By: Scott RossPublished: September 22, 2022

Gail Halvorsen

The West German government introduced the Deutschemark on June 20, 1948, in an effort to weaken Soviet control of the local economy. The Russkies were so cheesed off by this that they introduced the Ostmark in their part of the city and on June 24, initiated the Berlin Blockade, thereby isolating the parts of Berlin under Western control, cutting off rail, road and canal access.

The United States Air Force responded on June 26, 1948, with "Operation Vittles" and the Brits would follow suit two days later with their own airlift, Operation Planfare, delivering food and other essentials to those unable to receive goods via traditional trade routes. At the peak, one plane was landing every 45 seconds at Tempelhof Airport, providing an essential lifeline to the people of West Berlin.

About a month into the airlift, one of the pilots involved, Lieutenant Gail Halverson, spent his day filming with his handheld video camera the planes landing at Tempelhof, when he noticed a throng of kids pressed against the fence, watching with great anticipation. He went over to chat with them and eventually fished out from his pocket his last two sticks of gum, which the kids very graciously tore into little pieces so they might share it as best they could. Halverson was so touched by the scene that he vowed to return with plenty of gum for everyone. When one of the children asked how they could know it was him, he promised to wiggle his wings.

That night back at his barracks, Halverson and his crew got together their candy rations, parceled them into three boxes and affixed to each one a homemade parachute. The following day, as Halverson made his approach at Templehof, he wiggled his wings before letting fly with his three candy bombs. He did this once a week for three weeks.

Naturally, word spread of this airlift within an airlift, eventually reaching Halverson's C.O., who ordered that his men redouble their efforts, dubbing the project Little Vittles. The first official Little Vittles drop floated down to eagerly awaiting West German kids on September 22, 1948, and within weeks donations came pouring in from friends, then the squadron and eventually every major candy manufacturer in America, while civilians across the country helped out by making parachutes and packaging the candy.

Halverson's tour ended in January, but not before he passed the baton to Captain Lawrence Caskey, the airlifts continuing long enough for the Pinkos to reopen (for the time being, anyway) West Berlin on May 12, 1949. In all, Halverson and his buddies dropped 23 tons of candy, but not every kid was satisfied with his performance.

Peter Zimmerman was a 9-year-old boy living behind the blockade when he mailed Halverson a map and a parachute that Halverson might drop one in his yard. Halverson looked for the kids house, but to no avail. Soon thereafter, another note from Zimmermann arrived: “No chocolate yet. … You’re a pilot. … I gave you a map. … How did you guys win the war anyway?”

Back home, Halverson met with several of the stateside volunteers who made possible the Little Vittles airlift, then got a degree in Aeronautical Engineering on Uncle Sam's dime and served his country until 1974, eventually achieving the rank of colonel and having been awarded the Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal, Congressional Gold Medal and Germany's Order of Merit.

Forty years after the Berlin Airlift, Halverson explained to CNN the most important lesson he took away from his efforts.

“The airlift reminded me that the only way to fulfillment in life, real fulfillment, is to serve others," he said. "I was taught that as a youth in my church, and I found when I flew day and night to serve a former enemy that my feelings of fulfillment and being worthwhile were the strongest that I’ve felt.”

He and his wife Alta were wed on April 16, 1949, had five kids and 24 grandchildren by the time of Alta's death in 1999. In 2002, Halverson recounted his efforts in a book called "The Berlin Candy Bomber," and in 2004, he married his high school sweetheart, Lorraine Pace, with whom he lived until his death on February 16, 2022. He was 101.


Related Articles