It was a fascinating time to be in West Berlin, Germany. In the summer of 1974, I began a year-long adventure living in West Berlin as a student at the Berliner Kirchcnmusikschule (Berlin Church Music School). Living within walking distance of the Wall, I often sat on a hill, looking over the Wall into the East German countryside, watching the guards with their machine guns, and wondering how in the world this beautiful city and country became divided in the first place.
Several months ago, I came upon an amazing story that took place in Berlin, Germany, seventy years ago, a story that is inspiring, tender, and sweet. Some of you were alive in 1948 and remember how turbulent the 1940’s were. Three years earlier, after Germany’s unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945, the Allies divided Germany into four military occupation zones at the Potsdam Conference in July. There was France in the southwest, Britain in the northwest, the United States in the south, and the Soviet Union in the northeast. The capital city, Berlin, located in Soviet territory, was also divided into four parts: the French, British, and American sectors (West Berlin), and the Soviet sector (East Berlin). In 1974, I lived in the American sector.
Peace and stability had not returned to the country after World War 2, however. Much of Germany had not been rebuilt, and life was very difficult, especially for those living in Berlin, which became a divided city within a divided country. On June 23, 1948, the western powers introduced a new form of currency into the western zones, which prompted the Soviet Union to cut off access to West Berlin through a blockade. In an effort to literally starve Berliners into submission, the Soviets did not allow any food or goods into West Berlin by road or train, and the men, women, and children of this divided city began to suffer horribly. When winter came, there was no food, warm clothing, or medicines, and the Berliners were desperate and starving.
Determined to keep the West Berliners alive, the United States, England, and France decided to do something unthinkable. They airdropped food into West Berlin! The Soviet blockade lasted from June 24, 1948 to May 11, 1949, with the airlift continuing for several more months after that. During the year of the blockade, a total of 277,804 flights landed in Berlin, carrying 2.3 million tons of food. Each West Berliner received an average of 2,300 calories a day. By April 1949, an allied plane was landing in Berlin every single minute, and each pilot flew an average of three flights a day.
The code name for the airdrop was Operation Vittles. But there was one pilot who felt called to do more. On July 19, 1948, Lt. Gail “Hal” Halvorsen from the US became a stowaway on a friend’s plane. When they landed in Berlin, Halvorsen saw some boys and girls at the fence, watching the planes land, and he decided to approach them. Their clothes were in tatters, and very few were wearing shoes. Some of the children knew English, so they asked him questions about the planes and the food they were bringing.
Having flown in South America, Africa, and Europe, Halvorsen was accustomed to children asking him for candy, but he noticed that these starving children did not ask for anything. So Halvorsen took two sticks of Doublemint gum out of his pocket and gave them to the children. He tore them into pieces and passed them through the fence, with other kids asking to sniff the wrappers. Only four children received gum, but “the expressions on their faces were incredulous, full of awe – as if they were entering a wonderland.”[i]
Halvorsen promised the children that he would return with more candy and asked them to watch for the plane that wiggled its wings. He faced several challenges, however. First, distributing candy was against regulations. Second, Halvorsen had to find a source for the candy. And, third, he had to figure out to “throw” the “candy bombs” out of planes that were traveling 110 miles an hour. Halvorsen devised mini-parachutes out of handkerchiefs, with candy attached inside with twine. At the right time, he signaled his engineer when to push the packages out the emergency flare chute.
The news traveled fast! The next day Halvorsen was summoned to appear before his commanding officer, who realized the value of Halvorsen’s idea and encouraged him to continue with this new operation called Operation Little Vittles. News of the Candy Bomber spread like wildfire, as hundreds and even thousands of children and eventually their parents gathered every day at Templehof Airport, waiting for the wiggly wings of planes that would rain down candy from the sky.
Almost overnight, Halvorsen became the face of the Berlin Airlift and a symbol of American goodwill. He called this moment his “moment of truth,” “the continental divide of his life.” Halvorsen’s life, the life of the children of Berlin, and the world were all transformed. [ii]
All told, Operation Little Vittles rained down 23 tons of candy from 250,000 parachutes. Each of the few dozen Candy Bomber planes was allowed to drop 600-700 pounds of candy onto the streets of Berlin.
When Halvorsen was asked to tour America during the Berlin airlift, tens of thousands of candy bars and supplies were donated by people all across the country. Though it took nearly a year, the Soviets eventually called off the blockade because it just wasn’t working anymore. The airlift was a success, people were fed, and the spirits of Berliners were lifted in large part because of the efforts of Uncle Wiggly Wings. The Candy Bomber gave Berliners hope in the midst of the darkness. Most children never received any candy, but it didn’t matter. HOPE is what mattered.
The proof was in letters send to Halvorsen from the children of Berlin. “Dear Uncle Wiggly Wings, When yesterday I came from school, I had the happiness to get one of your sweet gifts… I could not come home quickly enough to look at your wonderful things. You cannot think how big the joy was. They all, my brother and parents, stood around me when I opened the strings and fetched out all the chocolate. The delight was very large.” [iii]
On September 3, 1948, this letter was received, “Dear Chocolate Uncle, The oldest of my seven sons had on this day his 16th birthday. But when he went out in the morning, we were all sad because we had nothing to give him on his special day. But how happily everything turned out! A parachute with chocolate landed on our roof! It was the first sweets for our children in a very long time.” [iv]
According to Halvorsen, now 97 years old, many people over the years have tracked down the Candy Bomber to say thank you and to share their stories of the Berlin air lift. Halvorsen’s response was, “The small things you do turn into great things.” And he is still dropping sweets from the sky!
This past July, Halvorsen led a candy drop in Spanish Fork, Utah, for the 70th anniversary of the Candy Bomber air drops. Speaking about his original idea of dropping candy, Halvorsen said, “Well, gosh, I get a chocolate ration. I can share it.” He continued, “If we get outside of ourselves in the road of life for somebody who is struggling more than you are, then you’re going to be rewarded in a way you’ll never know.” Money is now being raised for the Gail S. Halvorsen Aviation Education Center in Spanish Fork, where Halvorsen makes his home. Listen to Hal Halvorsen in a 2015 interview.
Where will you experience hope in 2019? How can you embody a hope that matters for those who see no hope for today or tomorrow? How can your congregation be difference makers and bearers of hope? What small things can you do for others that can turn into great things? It doesn’t take much. Just eyes open to the hopelessness around you, ears open to the cries of human need, and hearts open to reaching out with love to all who yearn to hear the good news of a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
[i]The Candy Bombers; The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America’s Finest Hour, Andrei Cherny, New York, Berkley Caliber, 2008, p. 299.
[iii]Ibid, p. 358.
[iv]Ibid, p. 365.