It all started with two sticks of gum and a man who believed a little bit of sweetness could change the world.
Affectionately known as the “Candy Bomber,” retired Air Force Col. Gail Halvorsen began an initiative to deliver candy — by dropping it from airplanes — to the children in war-ravaged Berlin in the 1940s.
And when the 94-year-old visited the Carolina Air and Auto Center at Smith Reynolds Airport on Wednesday, he got a chance to re-enact history, as he dropped parachuted chocolates from his plane to the Ibraham Elementary School students below.
“For a moment I thought I was back in Germany,” Halvorson said. “It was like I was 27, flying the plane and seeing the kids gathered looking skyward, waiting.”
Earlier that day, Halvorsen had addressed the 475 students in an assembly at the school, relaying his life’s mission of helping others.
“I’ve done a million assemblies, but none of them captivated my students like he did with his message of service before self,” Lee Koch, principal of Ibraham Elementary, said. “You could hear a pin drop while he spoke and the applause was thunderous. It was a moment I’ll never forget.”
The students, who spent weeks beforehand learning about the “Candy Bomber,” also got to tour the C-54 “Spirit of Freedom,” one of the original planes from the Berlin Airlift.
The Berlin Airlift was an effort to bring supplies — including flour, dried foods, and coal — to the 2.5 million people in West Berlin, after the Soviet Union cut off all land and sea access to the city in June 1948.
The Soviet Union was threatening to starve one of the largest cities in the world unless the U.S. relinquished its hold on West Berlin. Although many feared a third World War if the U.S. did not oblige, American pilots began airlifting supplies into West Berlin.
Halvorsen was one of those pilots.
While delivering supplies, he spotted around 30 hungry children. But although he sympathized with them, he knew he couldn’t help them.
“I started walking away when I heard a voice, clear as a bell — I call it the Holy Ghost — say ‘Go back to the fence,’” he said. “The kids told me ‘We don’t have to have enough to eat, just don’t give up on us.’”
He fished through his pockets for something to give to them and came up with two pieces of gum. He broke the pieces in half and handed them to the children. He was dumfounded by their reaction.
They passed the gum wrappers around, inhaling the lingering scent of gum on the paper.
Halvorsen promised he would bring more when he flew over the area again. They would know it was him because he would “wiggle” the plane’s wings, he told them.
He returned the next day after convincing his buddies to donate some of their rations – and handkerchiefs, which he used as makeshift parachutes.
“If I hit them with chocolate at 110 mph, I’d make the wrong impression,” he said.
The candy and gum floated through the air, serving as a beacon of hope for the sea of hungry children.
“It wasn’t about the chocolate, it was that someone in America cared about them,” Halvorsen — who soon became known as “Uncle Wiggly Wings” and the “Candy Bomber” — said. “For a small child, these American chocolate bars, helped heal the wounds of war.”
‘Operation Little Vittles’
What started off as a few “candy bombings,” quickly grew into an organized effort, dubbed “Operation Little Vittles.”
During the 16-month blockade, which ended May 12, 1949, Halvorsen and his fellow pilots dropped more than 20 tons of candy over West Berlin.
“Years later, I went back to Berlin as a commander and got to meet some of the kids who had caught parachutes and were now grown up,” he said. “There’s no greater joy than knowing you’ve made a difference.”
Halvorsen, who retired from the Air Force in 1974, earned many awards throughout his military career, including the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, one of Germany's highest medals, in 1974. He also carried the German team's national placard during the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics.
On Dec. 10, Halvorsen was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award in the U.S., in Washington, D.C., for his service during WWII.
Steve Flippin, director of the Air and Auto Center, contacted Halvorsen after he won the award.
“He’s a legend and an incredible guy,” Flippin said. “It was great to hear his stories and see him fly the original plane from the Berlin Airlift.”
Starting this year, the plane will remain at the Winston-Salem center between late November and early April each year.
The center is also planning to sponsor “candy bombings” twice a year with Halvorsen participating when he can.
Halvorsen, who now lives in Arizona with his wife Alta, has done “candy bombings” across the country for the past 20 years, sharing his story and the idea of serving others.
“When I was young, my parents taught me that you won’t be happy unless you help somebody else,” he said. “That’s how I’ve lived my life. Not wanting more money or a new car but, instead, the satisfaction of knowing I changed someone’s life.”