Gail Halvorsen, the Utah farm boy who became a hero in post-World War II Europe for fastening candy to handkerchiefs and dropping them from his U.S. Air Force cargo plane to the children of West Berlin, earning him the nickname the “Berlin Candy Bomber,” has died.
He was 101.
After a brief illness, Halvorsen “passed away peacefully … surrounded by most of his children” on Wednesday night at Utah Valley Hospital, according to the Gail S. Halvorsen Aviation Education Foundation. Funeral arrangements are pending.
The German Embassy to the United States tweeted, “RIP Colonel Gail Halvorsen. … Thank you for your kindness, Colonel.”
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox tweeted that Halvorsen “is a hero to so many. His courage and compassion in the most difficult of times have inspired generations and remind us all that kindness and goodness can win.” Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson tweeted that Halvorsen “spent his life spreading kindness. We’ll never forget his service or the joy he brought to people around the world.”
Latter-day Saint apostle Dieter Uchtdorf, a former German national and pilot in that country’s air force, posted on Facebook that Halvorsen “lived an exemplary life of goodness and represented the gospel and the Church of Jesus Christ worldwide in a very unique and authentic way. Harriet and I will miss him but look forward to seeing him again.... Godspeed, my dear friend.”
Twice a refugee, the 81-year-old Uchtdorf was born Nov. 6, 1940, in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia. Later, in 1952, he and his family fled then-East Germany for West Germany.
The members of Utah’s congressional delegation also offered tributes. Sen. Mitt Romney tweeted that Halvorsen “epitomized the defining characteristics of the Greatest Generation.” Sen. Mike said, “Few Utahns have exemplified the spirit of humanity, compassion and community quite like Col. Gail Halvorsen.”
Rep. Blake Moore called him “a true American hero” who “showed the best of what we as humans can give to each other — kindness.” Rep. Burgess Owens tweeted that Halvorsen “is a true American hero who gave hope to millions and exemplified the very best of Utah.” And Rep. Chris Stewart said that “tin the world’s darkest hour, he inspired kindness and hope.”
Halvorsen, who was largely reared in the northern Utah community of Garland, never fired a weapon or dropped a bomb in combat. He was a cargo pilot who became a new kind of American hero in the early days of the Cold War.
In 1948, Halvorsen’s goodwill gesture provided a sharp contrast to the Soviets, who were starving the people of West Berlin by blockading ground and canal access.
“The Candy Bomber gave us hope that we would see better times,” Karin Edmond, who was a child in West Berlin during the blockade, told The Outer Banks Sentinel in 2014.
Edmond later immigrated to the United States, and since 1999 has been the chief organizer of a reenactment in which an airplane drops candy to children in Manteo, N.C.
Reenactments helped spread Halvorsen’s story across continents and generations. He participated in one reenactment above Salt Lake City in 1949; in another 50 years later, Halvorsen dropped candy from an airplane to the children of a war-battered Kosovo.
Halvorsen, who continued wearing his olive uniform and aviator wings decades after retirement, enjoyed particular celebrity in Utah, where his humanitarian exploits were entwined with his status as one of the world’s best-known Latter-day Saints.
He appeared in a 2012 Christmas program with The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. In his mid-90s, Halvorsen flew an airplane in “Meet the Mormons,” a film produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
There were secular appearances, too. Halvorsen attended naturalization ceremonies. He spoke in Utah schools about how — using his story as an example — the students could make a difference in the lives of others.
Halvorsen’s original feat happened not long after he flew from Frankfurt into West Berlin for the first time on July 12, 1948. He was a 27-year-old first lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force and piloted a C-54 carrying up to 10 tons of flour.
After multiple, similar runs to West Berlin, Halvorsen decided to drop candy to the children who watched the airplanes behind a wire fence outside the airstrip. He told the children he would signal his arrival. He would “wiggle the wings”on his C-54 — just like he used to do in smaller planes to signal his parents on the ground in Garland.
In his autobiography, “The Berlin Candy Bomber,” Halvorsen described that first delivery the same way a bomber pilot might. He was worried the packages would overshoot the target — the children — and land on a roof or on the wrong side of the fence.
Halvorsen also worried about being spotted by an enemy — anyone who could write down his plane’s tail number. Air Force regulations required authorization to drop anything out of an airplane, but Halvorsen had not asked his superiors for permission.
When the children were in sight, Halvorsen ordered an airman to push the packages out of the flare chute.
It wasn’t until Halvorsen and his crew took off again they realized they had been successful. They saw children holding three handkerchiefs in their hands and waving them through the fence.
