It was the summer of 1948. Every week, thousands of youngsters scattered across Berlin would scour the skies for a particular American plane. This plane held hope—under the guise of chocolate bars.
In the final months of World War II in 1945, Germany had perished under the allied air attacks. 35,000 civilians were killed in Berlin alone. Three years later, the city was still war-torn. Germany was locked in a land battle between the Soviets (now Russians) and the Western Allies (the British, Americans, and French).
Although the Allies owned West Berlin, the entire city was deep in the Soviet zone. Exerting their power, the Soviets cut off land and water transportation to West Berlin. Air transportation became the only way for the Allies to deliver necessities. Millions were left hungry and homeless.
But the Allies adapted quickly. Instead of bombers, Air Force cargo planes now flew in to save the citizens. Pilots delivered milk, meat, flour, potatoes, medicine, and coal. One day, one of these pilots decided to take a Jeep tour of the beleaguered city. He was Lieutenant Gail S. Halvorsen, an ordinary man from Utah.
As Lt. Halvorsen waited at the Tempelhof air runway, he noticed a group of young children observing him behind a wire fence. When he approached, they bombarded him with questions. He came to realize that they did not care so much about food—they’d heard stories about their relatives in East Berlin, who were under the tight control of the Soviets. They were confiscating property, suppressing their freedom, and even forcing some to relocate to the Soviet Union. These children were only concerned about whether the Western Allies were going to continue siding with West Berlin. They were worried about rations, of course, but more about losing their freedom.
The lieutenant felt a pang of empathy. He reached into his pocket and pulled out two strips of Wrigley’s Doublemint gum and broke each into half. He realized his mistake, and braced himself for the quarreling—but to his amazement, there was none. Instead, the thirty children ripped up the wrapper, passing the pieces around to take in the sugary scent. Suddenly, he inspired his best idea yet. Excitedly, he told his plan to the sugar-deprived children. The next day, he would drop chocolate and gum from his C-54. He would wiggle his wings before the drop so they could recognize him amongst the herd of cargo planes.
The first drop only contained three bundles of candy. They were tied in handkerchiefs to form parachutes. Candy was like currency in Germany, but the idea was so good that he convinced his fellow soldiers to donate their rations for later drops. As word spread across the country, donations increased. The Lieutenant returned to his dorm to find his bed covered in gum, candy, and hankies for parachutes. He became known as Uncle Wiggly-Wings, the Candy Bomber, or Chocolate Flier.
In two weeks, a reporter had named the drops ‘Operation Little Vittles’. Lt. Halvorsen expected to be fired by his commanding officer—he had no idea it would get so much publicity. The Colonel congratulated him and told Lt. Halvorsen to keep him updated.
One supply officer donated a bundle of silk parachutes. Each had a message, asking people to return them. But fabric was scarce, so the operators expected never to see them after the drop. To their astonishment, people mailed them back the very next day, along with thank-you letters.
Every drop now had hundreds, even thousands of parachutes. Mountains of mail piled up. One letter was from the doctors of West Berlin’s polio hospital. They said the children were more excited than ever, and wanted to be included in the fun. The doctors promised to catch the parachutes if he went out of his path a little bit. Instead, Lt. Halvorsen took a giant case of chocolate and Paris brand bubble gum and visited the patients in person.
Soon, large candy companies all over the world jumped on the operation and sent shipments of their candy. A fire station in Massachusetts was turned into the Center for Operation Little Vittles. This mission lasted until September 1949, when the Berlin airlift ended. Over 23 tons of candy were dropped over Berlin.
Today, Gail Halvorsen is a retired Colonel. He turns 100 in October 2020, and enjoys eating dark chocolate. The children of Berlin will never forget his legacy—he brought hope and happiness to millions.
Anya Baphna is a 10th grader at the Symbiosis International School, Pune. She is the editor of her school newspaper. She wrote this article for the newspaper.
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