Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Operation Little Vittles

With the end of World War II, one of the most elegant, sophisticated cities of Europe lay in ruins. The victors divided Berlin, deep in the Soviet occupation zone, but in June, 1948, the Russians attempted to grab control of the whole city and force out the Americans, British, and French. They refused to allow trains, trucks, or barges into the western part of the city. Without food, coal, and all other supplies, two million Berliners would starve if they didn’t capitulate to the Russians.
If the Soviet army had tried to invade the western sectors, the Western democracies would have been able to do little about it. Their military forces were outnumbered 62 to 1. But America, with her allies, determined to make a stand. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. stood face to face, and America refused to blink.
The Berlin Airlift began, a monstrous effort that required flying in 10.6 million pounds of cargo for the survival of the west Berliners. It became known as Operation Vittles.
In the three years since the war’s end, distrust and hostility remained high between victors and vanquished. Hunger and cold were constant companions of the Berliners. They resented America for bombing their cities and homes far beyond the necessity of war as they saw it.

The American pilots were conflicted in their attitudes toward the Germans. Said one, “First you bomb them, then you feed them. I wonder what my navigator’s widow out in Kansas thinks of it.”
One pilot was Gail Halvorsen. He’d spent the war flying transport planes out of Brazil, carrying cargo to Miami and across the Atlantic. He was a stickler for following orders. That made a good transport pilot, whereas combat pilots took risks. He hadn’t been selected to go to Germany to fly in the Airlift. A friend with a young family was, however, and Halvorsen volunteered to go in his place.
The pilots had no opportunity to see anything of Berlin besides the airport. They landed, their planes were unloaded, and within a half hour, they flew back to base in the American zone in western Germany. Halvorsen broke the rules by stowing away on a friend’s flight, sacrificing some sleep to see the sights of Berlin. With an hour to kill while he waited for a driver and jeep, he hurried the two miles across the airport to film the planes coming in to land.
A group of thirty children had gathered at the fence to watch the planes. Now they watched the American pilot. A few knew English and they asked questions about the planes and their cargoes. When he left to meet his driver, Halvorsen remembered the two sticks of gum in his pocket. He made the life-changing decision to go back and give the gum to the children. Only four children got the gum torn in half. The others passed around the wrappers, sniffing the scent. Halvorsen impulsively told them he would drop candy to them the next day. They would recognize his plane when he wiggled his wings.

Lt. Gail Halvorsen talked to German children watching the airplanes. The biggest victims of war are the smallest, the children. Safety and security disappear for reasons they cannot understand. In their place are uncertainly and privation.

His copilot and navigator weren’t happy with him when he told them his plan. Halvorsen was upset with himself for his rash promise. He hated to think what trouble he might get them into. But a promise was a promise. He drew his ration of candy along with his crewmates’ reluctantly given allotments, and made three parachutes out of handkerchiefs.
He wiggled his Skymaster’s wings, and the waiting children started jumping and cheering. The crew nervously watched the crowd of children grow in the coming days. Other pilots spoke of the children’s sudden rambunctiousness.

They made a second drop a week later. And a third the following week. A few days later, Halvorsen went into the operations building to get a weather report. He spotted a table laden with mail, many addressed in crayon to Onkel Wackelflugel (Uncle Wiggly Wings) or Schokoladen Flieger (Chocolate Flyer). He beat a hasty retreat, fearing a court martial.
Berliners remained uncertain about Americans. Grateful as they were for the food, they felt like pawns in a power play. Something began changing, though, beginning with their children. Children in the hundreds came to the airport fence. Adults began joining them. On warm summer days, ten thousand could be watching.
Determined not to tempt a court martial, Halvorsen had decided against any more drops. Then he was summoned to his commander’s office.
“You almost hit a reporter on the head with a candy bar yesterday,” he told Halvorsen. The reporter had gotten his plane’s tail number. Halvorsen was sent to Wiesbaden to see General William Tunner, in charge of the airlift.
Expecting the worst, Halvorsen received congratulations. Tunner recognized the psychological boost in morale the candy drops brought to Berliners. He sent Halvorsen to speak to the reporters in Wiesbaden. With his identity revealed, Halvorsen was inundated with candy from the other airmen. He called his candy drops “Operation Little Vittles.” A quick publicity trip to the States resulted in candy factories and schoolchildren donating candy and others supplying him with parachutes. Other pilots joined in to drop candy.

Halvorsen attaches candy to the small parachutes.

            They dropped over 23 tons of candy over the course of the airlift. During the 15-month airlift, the candy bombers won the hearts and minds of Berliners.
            Gail Halvorsen became a celebrity in Germany. In 1974, he received one of Germany's highest medals, the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, for reaching out to the children of wartorn Berlin in an effort to make their lives a little sweeter. 

Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Gail S. Halvorsen poses in front of a C-54 — the same type of plane he flew during the Berlin airlift — during an air show at Berlin's Tempelhof Airport in 1984.

Recommended for further reading: The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America’s Finest Hour by Andrei Cherny


  1. Very cool article. It's people like him that are the heroes in our lives.

    1. I've loved this story since I first heard of it years ago.