During the 1948-49 Berlin Airlift (Operation Vittles) one rogue pilot decided to deliver more than standard food, coal and medical supplies to the deprived children of Berlin. Having met some of the children during an unapproved visit to Berlin with his 8mm camera, Lt. Gail Halvorsen promised them that he would drop candy from his plane on a future flight. How would they know it was him? He would “wiggle his wings” he told them, earning himself the name of ‘Uncle Wiggly Wings’.
Lt. Gail Halvorsen attaching parachutes to chocolate bars.
Dropping candy from a military plane was against regulation of course. He convinced his copilot and engineer to not only help, but also to donate their weekly candy rations to the cause. He used handkerchiefs and string to create little candy parachutes to slow down their descent to a safe speed.
“The only way I could get back to deliver it was to drop it from the airplane, 100 feet over their heads, on the approach between the barbed wire fence and bombed-out buildings,” Halvorsen said. “A red light came on that said you can’t drop it without permission. But I rationalized it by saying that starving 2 million people isn’t according to Hoyle, either, so what’s a few candy bars?”
The first drop was from a C-54 Skymaster. He wiggled his wings as promised and the engineer shoved the candy parachutes out the flare chute. They successfully dropped the candy between the barbed wire fence and bombed buildings to the children below. For three weeks the candy volume increased along with the waiting children until a photo of the “Candy Bomber” was published in a Berlin newspaper.
Halverson knew he was in trouble when his commander called him in and showed him the photo. Instead of being court martialed though, the commander had realised the value of Halverson’s candy bombing in lifting Berlin's spirits. “Operation Little Vittles” was born and Halverson became the face of the Berlin Airlift and a symbol of US goodwill.
Berlin children excited at the arrival of the 'Candy Bomber'.
Dozens of other pilots became involved. They donated their candy and began making parachutes out of old clothing when the handkerchiefs ran out. Non-commissioned officers and officers wives then took up the parachute making mission. Later the American Confectioners Association donated 18 tons of candy via a Massachusetts school who attached parachutes before shipping. By the end of the Berlin Airlift in September 1949, American pilots had dropped 250,000 parachutes delivering 23 tons of candy.
Halverson continued his dedication to helping those in need during his 31 year Air Force career, and he flew with the Air Force again in 1994 in a humanitarian effort to feed 70,000 Bosnian refugees.
In appreciation of his efforts to improve the Berlin children's lives he was awarded the German Order of Merit, Grosses Bundesverdienstkreuz, in 1974, and in 2002 he carried the German Olympic teams placard for the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.