Still worried what his superiors would say, Halvorsen remarked, “Wish they wouldn’t wave like that.” Then he waved back at the children through his cockpit window.
Halvorsen and his crew dropped more candy a week later when they could resupply at the commissary in Frankfurt. They dropped another load to the children the next week.
In August, after the third drop, a German newspaper published a story about children standing in West Berlin waiting for candy to fall from the sky. Rather than discipline Halvorsen, the military promoted the story.
Halvorsen appeared beside a general at a news conference in Frankfurt. The Air Force dubbed the candy drops “Operation Little Vittles.”
Secretaries were assigned to reply to all the mail arriving at the base for “Uncle Wackelflugel,” which is German for “Uncle Wiggly Wings.” (Decades later, “WigglyWings” became the local part of Halvorsen’s email address.)
American candy companies donated 23 tons of their products. The Air Force requisitioned silk and canvas to fashion as chutes to slow the candies’ descent.
Some children writing to “Uncle Wackelflugel” asked that he drop candy where they lived and included descriptions of their bomb-damaged homes.
By September 1948, the story had spread to the states. The Air Force sent Halvorsen to New York, where he gave interviews to the major broadcasters, magazines and newspapers of the day.
“‘Operation Little Vittles’ have become a symbol of American generosity and goodwill,” read a Jan. 23, 1949, Salt Lake Tribune article, “and to tall, shy, personable First Lt. Gail S. Halvorsen, Rhein-Maln airlift pilot from Garland, Utah, goes all credit for the story that has warmed the hearts of two continents.”
The story of Halvorsen, who retired from the Air Force in 1974 with the rank of colonel, has resonated in Germany and the United States ever since. Both countries bestowed him with medals and honors. He met President Harry Truman and every U.S. commander in chief from George H. W. Bush to Barack Obama, as well as multiple German chancellors.
Halvorsen was on hand in 2013, when Obama gave a speech at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. The American president acknowledged Halvorsen and referenced his candy drops.
“We could not be prouder of him,” Obama said. “I hope I look that good, by the way, when I’m 92.”
Beet fields to airfields
Gail Seymour Halvorsen was born Oct. 10, 1920, in Salt Lake City. He was the second of three children to Basil and Luella Halvorsen. Basil Halvorsen worked on farms and ranches — his own and others — in Utah and Idaho, and his children worked beside him.
As a teenager, Halvorsen thinned sugar beet fields on his family’s farm outside of Garland for up to 10 hours a day. The farm was on the flight path between Salt Lake City and an airport in Malad, Idaho. Halvorsen would find himself looking up as the aircrafts of the 1930s flew above him, imagining he was soaring through the clouds with his hands on the controls.
An episode in the summer of 1939 solidified his resolve to become a pilot. In his autobiography, Halvorsen wrote that he was hoeing weeds when he heard a biplane approaching from the west.
It was flying as low as the treetops and pulled up as it reached Halvorsen. The pilot turned out to be a neighbor who had learned to fly and wanted to play a prank on the 18-year-old Halvorsen.
“Too soon it was a tiny speck and then gone,” Halvorsen wrote of the biplane. “I just had to learn to fly!”
The next year, the federal government expanded programs to train private pilots. Halvorsen was accepted to a training program at the airport in Brigham City and learned to fly a 65-horsepower Piper Cub. He received his pilot license Sept. 1, 1941.
He decided to apply for the Army Air Corps after seeing a note in The Garland Times saying the corps would be testing aviation candidates at Utah State University. He passed the exams and was sworn in May 17, 1942.
The British Royal Air Force was training fighter pilots in Miami, Okla., and Halvorsen volunteered to train with it. When the assignment was completed, Halvorsen assumed he would be deployed overseas and serve in the cockpit of a fighter.
Instead, the Air Corps decided to turn him into a cargo pilot. Halvorsen spent what was left of World War II flying routes from Natal, Brazil. The Air Corps became the Air Force in 1947.
Becoming the ‘Candy Bomber’
Like many Americans, Halvorsen had lost someone close to him during the war. A friend from Bear River High School, Flight Officer Conrad Steffen, died in a P-47 above Germany in 1945. Halvorsen had taught Steffen to fly.
Yet as the Berlin airlift was beginning, Halvorsen put aside hard feelings and volunteered to fly the deliveries to the Germans.
“We knew it wasn’t the fault of women and children,” Halvorsen said in a 2014 interview with The Tribune. “It wasn’t the fault of most of the Germans.”
