Forty 40 years ago Sunday, a young lieutenant from Garland, Utah, made history in the Berlin Airlift. For Gail S. Halvorsen, the "Chocolate Bomber" of World War II, the memories are still sweet.
And he's fond of telling how two sticks of gum changed his life.Halvorsen was 27, single, and in "a long-distance relationship that was going nowhere" with his Utah sweetheart, Alta Jolley, when he volunteered to replace a fellow Air Force officer in a C-54 unit based in Mobile, Ala. The assignment was for Germany, and Halvorsen knew his friend - the new father of twins - wouldn't want to go. The decision was easy.
It was almost as easy as his decision in 1941 to leave the farm and get out of the dust of the beet fields and into the clear, blue skies through a special non-college pilot program. After attending ground school at Bear River High in Tremonton, Halvorsen had scored among the 10 highest on the written exam and won a flight scholarship. He'd been in the first class taught by Johnny Weir at the Brigham City Airport and became the proud co-owner of a Piper Cub - along with the other nine finalists.
Halvorsen had applied for the Air Force's Aviation Cadet school in May 1942 and had flown out of two bases in Brazil from 1944-45. He was actually in the wrong squadron, flying the larger C-74s, when the call came for C-54s to head to Germany in June 1948. But he gladly made the change.
World War II had officially ended, but for the people in a battered Berlin, it was not over. Soviet forces had blocked all ground routes into the city, sending the unmistakable message that the Allies must acknowledge Soviet authority over all Berlin, or its 2.5 million citizens would starve. The airlift began June 26.
By the second week of July, Halvorsen was making his first flight from Rhein-Main Air Base, just outside Frankfurt, carrying seven tons of flour across 110 miles of Soviet territory to land at Tempelhof, in the U.S. sector of Berlin. He would fly the same route 126 times over the next seven months, making three round trips a day at the beginning. It was worth the trouble just to see how gratefully the gift was received, Halvorsen says now. "Flour looked like gold to them."
After one trip in July, he decided to see the city he'd seen only from the air so far. He hitched a ride on a flight to Berlin, borrowed a jeep, and took movies of a C-54 making the steep approach to the short runway at Tempelhof.
Beyond the runway's barbed-wire fence, about 30 children were watching the planes come in. Halvorsen was drawn to the group. In their best English, the children asked about the cargo - things like how many pancakes would that much flour make. "But," Halvorsen remembers, "their concern was for freedom more than flour." Looking at their ragged clothes and thin bodies, Halvorsen realized they hadn't tasted candy in more than two years. He thought of the two sticks of gum in his pocket, but decided there was no way to divide it 30 ways. He waved goodbye and hurried on toward the waiting jeep.
"Then something happened that changed my life," he says. "Something said to me, `Go back to the fence."' He broke two sticks of gum in half and passed them through. Four children gratefully accepted them. There was no fighting over the gum.
Then Halvorsen noticed that the children were tearing the gum wrappers in strips and passing them around to be smelled. "They put those strips of wrapper in their pockets as if they were $50 bills," he recalls. "Come back tomorrow afternoon and I'll drop enough candy and gum out of my airplane for every one of you!" he told the children.
"I knew I could get in trouble," he says, "but I thought it was worth the risk." The next day, he dipped his wings to signal to the children it was his plane, and three little handkerchief parachutes filled with candy were dropped through the plane's flare chute as the flight engineer yelled, "All away!"
It was the beginning of one of the most human of human interest stories in the Berlin Airlift. Donations of candy bars, chewing gum, and lollipops came from Halvorsen's friends at Rhein-Main, purchased with ration cards. The crowd of kids between the barbed wire fence and bombed out buildings grew weekly as little parachutes floated down. When they ran out of handkerchiefs, the men used shirt sleeves and tails.
Halvorsen was dismayed to find a stack of mail addressed to "Uncle Wiggly Wings" and "The Chocolate Flyer" at base headquarters one day, and he thought he was in big trouble. The colonel called him in, showed him a German newspaper's front-page photo of the tiny parachutes, chewed him out, then added, "The general approves. Keep doing it."
After the story made it back to his Alabama base via the news media, one drive netted 400 pounds of candy and 50 pounds of hankies.
