Tempelhof base operations. Boy, I broke out in sweat, ran back out there and says, we're in trouble. There's a post office full of mail in there for us. And so we quit. We said, no more. We would get in trouble. For two weeks we quit. And then we looked at each other, we saved a rash and said once more and that's all. And so we came back with six parachutes on a flight. Beautiful day, wiggle the wings, went crazy down there, dropped it and said that's it. And that's how it got started.

We said we were going to quit after our last big drop of six parachutes, two days, the next day, coming back from Rhine-Main, back from Berlin to Rhine-Main, an officer met the airplane. He came on the airplane and he says, "Who's flying this airplane?" My buddy's pointing at me. He said, "He is, why?" And he says, "Colonel Hong wants to see you right now." And I knew Colonel Hong and he was a great guy. But I went to see Colonel Hong. He says, "Halvorsen, what have you been doing?" And I said, "Flying like mad sir." And he said, "I'm not stupid." He says, "What else have you been doing?" And then for about 15 minutes, I thought I was going to go home early or get a court martial. And then he reached into the counter and pulled out a German newspaper, threw it on the counter in front of me, and there was my airplane with parachutes coming out of it. He said, "You almost hit a German newspaper man in the head with a candy bar in Berlin yesterday. He's got this story all over the world." He said, "The general called me this morning to ask me about this operation. I didn't know anything about it. Why didn't you tell me?" And I said, "I didn't think you'd approve it." He said, "You're right. I wouldn't approve it." He said, "The general thinks it's a good idea. You can keep doing it, but keep me informed." Well, I breathed the big sigh of relief that I wasn't court martialed.

And so then my buddies gave me theirs. They heard about it, and I'd come back and there'd be a case of bars from two or three guys pulling their rations. Wrigley's double mint gum was a favorite and they'd give me their old handkerchiefs, take shirt sleeves for candy bags and shirttails for parachutes. We ran out of stuff and we went to Berlin of course immediately and gathered up all the mail and had two German secretaries to read it and answer the letters we couldn't. And the kids in Berlin heard we were out of parachutes. So they sent back the old ones for refills. And not only that, some that didn't catch it, he would make their own. One little boy, Peter Zimmerman, he wrote me and says, "Look." He says, "I'm nine years old, but my legs aren't as long as normal kids nine years old, I can't run very fast and I'm not getting any of this stuff." He said, "I almost got it today, but a bigger kid beat me to it." And he says, "I saw the parachute." And made me a beautiful parachute, the strings the right length and a map. He said, "When you take off, after you unload your flour, come down the canal to the second bridge, turn right one block. I live in the bombed out house in the corner. I'll be in the backyard every day at two o'clock, drop it there."

A lot of these special requests and the tower would let me in good weather, stay down low and fit me in later and make drops. I couldn't hit Peter Zimmerman. I kept missing him. I sure am following this good map. Finally, he wrote me a letter and said, "Look." He said, "You're a pilot. I gave you a map. How did you guys win the war anyway?" Well, we got to be good friends with Peter. I took a big bag of package of gum and candy to Berlin and mailed it to him in the mail. You could mail it in the city, couldn't mail it across East Germany in the city and mailed it.

And he wrote lots of other good letters and he needed some shoes. Dad and mom were killed during the bombing of Berlin and he was living with an uncle and he needed some boots. And so we got him boots and sent him the boots in the mail. He didn't try and drop those, of course. And he finally became a candidate for adoption. And a family in Palm Pennsylvania adopted Peter.

Another letter, an example of a little girl wrote me, her name was Mercedes. And she says, "You're causing us a terrible problem. We live right near the airfield at Tempelhof, and we've got a bunch of white chickens and they're not laying eggs anymore. And you come right over our place and they think you're chicken hawks. And they quit. They're losing their feathers." Well, for an old farm kid from Garland, Utah, when my buddies on Saturday would go fishing, I'd be cleaning out the white chicken coop. So I understood the chicken problem. The last paragraph from Mercedes was the payoff, she says, "When you see the white chickens, drop it there. I don't care if it scares them." Well, I couldn't find them. Dropping over the approach and by that time, 22 schools in Chicopee, Massachusetts had an old abandoned fire station and they had an assembly line and they were sending over 800 pounds of stuff in big cardboard boxes every other day. Candy bars and Wrigley spearmint gum and other gum manufacturers gum and parachute ready to drop. We just cut the top and my buddies were dropping all over the city, a squadron dropping all over the city over radio fixes, churchyards, playgrounds, everywhere, too big a crowd near the airfield. So we dropping all over the city. So I says, "Guys, concentrating on the approach to hit Mercedes." We didn't hit Mercedes either. So I took a big patch of gum and candy to Berlin and mailed it to Mercedes in November of 1948. So those are a couple of letters, thousands and thousands of letters that we received from kids in Berlin.

