THE CANDY BOMBER
Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, his parents were Luella and Basil, a farmer.
He grew up on sugar beet farms in both Idaho and Utah. After leaving school Gail briefly attended Utah State University. His friends always knew him as ‘Hal’.
But by this time, he had already discovered a love of flying. He said, “Living on the farm, I grew up with my face in the dirt all the time. I watched planes and I wished ‘I could be up there with them.”
He gained his private pilot’s license and then dropped out of university to join the Civil Air Patrol.
The first time his parents came to watch him fly (1941), he made sure to wiggle the wings of the plane, so they knew it was him.
In May 1942, soon after the USA had entered the Second World War, Gail joined the US Army Air Force. He was sent for training to Miami, Oklahoma, where he flew alongside RAF trainees.
When he qualified as a military pilot he was sent to the South Atlantic for transport duties, flying planes to England, Italy and North Africa.
Just before he went, he met his girlfriend Alta Jolley at home in Utah.
After the war he was based in Mobile, Alabama. In 1948, he was told he was going abroad – he had one hour to pack. He took with him a large pack of handkerchiefs as he had a severe cold. He left his Chevvy under a tree at the base, anticipating a quick return. He never saw the Chevvy again.
He was sent to Berlin to participate in ‘Operation Vittles’, better known as the Berlin Airlift. The Soviet Union had blockaded western Berlin, an enclave in communist eastern Europe, in the hope of starving it into submission.
Gail flew one of the cargo planes supplying food to the starving city. But once he had dropped his delivery, he often broke rules by flying further east, over Soviet controlled territory, just to see what it looked like.
He was a keen photographer and on his days off would wander around West Berlin with his camera, taking pictures of a city under siege.
One day he was photographing planes at Templehof Airport, which was in the American sector of West Berlin when he saw about 30 bedraggled children behind the airport perimeter barbed wire.
He went over for a chat and quickly realised how poor they were. He was worried about how they would cope with the forthcoming winter with little food and torn clothing. They were very upbeat, telling him they would survive. One of them told him they would rather starve than lose their freedom to the Soviets.
Very impressed by them he felt in his pockets to give them something but found he had only two sticks of chewing gum. He gave the gum to them, and they divided it up so nearly everybody got a tiny piece. The few without, sniffed the wrapper.
He remembered the response of the children – “The expression of pleasure was unmeasurable.”
He told them he was flying tomorrow and would drop them some more gum. “How will we know it’s your plane?”, one of them said. He promised to wiggle his wings.
He later said he was particularly struck by the politeness of the children.
Gail, his co-pilot and his engineer pooled their candy rations. They were so heavy that he was afraid he might hurt one of them when he dropped them so he made mini-parachutes out of handkerchiefs – and the drop took place successfully.
It became a regular thing – once a week. And he noticed the amount of children waiting grew very quickly.
His camp commander, Lt. General William Turner heard about Gail’s project. He was told it was against USAF policy and he was given a severe dressing down and was even threatened with court martial.
But the story was out and into the German and American press – and was very popular with the public.
So General Turner, realising the propaganda value, decided to make it official policy, launching ‘Little Vittles’ on the 22nd of September 1948 (although Gail had already been dropping candy for over 3 weeks). It was originally just Gail and his squadron but soon spread to other units. They got lots of publicity, and word spread back home in the USA.
Tons of candy (and handkerchiefs) were donated, but there was no proper organisation. So, a student, Mary C. Commons of Chicopee, Massachusetts took over the organisation. She worked with the National Confectioner’s Association to ensure all children in the Berlin Blockade had sweets. Children in Berlin would send them letters (and drawings) of thanks. They called the Americans ‘Rosinenbomber’ (Raisin Bombers).
His own former air base in Mobile got involved too. The commander of the base confiscated every handkerchief to send to Berlin.
Gail himself had various nicknames. ‘The Candy Bomber’ was most used but he was also known as ‘Uncle Wiggly Wings’ and the ‘Chocolate Uncle’.
The blockade, and consequently the airlift, finished on the 13th of May 1949 (323 days), but by then Gail was already back home in the USA. He had completed his tour of duty in January of that year and had handed the project over to his friend Captain Lawrence Caskey.
The Berlin Airlift has been called one of the largest humanitarian missions in history. There were 278,000 flights, day and night for many months, which dropped over 2 million tons of supplies. And it was not without casualties. 70 British and American airmen were killed during the mission. Gail himself flew 190 times during the airlift.
As soon as he got home, he married Alta in Las Vegas. They would go on to have 5 children.
