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Berlin Airlift candy bomber dies;  Gail Halvorsen was 101 years old

The cause was sudden respiratory failure, her daughter Denise Halvorsen Williams said.

Mr Halvorsen, who retired as a colonel after a three-decade career in the Air Force, was a 27-year-old lieutenant when he embarked on the mission that will earn him adoration of thousands of children in Berlin and the gratitude of two countries, Germany and the United States, for his role in healing the wounds of World War II.

After the war, the defeated state of Germany was divided into areas administered by the victorious Allies. The American, British and French sectors combined to form West Germany. The Soviet sector became East Germany. Within East Germany was the city of Berlin, which was also divided into two sections, east and west, eventually separated by the wall which came to represent the iron curtain that had fallen across Europe .

From June 1948 to May 1949, in one of the first major clashes of the Cold War, Moscow blockaded West Berlin, blocking rail and road access to this part of the city. More than 2 million West Berliners, deprived of food, fuel, medical supplies and other necessities, faced starvation.

The Berlin Airlift, one of the most massive humanitarian aid missions ever undertaken, circumvented the Soviet blockade by delivering goods to West Berlin by air. More than 278,000 flights to Berlin – including 190 by Mr. Halvorsen, the Washington Post reported in 1998 – delivered more than 2 million tons of supplies to the city in 15 months. Casualty tallies vary, but at least 70 American and British air carriers were killed during the operation, which was carried out day and night in often dangerous conditions, with planes sometimes landing every three minutes.

Mr. Halvorsen, who had been fascinated with flying since growing up on his family’s farms in Idaho and Utah, volunteered to fly in the airlift. He was making a delivery at Tempelhof Airfield in West Berlin in July 1948 when he encountered a group of 30 children on the other side of a barbed wire divide.

“I saw right away that they had nothing and they were hungry,” he told the Post decades later. “So I reached into my pocket and pulled out everything I had: two pieces of gum.” The chewing gum was only enough for four children, but even the scent of the wrappers delighted the others.

In a promise that sounded like a fairy tale, Mr Halvorsen promised the children that he would come back the next day and drop chocolate and other goodies from the sky. They would recognize his plane among the many others buzzing around the city, he told them, because he flapped his wings.

The explanation “took a bit of translation,” Mr. Halvorsen, who became known to children as Uncle Wiggly Wings, recalled years later to NBC News. “But then they said, ‘Jawohl! Jawohl! »

Mr. Halvorsen returned to his base, collected candy rations from fellow airmen and tied them to handkerchiefs. “A jubilant celebration” followed the next day, he recalls, when the miniature parachutes floated to earth.

Mr. Halvorsen continued to make sweets, attracting more and more children, until a German journalist took notice and published an article about his escapades. Mr. Halvorsen had not consulted his superiors about his sweet missions, believing that bureaucratic red tape would do little to improve the lot of Berlin’s children.

Informed of Mr. Halvorsen’s actions, a commander dressed him, warning him that the pilots were not to carry out unauthorized drops. A court-martial seemed to be on the table. But then the officer told him to continue. It was a “good idea”, recalled Mr. Halvorsen, the officer having said, an idea that cultivated enormous goodwill in Germany.

“You have to remember these were 5, 6, 7, 8 year old kids who had never tasted candy before, never tasted chocolate,” Mr. Halvorsen told NPR in 2008. “Their only experience with America at that age was the country that had bombed them in World War II, in many cases killed many of their loved ones, and then occupied them in a rather harsh occupation in the years that followed. , here fell from the sky, literally, this Hershey bar or this Wrigley chewing gum.

Mr. Halvorsen’s private project became an official mission dubbed Operation Little Vittles. (The Berlin airlift as a whole was known among U.S. forces as Operation Vittles.) U.S. confectioners donated tons of candy for the effort, which quickly made headlines and cheers from each side of the Atlantic. By the end of the airlift, the pilots had dropped 23 tons of candy over West Berlin.

For the kids who received them, these candies held together, which meant no small crumpled candy wrappers could fit.

“There was no food or drinking water in Berlin; we were starved to death,” Ingrid Azvedo, one of Mr. Halvorsen’s good deeds recipients, told The Post in 2020. “Then along came this tall, skinny pilot, who reached into his pocket to give us all what he had. A kindness like that stays with you all your life.

Gail Seymour Halvorsen was born in Salt Lake City on October 10, 1920, the son of sugar beet farmers.

He received a scholarship to obtain a private pilot’s license in the fall of 1941, shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that precipitated the United States’ entry into World War II. He joined the Civil Air Patrol, the official auxiliary of what would become the Air Force, then the Army Air Forces, serving during the war as a transport pilot in the South Atlantic.

After World War II, Mr. Halvorsen enrolled at the University of Florida, where he received a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering in 1951 and a master’s degree in engineering in 1952. He worked during his career in the Army of the Air Force as an engineer in the space program and returned to Tempelhof Air Base as commander.

After his military retirement, he worked at Brigham Young University in Provo as Dean of Student Life.

Mr Halvorsen’s first wife, the former Alta Jolley, died in 1999 after nearly 50 years of marriage.

Survivors include his wife of 22 years, Lorraine Pace Halvorsen of Green Valley, Arizona; five children from his first marriage, Brad Halvorsen of Draper, Utah, Denise Halvorsen Williams of Provo, Marilyn Halvorsen Sorensen of Orem, Utah, Bob Halvorsen of Midway, Utah and Mike Halvorsen of Concord, NC; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Mr. Halvorsen’s story was documented in the book “The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America’s Finest Hour” (2008) by Andrei Cherny. Mr. Halvorsen then wrote a memoir with his daughter Denise, published in 2017.

A ‘candy bomber’ to the hilt, Mr Halvorsen took part in a flight that dropped candy over the war-torn Balkan territory of Kosovo in the late 1990s. During a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, he co-piloted a plane that rained more candy on the now unified city.

He was overwhelmed with emotion, all these years later, as he thought back and reflected on what candy must have meant to children on the pitch in 1948 and 1949.

“You were walking in the fog, and through the clouds came a little parachute with a piece of fresh chocolate,” he told the Post. “It was a symbol of hope that someone there realized you were under siege. … I think hope is the thing, not the candy bar. It was hope.”

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