Not too long after the airlift started, of course it was getting a lot of press all over the world and the people in New York wanted somebody to come back and tell them what it was like personally. And because of my experience with the dropping the candy bars, General Tunner called me in and said, "Hey, they want somebody to go back to New York and Washington and tell firsthand account how it's going." This was in September '48, so it hadn't been going that long. And so he asked me, then I remember as I left his office he yelled at me, he said, "Halvorsen, don't get the big head." And I said, "I won't, I'm baldheaded, I'm pretty humble." And he said, "Okay." So we came back to the states, brought back an airplane that was going to be overhauled anyway.

Came back to New York and the main program was We The People, one of the early well known national television programs We The People and then many other appearances. And then I got a call from the president of the American Confectioners Association. Said, "I'd like to take you to dinner at the Manhattan Hotel and I want to talk to you about something." So worked the schedule, went with him. There were four forks with the plate, from a farm kid I went, wow, this is really fancy. I wonder what he wants. Well, anyway, he said, look, he asked me a few questions about the operation of Little Vittles. He said, "How much of this stuff can you use?" And I just thought, how many guys in the squadron? And gave him some ridiculous number and he started to send it. Well, Swersi was a Huyler Candy Company executive and he knew the president of American Confectioners Association. He was one of the first to say, “Hey, we'll supply whatever you need.” And all of candy manufacturers and gun manufacturers started to send this stuff to Chicopee, Massachusetts to be assembled by the school kids there. They sent 15 documented tons of candy through Chicopee and part of it was sent over by ship. And 6,500 pounds of candy bars was sent over by ship and mailed to Rhine-Main in December 1948, two weeks before Christmas. And by that time we were dropping plenty. We took that 100 pounds a time into Berlin. I had a jailhouse, it was partly empty and I put that 6,500 pounds in. Day before Christmas we had a Christmas party over a free Berlin, and then the East Berlin kids were still writing. And he says, "Hey, don't drop it over here. We're still getting some, but we'd like to be blockaded too if this is what it's going to be like." So those East Berlin kids were great.

We got thousands of letters from kids that received a package of gum and candy from the air, and the kids in East Berlin were no different. They liked it even more then the West Berlin kids because they didn't have quite as tough right then because they had enough food in East Berlin. But they wrote me letters and I said, "Look, hope you're not mad at us. We're East Berlin kids, we can't help it where they put the border." Said, "We like the Americans and we're coming over to West Berlin and we're catching some of these things that you mean to drop to the free West Berlin kids, but hope you're not angry because oh, this is so good for us." And they said, "But it'd be better even if when you come over East Berlin to land, you come over East Berlin to make your approach, drop it there, there's not so many people and we'd really like that." I said, why not? So I did. I started dropping over East Berlin. Almost every approach, not every approach, but frequently I would drop over East Berlin. Came back from Berlin one day to Rhine-Main and there was an officer to meet the airplane. He said, "Halvorsen, what are you doing over East Berlin?" I said, "I'm dropping to those nasty communist kids." And he says, "You can't do that." And it was Lieutenant Colonel Gilbert who I had known from Mobile. And I said, "Why not? The law of gravity is the same on both sides of the border." And he, excuse me for being impertinent, said, "That's not the problem." He said, "Problem is that the state, the Russians, the Soviets have gone to the State Department and complained. It's a capitalist maneuver. It's a capitalist trick to influence the minds of the young people in their sector against them. And you can't do that and you've got to stop. It's airspace that's questionable. You get in real trouble with using the airspace. You got to stop." Well, I've met people, kids that were in Berlin at that time, grown up that had come out since and told me what it was like. One lady had escaped during the wall. She and her husband both got out and were city planners and West Berlin. And when they went back to West Berlin, one of the times after the wall was up, it happened to be the same function. And she says, "Hey, who are you?" And I says, well, give her my name. She says, "Why did you quit dropping in East Berlin?" And I was surprised. And she says, "I was a little gal and I caught 13 parachutes in East Berlin and then you quit." And I had to tell her, but they'd escaped and they were city planners in West Berlin. I guess they're still there.