In the USA he immediately visited Chicopee, which had supplied 18 tons of sweets. There, he spoke to local school children. He also visited the biggest individual donor, Dorothy Groeger, who was housebound.
In total, Little Vittles dropped 23 tons of sweets using 250,000 handkerchief parachutes.
Gail considered leaving the air force but was offered a commission with full pay and a chance to extend his education. He got both a BA and MA in Aeronautical Engineering from the University of Florida. He then became a Project Engineer for research on cargo aircraft, working with the Air Force and various private companies.
From there he was sent firstly to Air Command, then to Staff College in Alabama as a tutor.
Then, in 1958 he was sent to California to be involved with researching and developing space projects.
From there it was to Wiesbaden in West Germany between 1962 and1965, before being promoted to become Deputy Chief of Staff for Research and Development at the USAF Headquarters at the Pentagon (as well as working for the Directorate of Space and Technology). But his promotions just kept coming, being heavily involved in satellite and orbital technology.
His family were constantly on the move, his children regularly changing schools.
In 1970 he became Commander of the 735th Air Base Group based at Tempelhof – the very airport where he met those children all those years ago. He was by now, the US Air Force European Representative, based in Berlin but attending meetings across the continent.
Whilst doing all of this, for his own interest, he took another MA in Guidance and Counselling.
His final job was as an Inspector General, back in his native Utah. He retired in 1974 having completed 8,000 flying hours and 31 years in the US Air Force. He retired as a Colonel.
Gail and Alta retired to the city of Provo in Utah. They both became very active in the Mormon Church (Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints).
In 1976 Gail became Assistant Dean of Student Life at Brigham Young university, a job he held for 10 years.
When he retired from that, Gail and Alta went on Mormon Missionary work for a year to London, and later on for two years in St. Petersburg.
In 1988, at the 40th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, he attended and flew in another ‘drop’. 40,000 people attended. He met many of those children he had helped out – and their children and grandchildren. One of the children from 1948 told him, “It wasn’t just chocolate. It was hope!”
But Gail was adamant that the candy drops should not just happen in peace time. He organised one over Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1994 and Kosovo in 1999.
Alta died in 1999. By then the couple had 24 grandchildren. That was the year he flew his last Candy Drop.
In 2002, at the Winter Olympics held in Salt Lake City, Gail carried the German placard in the opening ceremony.
In 2003-04, he organised (but didn’t fly in) a Candy Drop over Baghdad. As well as sweets they dropped toys, teddy bears and footballs. It was to give, “a ray of hope, a symbol that somebody in America cares.”
In 2004, Gail got married again, to his high school sweetheart Lorraine Pace, who lived in Green Valley, Arizona. They moved to a farm in Spanish Fork, Utah, but spent the winters back in Arizona.
He won many awards. The most important was the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award that can be given to an American civilian.
He was also inaugurated into the Airlift / Tanker Hall of Fame and the Utah Aviation Hall of Fame.
He toured Germany extensively, visiting German schools and appearing on TV.
In 2008 he was the Guest of Honour at the German – American Steuben Parade in New York City. He was cheered by tens of thousands of people as he was made a Grand Marshal.
There is a school in Germany named after him.
In 2012, Brigham Young University made a short film about him, ‘The Candy Bomber’, which they soon developed into a full feature film.
That same year he was thrilled that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas Concert was a tribute to him, entitled ‘Christmas from Heaven’.
He wrote an autobiography entitled ‘The Berlin Candy Bomber’. In it, he gave his justification for beginning the Candy drop – “I saw right away they had nothing and they were hungry.”
Asked why he had done the Candy Drop, Gail said, “The only experience these Germans had of Americans was being bombed by them in the Second World War.”
Asked about his legacy he said, “The wounds of war were healed, and enemies became friends.”
In 2021 he fell seriously ill with Covid but recovered.
He died in 2022 and was buried in Provo, with full military honours.
The USAF named its next generation 25,000lb capacity aircraft loading vehicle after him and also introduced the Gail Halvorsen Award for, “Outstanding air transportation in the logistics readiness career field.”
Ingrid Azvedo, one of the original Berlin children said of Gail, “There was no food or clean water in Berlin. We were starving to death…Then along came this tall and skinny pilot, who reached into his pocket to give us all that he had. A kindness like that stays with you a lifetime.”
The Governor of Utah, Spencer J. Cox said, “101 years of pure joy and bringing joy to others. Thank you for your service, Colonel Halvorsen.”
RIP – Refreshers (and Rolos) In Parachutes