Halvorsen’s transition to becoming “The Berlin Candy Bomber” began with curiosity. On his first approach into West Berlin and again as he taxied to return to Frankfurt, Halvorsen noticed children standing outside barbed wire that surrounded the airfield.
Later that month, between another landing and departure, Halvorsen walked over to a group of about 30 children — none older than 14. The older ones could speak English well enough for a conversation.
According to his autobiography, the children asked Halvorsen questions like, “How many bags of flour can your airplane hold?”
But none ever asked Halvorsen for candy — something that was a frequent request when he had been stationed in other countries. When Halvorsen realized the children’s polite omission, he reached into a pocket and found two sticks of Wrigley’s Doublemint gum.
At first, he was worried that with so little gum, he would only start a fight among the 30 kids, and Halvorsen began walking back to his airplane. He thought again, turned back to the fence, halved each piece and gave gum to four boys who had been his translators.
There was no fighting, though the other children starred at their peers in amazement. Some asked to hold the wrappers.
Then another C-54 flew overhead and landed.
“That plane gave me a sudden flash of inspiration,” Halvorsen wrote in his autobiography. “Why not drop some gum and even chocolate to these kids out of our airplane the next daylight trip to Berlin?
“... To my own astonishment and dismay I found myself in the next moment announcing the plan for all to hear.”
Halvorsen told the children to come back the next day.
Halvorsen knew if he asked his superiors for permission, it would take the Air Force days or weeks to send the request up the chain of command. So he proceeded without informing them.
Utah welcomes a hero
While the Air Force’s decision to push “The Candy Bomber” story might today be viewed as a public relations campaign, Halvorsen said he never felt it was being used as propaganda. He said the instructions he received from the Air Force was to tell reporters what the Berlin airlift — with nighttime landings in bad weather aboard loaded planes and frequent harassment from Soviet aircraft and radar stations sending false signals — was like.
“The pressure came from the press,” Halvorsen explained of his 1948 media tours. He said American reporters were telling the U.S. military, “‘We want someone here flying the airlift so we can tell people what it’s like.’”
Halvorsen returned to the Berlin airlift for a few more weeks. By the time he was transferred to the states in January 1949, he and other aircrews had dropped an estimated 20 tons of candy to West Berlin. More candy was distributed by American personnel on the ground.
The next month, Halvorsen received a grand homecoming in Utah. Garland threw a two-day celebration. Halvorsen also reenacted the candy drop over Salt Lake City and Ogden. Gov. J. Bracken Lee picked up Halvorsen at the airport after the air drop.
Halvorsen took a leave from the Air Force long enough to marry Alta Jolley on April 16, 1949, in Las Vegas. The couple had met seven years earlier when they were both attending Utah State University.
She died in 1999. Halvorsen later married Lorraine Pace, whom he had dated in 1939.
Pace survives him, as do five children from his first marriage: sons Brad, Robert and Mike Halvorsen; and daughters Denise Halvorsen Williams and Marilyn Halvorsen Sorensen.
Halvorsen’s brother, Sherman, died from pneumonia at age 19. A sister, Marilyn Halvorsen, died in 1975.
Kept German ties
After the airlift, Halvorsen remained in the Air Force. He worked on the research and development of aircraft and space programs. Then, in 1970, the Air Force sent Halvorsen back to Berlin.
He was commander of Tempelhof Air Base and the Air Force’s official representative to West Germany. Adults who were children during the airlift would stop Halvorsen on the street and tell him about the joy they experienced catching a parachute fastened to a chocolate bar.
Halvorsen left Germany and the Air Force in 1974. After the military, Halvorsen moved his family to Utah County. Halvorsen was the assistant dean of student life at Brigham Young University from 1976 to 1986.
Halvorsen continued associations with Germany. He helped coordinate an exchange program between high school students from Germany and Provo.
In 1985, the elementary school at Rhein-Main Air Base near Frankfurt, Germany, was named for Halvorsen. His son Brad joined the Air Force, too, and three of Halvorsen’s grandchildren would go on to attend the school.
In 2001, the Air Force commemorated Halvorsen by introducing the Halvorsen Loader, a mechanical lift that raises cargo to airplane bay doors.
Halvorsen carried the placard for the German delegation’s entrance into Rice-Eccles Stadium during the Opening and Closing ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Although Halvorsen was recognized as the hero of the Berlin airlift, he gave credit to the people who inspired the candy bombings — those children who were too polite and grateful to ask for candy in the first place.
“This operation never would have happened,” Halvorsen said, “without the gratitude of children, ages 9 to 14.”
— Tribune reporter Scott D. Pierce contributed to this story.