The airlift began after the Soviet Union cut off Allied Powers land access to West Berlin, located deep in Soviet-controlled East Germany, in June 1948. Berlin residents West were facing near starvation and an impending winter without fuel.
The airlift, which lasted 15 months, claimed the lives of 31 American airmen and 39 British airmen in accidents, but it thwarted Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s attempts to drive the West out of the city. By the time it ended in September 1949 (the Soviet blockade had been lifted the previous May), Allied pilots had flown over 277,000 missions, sometimes buzzed by Soviet fighters, to supply the western sectors of the city with 2, 3 million tons of food, flour, coal, medicine and building materials.
Lt. Halvorsen, a native of Utah, flew 126 airlift missions in Berlin, joined by his co-pilot, Capt. John Pickering, and navigator, Sgt. Herschel Elkins.
When early news reports about the candy drops identified Lt. Halvorsen as the source of the candy, he was summoned by Major General William H. Tunner, the airlift commander. He feared being court-martialed because Air Force regulations prohibited any deviation from air transport procedures.
But General Tunner was impressed with the good feelings Lt. Halvorsen had elicited for the United States just a few years after his bombers had left Germany in ruins. He encouraged the drops of candy, Douglas C-47s and later more advanced C-54 transport aircraft, in what Lt. Halvorsen called Operation Little Vittles.
In September 1948, the Air Force returned Lt. Halvorsen to the United States to publicize his efforts, and he appeared on the CBS television show “We the People.” American candy makers began donating candies and schoolchildren volunteered to wrap them in mock parachutes, made from handkerchiefs and string, to ship them to Allied-occupied West Germany .
At least two dozen pilots from Lt. Halvorsen’s squadron were among those who took part in the candy drops. They all became known as Candy Bombers.