Bitter, sweet night for Mormon Tabernacle Choir at Christmas concert

Published: Saturday, Dec. 15 2012 9:22 a.m. MST

Children run to greet Gail Halvorsen, the "Candy Bomber," during the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas Concert in Salt Lake City on Friday. , Dec. 14, 2012.at a news conference at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A festive occasion began on a somber note Friday night as the audience for the annual Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas Concert observed a moment of silence for the victims of the shootings in Connecticut earlier in the day.

"As we gather tonight in celebration of the Christmas season, we are profoundly saddened by the heartbreaking events this morning at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.," said choir announcer Lloyd D. Newell. "We grieve with all those affected by this tragedy and especially for the families of the little children. At this hour of great sorrow, we pray the Spirit of our Father in Heaven will provide comfort and peace to all."

A featured guest at the concert was veteran newscaster Tom Brokaw, who coined the term "the greatest generation" with his best-selling book about Americans who weathered the adversity of the Great Depression and World War II. Small wonder that his contribution to the event would be a dramatic reading of one of the most memorable and touching events of the war's aftermath, the saga of the American "candy bomber."

Brokaw, with British operatic and Broadway tenor Alfie Boe, joined the choir and Orchestra at Temple Square on the Conference Center stage Thursday and Friday. A third performance will take place today at 8 p.m. The choir's "Music and the Spoken Word" broadcast at 9:30 a.m. Sunday will feature the guest artists, with a mini-concert to follow for the audience seated in the Conference Center.

Gail Halvorsen, the Utah native and U.S. Air Force pilot who became famous as the candy bomber for his benevolence during the Berlin airlift of 1948-49, was the subject of Brokaw's script.

To the background music of the choir and orchestra, he told the story of Halvorsen, using his nickname Hal.

"That snowy Christmas Eve, as Hal radioed for clearance to land, his mind wandered back six months to the day that changed his life," Brokaw related. "He had been standing at the end of the Tempelhof runway taking home movies of arriving planes when he noticed about 30 children on a grassy strip just beyond a barbed-wire fence."

For nearly an hour, Halvorsen responded to the children's eager questions about the planes and the airlift. He was touched that these children seemed unusual in that they did not beg for candy, as was typical of that time for children encountering American servicemen, but were simply grateful for what the airlift had given them.

On an impulse, Halvorsen dug into his pockets and found only two sticks of chewing gum. These he broke into four pieces and passed them through the fence.

"Without a word, the four children tore the gum wrappers into strips and passed them to the others one by one," Brokaw related, "each small nose that was pressed to the paper breathing the minty smell. Never had he seen such expressions of joy and wonder, even at Christmas."

Halvorsen and his buddies subsequently pooled their rations of gum and chocolate to support his idea of dropping candy from the air to the German children waiting below, each piece tied to a tiny parachute fashioned from a white handkerchief.

He told them how to recognize his plane: He would wiggle its wings. From that signal the beneficiaries of his kindness came to call him "Uncle Wiggly Wings."

His initiative drew the attention of the press and ultimately his superiors, who liked the idea. It was expanded into "Operation Little Vittles." Candy and handkerchiefs poured in from around the world.

"The children made friends of their former enemies, and their parents' hearts were softened," Brokaw said. "The wounds of war began to heal.

"By December, the Little Vittles operation had gathered 18 tons of candy from American candy makers, and three more tons came in from private donors, the spirit of Christmas descending on people everywhere, lifting them up in the joy of giving."

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