Thanks to U.S. radio stations, hankies came in by the thousands through Operation Little Vittles. In December, Halvorsen was invited to open a guarded box car containing 3,500 pounds of chocolate donated by U.S. confectioners. It was flown to Tempelhof 100 pounds at a time.
Children all over Berlin were treated to Christmas parties - with lots of chocolate candy.
The flight schedule was challenging, but the biggest challenge, Halvorsen recalls, was maintaining the air discipline - proper altitude and speed - necessary to keep flying in a stream of planes that were landing every three minutes. Two pilots died when their fully loaded C-47 lost its way in fog in late July and crashed into an apartment building 3 1/2 miles from Tempelhof.
As U.S. and British planes flew food and then fuel into the crippled city, Halvorsen's reputation grew. Just a month after the first drop, every child in Berlin knew about the Chocolate Bomber, and drop sites had to be established throughout the area, including two polio hospitals.
Seven-year-old Mercedes Simon wrote a letter, explaining that she never was quick enough to grab one of the candy-filled parachutes that were dropped over her school's playground. She asked the Chocolate Bomber to just look for the white chickens and drop the candy straight down over her street.
Inside of Berlin, Halvorsen was able to mail a package of candy and gum and a reply to Mercedes: "I can't find those white chickens, but I hope this makes you happy. Your chocolate uncle, Gail Halvorsen."
The airlift officially ended in May 1949. The story came full circle when, in 1969, Halvorsen returned to Tempelhof Air Base to re-enact the drop for the children of those children he'd cheered in 1948. And the story gained a new chapter.
Halvorsen, who was sent to aeronautical engineering school and given a commission by the Air Force after the war, was made commander of Tempelhof Air Base the following year. During his four years in command, he received numerous invitations to dinner from the same person, but he always declined because he was just too busy - until one night in 1972.
He and Alta (his wife since 1949) were sitting in the home of a German family when the woman opened the china cabinet and took out an old letter - the one signed "Your chocolate uncle." As Halvorsen finished reading it, she said, "I'm Mercedes."
Mercedes, her husband Peter Wild, and their four children made a long visit to Provo after Halvorsen retired from the Air Force in 1974 and took a job as assistant dean of student life at BYU. Wild, a science teacher, has worked with Provo High German teacher Brent Chambers since 1979 to exchange around 30 students from Provo and Timpview high schools with the same number from Berlin every year.
"As a result of those two sticks of gum," said Halvorsen, "we have another `Berlin Airlift' with these student exchanges."
The story is coming full circle in other ways, too. The Halvorsens' son Brad, the oldest of five children and an Air Force hospital administrator, will be stationed at Rhein-Main with his family, starting in July. The four oldest boys will attend Gail S. Halvorsen Elementary School on the American base.
Since retiring from BYU in 1976, Halvorsen has returned to farming - 70 acres in Spanish Fork and 30 in Payson. In the midst of cutting and baling hay this month, he joked that not only does he remember how to farm, but "now I remember why I went into the Air Force!"
Halvorsen will be returning to both Frankfurt and Berlin next year for celebrations marking the anniversary's close. Last June, while he and his wife were serving an LDS mission in London, Halvorsen was flown to Berlin to meet President Reagan near a C-54 that commemorates the airlift. "That was pretty fun," Halvorsen said.
The couple will be special guests at an Air Force Association ball at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles in October. "It's been crazy, with this 40th anniversary," said Halvorsen. In addition to spending seven weeks in Southeast Asia visiting a daughter this spring, the Halvorsens have accommodated crews from a television station in north Germany, been interviewed in Los Angeles for a BBC show, and been interviewed for various magazines, including the July issue of Flying and April issue of Reader's Digest.
After 40 years, the memory is still fresh. Though the schedule was arduous and the flying challenging and even dangerous, Halvorsen remembers how it felt "to see the people and have them tell you with tears in their eyes, `Thanks for the food.' Just a few months before, we'd been trying to kill each other. All of a sudden, we were working together, trying to keep people alive."
Halvorsen's philosophy is this: "Little things are important driving forces in our lives. I believe we've already made the big decisions by the time we get there, through the small decisions we've made along the way." To illustrate, he'll recount his stories of the Berlin Airlift. And he'll say, more than once, "For two sticks of gum, my life has been totally changed."