Some of the letters were from all areas of the city and especially the hospitals. Of course, this was a time period when the polio epidemic, they'd had a polio epidemic in Germany and they had at least two hospitals, big hospitals with several hundred kids in them with polio. And one day I got a whole package of mail from the kids in hospital, they'd been collected by Mr. Mason, who was an American public health official whose job it was to visit these hospitals and prioritize their needs, from x-ray film to the kind of thing that they needed to help support the hospital. And when he left the hospital, both of the hospitals, one day the kids gave him a big package of letters for me and everyone of them were thanking me for what we're doing, but in a very mild way saying ‘We can't walk, we can't get out and catch this stuff. We hear the airplanes but the doctors have promised us that they won't report you if you fly low over the hospital and they'll go down and get the stuff.’ Well, the hospitals are looking a real tough place. It was a non-standard place for traffic control that I just couldn't work. So I thought about that time, I got a big box full of bubble gun and a bunch of Hershey bars and I thought, man, I'll just take this stuff. I'll have enough time between flights. And that time we weren't flying as often as we were before. And so I loaded up enough, I knew how many kids there were and took all this bubble gum and candy bars to the hospitals and Mr. Mason met me, took me around. I couldn't blow the bubbles very well. So he demonstrated these kids, all the time they gave them a candy bar each and bubble gum. And that was one of the most rewarding experiences I've had in the Airlift is to see these young kids and the appreciation in their eyes in the hospital situation for something so radical as a fresh candy bar, fresh chocolate from the United States of America when they had none, had none at all and were on dried eggs and dried potatoes and we did fly a lot of fresh milk for the youngest kids on the Airlift. But it was a wonderful experience to be in with those kids in the hospital.

The people, the Berliners, were so grateful. The gratitude just get them so emotionally they couldn't talk. Just tears would come in their eyes, they'd come out to the airfield, they'd come out the ramps. The little kids would bring flowers, the people would bring flowers. And in the middle of the winter, I don't know where they'd get them, but they'd bring things to show their appreciation. And it was just overwhelming the letters that they send, but in person what they do. One little girl who came with her mother at Tempelhof, she didn't know that I was a candy bomber, I just stand there by the airplane. And she came over, they'd have escorts and her mother, both of them spoke a little English and her mother says, she has something that she wants to give you. And it was normal that they would come to present something. She had a little teddy bear and she handed it to me and it was not a new one. The elbows were worn. And she says, "I want you to have, this is my teddy bear." She says, "It was with me in the bomb shelters during the war when you were dropping bombs. And it was with me in the final battle when the Russians Soviets overran Berlin. I was in the cellar with my teddy bear and it's a good luck charm and it'll bring you and your fellow flyers good luck." I could see how much it meant to her and I said, "Hey, you keep it. It'll be good luck for us. Keep it." It's probably the only possession that she still had left. But she had tears in her eyes. But she says, "No, you must take it." And I knew then that for her to be happy about her gift, that I would take it graciously. Now I flew with it in a cockpit and it was there that day that I came head on. Maybe the teddy bear was a reason that we didn't have a head on collision, I don't know. But that's a symptom of how deep the feeding was from the people in Berlin. Those were there then, that same feeling comes back as Berlin a week ago in a meeting and an older person stood up and the tears his eyes told the people there, how much it met him. He said, "My parents would not have survived if it hadn't been for the Airlift and I wouldn't be here." And that gratitude was a thing that caused us to fly day and night and the people on the ground to work day and night without complaint because it was for something that was appreciated, that they wanted freedom more than enough to eat. And that knowledge made our problem flying day and night very small.

