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‘Meet the Mormons’ takes ‘Candy Bomber’ to even greater heights

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Editor's note: The following is part of an occasional series catching up with the individuals featured in "Meet the Mormons." See our previous story on Bishnu Adhikari.

Gail Halvorsen was well-known before he appeared in “Meet the Mormons,” but now it’s reached a different level.

Whether he’s getting a haircut, asking for directions or stopping at the grocery store, people all over recognize him as “The Candy Bomber.”

“I run into someone every day practically that says hello,” Halvorsen said. “It’s an order of magnitude the number of people that know me since the film came out.”

Halvorsen’s international fame began in the years following World War II for his work during the Berlin Airlift. The young pilot from northern Utah joined the Army Air Corps Pilot Training Program shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor and flew under the command of the Royal Air Force, according to “Meet the Mormons.” At the end of the war, Halvorsen was assigned to fly supplies into West Berlin during the Berlin Blockade when the Soviet Union blocked the flow of supplies into the Allied-controlled areas of the city.

One day after landing in West Berlin with a load of supplies, Halvorsen saw a group of children near the fence at Templehof Airport and went over to speak to them. They thanked him and his colleagues for their efforts in bringing them food and assured him that they would be all right. As he turned to walk away, he felt inspired to give the group of children two sticks of gum he was carrying in his pocket.

“I got just about five steps, and a voice came to me clear as a bell, and I’m sure it was the Holy Ghost: ‘Go back to the fence,’” Halvorsen says in the film.

Seeing their appreciation over two small sticks of gum, Halvorsen hatched a plan. He told the children to watch for the plane that would wiggle its wings, then he would drop candy rations to them by parachute. When his superiors heard what he was doing, they encouraged him to recruit others to the cause, and “Operation Little Vittles,” as it came to be known, was born as a way to bring a little happiness into the lives of children throughout West Berlin.

“Two sticks of gum in July 1948 turned into 23 tons of chocolate and goods that were dropped before the airlift was over,” Halvorsen told the Deseret News. “It’s a testament to what we’re taught in Primary: ‘Do what is right; let the consequence follow.’”

Halvorsen said his decision to help the kids at the fence completely changed the course of his life. It proved to be the catalyst for his career in the Air Force and continues to impact him daily.

“It’s always with me,” he said. “It’s active; it’s dynamic; it’s ongoing.”

He also credits his involvement with “Meet the Mormons” to that single decision.

“(‘Meet the Mormons’) is such a wonderful production, and I give all the credit first of all to the children” he met at the fence in Berlin, he said.

Halvorsen has kept busy since “Meet the Mormons” came out last year. He celebrated his 95th birthday on Oct. 10 in Utah with his family, which now includes five children, 24 grandchildren and 43 great-grandchildren.

“But it’ll probably be different tomorrow,” Halvorsen joked about his ever-growing family.

In addition to trying to answer all the mail he’s received since the film, Halvorsen said, he’s also spent his time doing commemorative airdrops, including dropping 1,000 chocolate bars with parachutes attached to them over SCERA Park in Orem on the Fourth of July. The Associated Press reported that more than 50,000 people braved 100-degree temperatures to witness the Independence Day drop.

Halvorsen said he has additional commemorative drops scheduled in the future, including one in December in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, as well as visits to schools throughout the country to tell his story.

“I’ve got more than I can keep up with,” he said.

Almost everywhere he goes, Halvorsen can be seen with his dark brown wide-brimmed hat and a grin from ear to ear. He attributes his happy demeanor to gratitude and choosing to have a positive attitude.

“If you look for things to criticize, you can find plenty,” he said. “But if you’re grateful, it’s the thing that keeps you happy.”

Halvorsen spends a good portion of his time speaking about the lessons he learned during his career, and he especially enjoys providing counsel to young listeners.

“When you grow up and you go down the road of life, look in the rearview mirror to learn from the past, but don’t look too long for the ‘what ifs,’ the ‘what might have beens’ or ‘how could I have done better,’” Halvorsen said. “If you dwell too much on those kind of things, you’ll miss the turnoff on the road of what you might become.”

Email: wbutters@deseretnews.com, Twitter: WhitneyButters