In 1948, when he was a young U.S. Air Force pilot ferrying humanitarian aid in the Berlin airlift, Gail Halvorsen encountered a group of German children standing by the runway at Tempelhof Airport.
As the kids peppered him with questions, he reached in his pocket and found two sticks of gum, which he broke into pieces and passed around the crowd. But it wasn’t nearly enough. Looking at the faces of all the kids who had been left out, he had a brainstorm. Tomorrow when he flew in his load of cargo, he promised the children, he would drop small handkerchief parachutes filled with candy and gum on his approach.
“How will we know it’s you?” they asked.
“I’ll wiggle my wings,” said Halvorsen.
The legend of the Berlin Candy Bomber was born.
Gail S. “Hal” Halvorsen died Wednesday night at Utah Valley Hospital in Provo after a brief illness, according to the Gail S. Halvorsen Aviation Education Foundation. He was 101.
Halvorsen leaves behind a legacy of giving and generosity that goes far beyond the 21 tons of candy he and his fellow pilots collectively dropped to the children of Berlin in 1948 and 1949. Spurred by that event, he continued to participate in humanitarian causes throughout his life, including candy and toy drops across America and countries around the world. He took part in relief efforts in Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo, Japan, Guam, Iraq and the Micronesian islands.
He steadfastly attributed his lifetime of service to “those two sticks of gum.”
A Utah native, Halvorsen was born Oct. 10, 1920, in the farm town of Garland in northern Utah. Growing up during the Great Depression in the 1930s, he worked in his father’s fields, hoeing sugar beets while gazing skyward every time the commercial airplane flew overhead on its route between Salt Lake City and Malad, Idaho. Mesmerized, the teenager daydreamed about what it would feel like to fly.
When he was 19, his dream materialized when he won a scholarship from what is now the Federal Aviation Administration to study for, and receive, a pilot’s license at the Brigham City airport. Two years later, in May of 1942, five months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and America entered World War II, Halvorsen joined the United States Army Air Corps as an aviator. During the war he flew C-54 cargo planes in the South Atlantic, stationed in Natal, Brazil.
After the war ended in 1945, Halvorsen remained in the service, choosing to make the U.S. Air Force (the Army Air Corps’ successor) his career. His proficiency flying the C-54 resulted in his being assigned to the yearlong Berlin airlift that began in July of 1948 in a divided Germany. Halvorsen was one of dozens of pilots assigned to transport food, clothing and other necessities from air bases in West Germany to citizens living in the western sector of Berlin who had been cut off from outside support by the Soviet Union, the overseer of East Germany.
At first, Halvorsen made his candy drops surreptitiously, not sure if his extracurricular missions of mercy would be officially allowed. But when his commanders learned of what he was doing, he was not only encouraged, but given official approval. The effort was called “Operation Little Vittles,” to differentiate it from the name given to the overall Berlin airlift of “Operation Vittles.”
When news of the Berlin Candy Bomber filtered back to America, the story met with considerable interest and attention. Halvorsen and his squadmates were flooded with cards and letters of support. National candy companies contributed candy and other confections that were collected in Massachusetts and sent to Germany.
Following his duties with the airlift, Halvorsen obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology and worked in research and development at various bases in the U.S. and abroad from 1952 to 1970.
At that point the U.S. Air Force assigned him to be commander of Tempelhof Central Airport in Berlin — a place Halvorsen knew well. He spent four years in Berlin, where he was reunited with many of the kids (now adults) he once dropped candy to, before retiring from the service in 1974.
In 1976 he returned to Utah and became assistant dean of student life at Brigham Young University, a position he held until he retired from academia in 1986.
Halvorsen married fellow Utahn Alta Jolley in 1949 and together they had five children. Alta died in 1999, just months short of their 50th wedding anniversary. Later, Halvorsen married Lorraine Pace.
So-called retirement did not slow Halvorsen down a step. After he left BYU he worked on his farm in Spanish Fork and concentrated on the myriad opportunities afforded him as a result of “those two sticks of gum.”
In and around missions he and Alta served for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in England and Russia, he participated in any number of candy drops and candy drop reenactments.
In 2002, author Margot Raven published “Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot,” based on Halvorsen’s relationship with one of the German girls who caught candy he dropped during the airlift. The book was used in elementary school classrooms across America to educate students about the Cold War. As often as he could, Halvorsen would comply with requests to come to schools and let the children hear stories from the Berlin Candy Bomber himself.
In 1998, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, Halvorsen took part in a 69-day tour sponsored by the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation that crisscrossed Europe and the U.K. in a vintage C-54 cargo plane.
For his accomplishments at improving American-German relations and inspiring countless others to humanitarian service, Halvorsen received numerous honors and awards. The U.S. Air Force bestowed on him its Cheney Award, for outstanding humanitarian work, and its Legion of Merit, for exceptional meritorious conduct, while also creating the Col. Gail Halvorsen Award, for outstanding air transportation support.
In addition, the Air Force named the Halvorsen Loader (an aircraft loading device) and the Halvorsen C-17 Aircrew Training Center in Charleston, S.C., after him. In Germany, the Gail S. Halvorsen School in Berlin and the Gail S. Halvorsen Elementary School at Rhein-Main Air Base in Frankfurt bear his name.
The German government awarded Halvorsen its Service Cross to the Order of Merit, bestowed upon him in 1974.
In 2001 Halvorsen was inducted into the Utah Aviation Hall of Fame. In 2014 he received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award the U.S. Congress can give to a civilian. In 2015 the FAA chose him to receive its Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award. In 2017 the Utah Legislature passed a resolution honoring Halvorsen for “unselfish acts that brought honor to himself, his family, the United States military, the citizens of the state of Utah, and the citizens of the United States.”
In 2012, shortly after he turned 92, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (now the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square) adopted Halvorsen’s candy bomber story as the theme for its Christmas concert, “Christmas From Heaven,” which was narrated by Tom Brokaw and later turned into a book. A number of other books have been written about the Berlin candy drop, including Halvorsen’s own quasi-autobiography, “The Berlin Candy Bomber,” first published in 2010.
“In man’s search for fulfillment and happiness, material rewards pale compared to the importance of gratitude, integrity and service before self,” Halvorsen wrote on his website before his death. “Service to others before self … is the only true recipe by which full fulfillment may be attained in this life. It is one of the core values of the United States Air Force. Today the Air Mobility Command, in the Airlift tradition, launches a mission of mercy every 90 seconds somewhere around the world. The American flag on the aircraft tail is the symbol of hope to those in deep despair from whatever the source of oppression.”