NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - Out of the cloudy skies over Wiesbaden, Germany, on a warm June day, gifts descend from the heavens, dropping like rain onto the fields below, much to the delight of hundreds of children waiting on the ground.
The “candy bombs,” delivered by vintage planes similar to those in service long ago, bring Germans and Americans together to commemorate an event 70 years ago that was a matter of life or death for the people of Berlin.
“It was a good feeling to give people something they had to have to stay alive,” said retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Gail Halvorsen, who in 1949 was a young officer serving as a C-54 pilot in the Berlin Airlift, also known as “Operation Vittles,” the massive U.S.-led humanitarian operation to supply food and essentials to Berliners trapped behind a Soviet blockade.
The blockade began in June 1948, when Soviet troops closed all rail, road and river access to Berlin in one of the first flashpoints of the Cold War. It prompted the United States and its allies to come up with a bold plan to supply the citizens of Berlin with more than 2 million tons of goods by air to the divided city.
“It was the first big operation supporting a city by air,” Halvorsen recalled. “So flying airplanes in there to do that was a major accomplishment. I didn’t see how we could support that many people by everything they had to have.”
It was a mission Halvorsen joined with some trepidation, only four years removed from the destruction and loss during World War II.
“They were the enemy, they killed some of my buddies, and I wasn’t very friendly to them,” he told VOA. “Yet when it came right down to it, and doing it, and seeing the appreciation, it changed my attitude.”
Becoming the 'Candy Bomber'
Halvorsen was one of hundreds of pilots who flew missions in and out of Berlin, and immortalized the event in personal films taken during the operation, where the children became the star of his movies and his memories.
“They were watching airplanes lined up, waving to us as we took off, and there was always a crowd of kids watching where their breakfast was coming from, whether it was dried eggs or dried potatoes,” he said.
As the mission dragged on, Halvorsen decided to add something to the menu in a gesture that now defines the historic event.
“Kids who were kids then tell me how it was to be walking to school and out of the clouds came a parachute with candy bars that almost hit them on the head,” he said.
Halvorsen spent his free time out of the cockpit tying candy to small, hand-made parachutes that could be dropped out of the window of his aircraft while coming in for a landing over the city of Berlin. “Operation Little Vittles,” as Halvorsen’s candy drop came to be known, wasn’t exactly authorized.
“I was surprised I didn’t get court-martialed,” the man who is remembered fondly in Germany as the “Candy Bomber” recounted. “I did something pretty radical there. I knew I was out of bounds.”
Halvorsen’s superiors, recognizing the impact his candy drops were having on the morale of those in blockaded Berlin, eventually supported his initiative that ultimately delivered tons of candy and chocolate.
The essence of the Cold War
“What the Berlin Airlift did is it symbolized the essence of what the Cold War was going to be about — a clash of values and a clash of commitment,” says former NATO Ambassador and now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs Ivo Daalder, who adds that the Berlin Airlift set the stage for America’s leading role in the newly formed NATO alliance and transformed the image of the U.S. from enemy to ally.
“The United States was going to be there, that it was always going to be there to help them and to defend them and to make sure that they would be secure,” he said.
It is a message Daalder says needs reinforcement in the present, as the durability of the NATO alliance today is tested.
“Reminding people that the United States was there as liberator, not occupier, as friend and ally, and not as adversary or bully, is the kind of thing that is really important to maintain the alliance and its strength in the next 70 years,” he said.
Gail Halvorsen agrees.
“I think that Germany is even more important to us today than it was then,” he told Voice of America during an exclusive interview at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he was recognized in an award ceremony for his service during the Berlin Airlift.
Though the airlift ended 70 years ago, many Germans remain grateful to all those who helped them survive the blockade, including “The Candy Bomber” Halvorsen, now 98 years old, who still visits with those in Germany he once reached out to across the Iron Curtain of the Cold War.
But as time passes, Halvorsen is concerned the hard lessons his generation learned in the infancy of that conflict, and the friendships formed in the face of crisis, are fading from memory.
“To be isolationist is to perish, so we’ve got to be involved in what’s going on with others.”
A message he continues to deliver in a mission still taking flight 70 years later.