Looking back at the Airlift and wondering what the influence was, I'm sure that the postwar history would be different if hadn't been for the Airlift. That Berlin was the final point of where we draw the line that the Soviet influence was not going to go beyond, or absorb Berlin. Some people wonder, say, “Well what significance was this thing of little parachutes and candy, that's insignificant.” And it was in itself. But to me, as I recall and hear from the kids that had grown up, it was a symbol of something from outside of this blockaded, this city under siege, that somebody knew they were there from somewhere else. Because they'd walked to school in the fog or in the clouds and out of the cloud would come a parachute and land at their feet and the letter would come. And it was telling them that somebody was aware of what their problems were in a city under siege and that they cared for them. There was an external connection outside of this wall of steel and tanks that surrounded the city. And it gave them a feeling of self-assurance, of hope and hope was the most important thing that a person can have in personal trouble in life, that somewhere there's hope for a better future. And I think that that part was a contributor to that. But the bigger Airlift, the humanitarian effort in behalf of a former enemy was one of the greatest influences in bringing people together after a great war, a terrible tragedy. Working together again, accelerated this process, brought the German people and the American, British and French together quickly. It galvanized their working as a team and it changed post-war history. Without the Airlift, the way it was carried out in the humanitarian way, post-war history would be very different today than it was then.

In 1994, they had an exhibit, an international exhibit hall at Frankfurt Rhine-Main. And [inaudible] was on the Airlift, had parachutes with candy bars hanging from the ceiling. And I went there for that event to open up this exhibit. And at the time we were supporting Bosnia, the refugees were pushed out of their homes or in the mountains and the foothills and the snow and trying to survive and live away from their residents. And recall to me the situation in Berlin during the blockade of Berlin, I went to the Air Force there and asked, “I'd like to fly one of these missions. I'd like to be with this modern crew in a modern airplane and make drops.” They were dropping the food supplies, of course some were landing at Sarajevo. But at this time when I was there, the fire, ground fire and this thing were it was a real problem. And so they were dropping from the air C-130s, mainly from the American effort. And so I was able, through the grace of the people at Rhine-Main to be outfitted, still had an ID card of course, retired, able to fly the airplanes. And we made up a bunch of candy bars and parachutes just like old days. And we had about 20,000 pounds of food and blankets to drop in the mountains. And so we had a six ship formation to Bosnia from Rhine-Main. And it re-brought back old memories, a lot more sophisticated with the radar because we were going to make a night drop of 16,000 feet with all the lights out and just the radar man bringing us in over the mountains over this, at least 30 miles from Sarajevo. And we had the package of little parachutes and candy bars tied to the back of the last pallet was going out the back of that C-130.

And then when we opened those doors and pushed it out, we had a lanyard on it and out they went and this lanyard opened up the box and little parachutes came out. I don't know how many they found, but I'm sure they found some. There were thousands of refugees in the mountains waiting for those blankets and food. And I hope a little surprise package, a candy bar on the end of a parachute like it was for the kids in Berlin that found a child somewhere in Bosnia without a home, without enough to eat.

In my view, the heroes of the Airlift were civilian or military. The civilians were the Berliners. They slept in bombed out buildings without enough heat, without lights, except for a few hours very early in the morning and without enough food. They said, we'll never give up. We don't care if we don't have enough to eat like the children of the fence, we won't give up. And they didn't. And without that determination and that commitment, the Airlift wouldn't have worked. The military heroes were not the pilots in my view. The military heroes were the aircraft mechanics. Without them keeping these airplanes flyable, we wouldn't be going anywhere as pilots. You'd taxi out to take off at Rhine-Main in the middle of the wintertime and the snow blowing horizontal. And these aircraft mechanics were out there in the open field sometimes with a canvas and the wooden frame to cover them. There wasn't room in the hangers, they were full too. But they had to work out in the open field. And they were doing that in, I'm sure at Fassberg and Sully and Wiesbaden, fingers freezing to the head bolts. And those guys kept the airplanes running. Of course, the security place and the cooks and everybody else had a part. But to my mind, the dedication to those aircraft mechanics were the real heroes. The single military guy, of course was General Tunner. Without him, it would've been disaster. He was a genius at Airlift and planning Airlift.

And General Clay, without him, he was on the spot to begin with, long before Tunner got there, he knew what had to be done. He was a real hero, military hero of the post-war era. And bringing on board the determination of the coalition of the British, French and Americans to support whatever it took, the determination to stay Berlin, so General Lucius Clay was one in a million. When I said military, he was the military man and an ambassador and a great servant of our country and the cause of freedom. Of all, he has to be the preeminent person in my view.

Ken Harbaugh:

That was COL Gail S. Halvorsen.

Thanks for listening to Warriors In Their Own Words. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We’re always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more, follow us on twitter @Team_Harbaugh.

And if you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to rate and review.

Warriors In Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with The Honor Project.

Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Brigid Coyne is our production director, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer.

Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

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