Friday, March 16, 2012

TOP STORY >> Candy Bomber visits air base

Leader staff writer

Retired Col. Gail Halvorsen, the legendary Candy Bomber, was at Little Rock Air Force Base on Friday in recognition of the 314th Airlift Wing’s 70th year supporting combat airlift missions.

The wing has been at LRAFB since 1971.

“We have a hero among us. We could not be more proud that you are here,” Col. Mark Czelusta, commander of the 314th Airlift Wing, said about Halvorsen.

Halvorsen, 91, became known as the Candy Bomber of the Berlin Airlift after the Soviets blockaded West Berlin from June 1948 until May 1949.

Czelusta said the day was humbling as the 314th recognized 70 years of excellence. The wing has always been a part of airlift missions.

The idea to drop candy came to Halvorsen after he met some children standing outside a fence at Tempelhof airfield in the American sector of West Berlin in July 1948 during Operation Vittles, which airlifted thousands of tons of food into the city. One of the children asked Halvorsen for chocolate. The kids hadn’t had any candy for several months.

Halvorsen gave the youngsters two sticks of gum, which they shared. The next day, he combined the candy rations of his crew. Halvorsen made little parachutes of handkerchiefs and and string, tied the candy in them and dropped them from his C-54 transport plane.

Word quickly spread about the candy drop and more children gathered by the airfield. Halvorsen said the children did not beg for the candy — they were grateful.

Soon the German youngsters would call Halvorsen “Uncle Wiggle Wings” as he wiggled the wings of his plane to let the children know he was going to drop his cargo of sweet treats.

“He touched the heart of an entire continent during a dark time in history,” Czelusta said.

Over the next 11 months, the airmen dropped 250,000 parachutes and 23 tons of candy. Candy companies in the U.S. donated tons of chocolate to support the effort.

Cargo planes made their drops every 90 seconds delivering food and supplies. The Soviets were shocked to see that the U.S. could feed thousands of hungry Berliners from the air.

The Soviets ended the blockade in May 1949, after the Americans airlifted thousands of tons of food and supplies into West Berlin.

Halvorsen, a native of Salt Lake City, earned his pilot’s license in September 1941. He flew in the Civil Air Patrol and the Army Air Corps.

He finished military flight training as a fighter pilot. He was transferred back to the Army Air Corps when transport pilots were needed to fly cargo planes during the Second World War.

He flew many planes, including the C-47 and the C-54. The colonel stayed with the Air Force for 31 years until retiring in 1974.

Halvorsen was named the commander of Templehof Air Base in the 1970s. In the 1980s, he and his wife Alta went to the Soviet Union as Mormon missionaries.

He said when he visits air shows in the U.S. and Europe, people come up to him with letters and the parachutes they caught when they were children.

“The connection is still alive today as it was then,” Halvorsen said.

He saluted the civilian population that supports LRAFB.

The Air Force award for outstanding air transportation support in logistics readiness is named the Col. Gail Halvorsen Award.