The kids were having such a ball and waving through the barbed wire. And I said, ‘You know, we got another week, another ration. Let’s do it again.’ – Gail Halvorsen, retired colonel in the U.S. Air Force
AMADO, Arizona — Most military veterans of the World War II era returned home to normal, quiet lives and spent the rest of their years without public acclaim.
That certainly is not the case with a Utah veteran whose exploits three years after the war ended remain famous to this day, 66 years later.
"The bottom line is that I'm astounded," said Gail Halvorsen, retired colonel in the U.S. Air Force, as he reflected on his long-lasting fame at his retirement home in Arizona. He splits his time between there and a ranch home in Spanish Fork.
If Halvorsen's name doesn't ring a bell, maybe his nicknames will. He's also known as "Wiggly Wings" — or more often "the Candy Bomber."
His fame has lived on — not because of combat with the enemy, but because of an act of peace with the children of former enemies. In 1948, he dropped candy and gum by parachute for children living in the ruins of West Berlin, three years after the German city was heavily bombed by American pilots.
"They have a forgiveness," Halvorsen said. "8- to 15 year-old forgiveness. Pure innocence."
Halvorsen's news-making parachute drops came at an extraordinary moment at the dawn of the Cold War. He was one of the pilots in a huge U.S. airlift that saved 2 million Germans from starvation. The Soviet Union had blockaded West Berlin in an attempt to take it away from the Western Allies. Halvorsen flew planeload after planeload of flour and coal that was eagerly unloaded by German volunteers.
"They could have a flight unloaded in about 10 minutes and we'd be on our way to get another load," recalled Halvorsen, who grew up in Utah and Idaho.
It was a fateful meeting with German kids at the Berlin airfield's fence line that changed Halvorsen's life. He gave them some gum, and then dropped more by parachute on his next flight, wiggling his wings over the kids, originally planning to do it just once.
"The kids were having such a ball and waving through the barbed wire," Halvorsen said. "And I said, 'You know, we got another week, another ration. Let's do it again.'"
He made numerous flights, parachuting gum and candy to eager and excited kids. The children were not German enemies but grateful friends.
"People are people," Halvorsen said. "I don't care where the border is, whether it's East Germany or West Germany. People are the same, have the same needs. Some are luckier than others to be born under different geography and different relationships."
When a newspaper published a photo of Halvorsen's plane and the parachutes loaded with sweets, Halvorsen was summoned to a meeting with one of his superiors. He worried that he would be chewed out and possibly court-martialed, so he began by apologizing.
"No excuse, sir, I made a mistake," Halvorsen recalls saying. "No excuse. And he said, 'Well, General (William) Tunner called and he said … 'That's a good idea. Let him keep doing it.' So I sent General Tunner some gum."
Other pilots joined in, dropping tons of candy and gum into West Berlin.
Since then, Halvorsen has had books written about him and he's been honored in several countries. In 2008 — 60 years after the fact — ABC News named him the "Person of the Week."
During a Berlin Airlift commemoration in Berlin in 1998, President Bill Clinton singled him out, praising "the countless acts of individual kindness, like Gail Halvorsen, the famous candy bomber, who dropped tiny parachutes of candy."
Halvorsen still gets cards, letters and emails from kids who just heard about him, or former kids long since grown up.
Next month he'll win a Lifetime Achievement Award from Lufthansa Airlines, two-thirds of a century after his initial inspiration to drop candy and gum by parachute.
Halvorsen believes he's remembered because what he actually delivered by parachute wasn't just candy, it was hope in a city that was devastated three years before by U.S. bombing. Decades later, he met a German kid — all grown up — who still remembered a Hershey's chocolate bar that landed at his feet.
"He said, 'The chocolate was wonderful, but the chocolate was not what was important,'" Halvorsen recalled. "He said, 'What was important was that somebody knew I was in trouble, and somebody cared. That stayed with me. And that was hope.'
"And then he said the most meaningful words that I'll never forget: 'Without hope, the soul dies.'"