A Hero Named Halvorsen

I have an acquaintance, Karin, who emigrated to San Diego from Germany in the 1970s.  She was born in Berlin during World War II – not a good place to be. 

According to my research, during the war Berlin, the capital of Nazi Germany, was attacked with 363 air raids – by Great Britain, the U.S., France and the Soviets:

Berlin, post World War II.

Among the memories Karin has shared with me is one from after the war ended in 1945:  of U.S. planes flying over West Berlin and dropping candy, the first candy ever tasted by many Berlin children.

A sweet memory out of so many bad.

Her story came to mind when I read this article:

After World War II, Gail Halvorsen became known as the “Candy Bomber,” and he may even have been the pilot who dropped the candy that Karin had savored and still remembered.

Halvorsen (pictured) was part of a huge post-war effort:  the Berlin Airlift. It began in June 1948 with planes from the U.S. and Great Britain making nearly 300,000 flights to bring supplies to the more than two million starving people in West Berlin. 

World War II had officially ended in 1945, so why the need for the Berlin Airlift in 1948?

I’d heard of the Berlin Airlift and wondered about it, and now it was time to go for some semblance of understanding.  I went to many websites, crosschecking information, and here’s how I’ve summed it up for myself.

Caveat:  For my own understanding, I’ve simplified.  This is no more than the bare bones of a very complex chapter in our history.

The Berlin Airlift Began with an End – the End of World War II

It’s hard to believe – especially in these current times – that the Soviet Union was the ally of the U.S. and Great Britain during World War II.

It didn’t start out that way.  In August 1939, shortly before the war broke out in Europe, Nazi Germany (led by Adolph Hitler) and the Soviet Union (led by Joseph Stalin) signed the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, in which the two countries agreed to take no military action against each other for the next 10 years.

Stalin, left, and Hitler.

Then, in June 1941, Nazi forces invaded the Soviet Union, and the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact fell apart.

The Soviet Union became a U.S. ally, and the three great Allied powers – Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union – formed a Grand Alliance that was the key to victory.

But when it came to Stalin, no one ever confused “ally” with “friend.”

Despite their wartime alliance, tensions between the Soviet Union, and the United States/Great Britain, intensified rapidly as the war came to a close and the leaders discussed what to do with Germany.  Post-war negotiations took place at two conferences in 1945, one before the official end of the war, and one after.  These conferences set the stage for the beginning of the Cold War and a divided Europe.

The first conference was in February 1945 Yalta, Crimea.  Though the war hadn’t ended, the Allies were confident of a victory, and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Stalin met to discuss the reorganization of post-WWII Europe:  

Front row, left to right: Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin.

A number of outcomes emerged from the conference, and the one I’m focused on is this:

Unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany, the division of Germany and Berlin into four occupational zones controlled by the United states, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union.

Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945, ending the war in Europe.

The second conference was in July 1945 in Potsdam, Germany.  There was a change in the conference participants:  Roosevelt had died in April, so his successor, President Harry Truman, represented the United States.  Churchill returned to represent Great Britain, but his government was defeated midway through the conference and newly elected Prime Minister Clement Attlee took over.  Stalin returned as well:

Front row, left to right: Attlee, Truman, and Stalin.

Here are the two outcomes I’m focused on:

The decentralization, demilitarization, denazification and democratization of Germany.

The division of Germany and Berlin, and Austria and Vienna into the four occupations zones outlined at the Yalta Conference.

So the Allies divided Germany into occupational zones controlled by the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union:

Here’s one of the many problems:

Berlin, the capital of Germany, was located in the Soviet Zone.

So the powers also divided Berlin into four zones:

And there we have post-war Germany: 

A Divided City, a Divided Country and the Beginning of the Cold War

The term “cold war” was coined by presidential advisor Bernard Baruch in 1947.  He was giving a speech in the South Carolina House of Representatives about industrial labor problems in the country, but the media picked up on the phrase as an apt description of the situation between the United States and the Soviet Union:  a war without fighting or bloodshed, but a battle nonetheless.

In Berlin – the divided city in the divided country – relations between the Western powers and the Soviet Union had gone from allies to hostile.  There was great worry about whether the western occupation zones in Berlin would remain under Western Allied control or whether Stalin would absorb the whole city into Soviet-controlled eastern Germany.

This led to the first Berlin crisis of the Cold War:  In an attempt to squeeze the U.S., Britain and France out of the capital city within Soviet-occupied eastern Germany, on June 24, 1948, Soviet forces blockaded rail, road, and water access to Allied-controlled areas of Berlin.  The Soviets cited the cause as “technical difficulties.” 

The only way for the Allies to get food, fuel and other necessities into those Allied-controlled areas of Berlin was by airlift from Allied airbases in western Germany.

We call this magnificent effort…

The Berlin Airlift

The United States launched “Operation Vittles” on June 26, 1948 when 36 U.S. cargo planes laden with milk, flour, and medicine took off for Berlin.  The United Kingdom followed suit two days later with “Operation Plainfare.”

For 18 months, American and British aircrews literally flew around the clock bringing coal, food, medicine, and all the other necessities of life to the two million+ inhabitants of war-ravaged West Berlin:

By prior arrangement before the Soviet blockade, the U.S., Britain, and France had secured air rights to three narrow 20-mile-wide corridors over east Germany into Berlin.  The shortest was 110 miles long.  Aircraft were flown into Berlin along the northern and southern corridors.  All planes leaving the city used the central corridor:

To the immense relief of the Western powers, the Soviets made no effort to shoot the aircraft down.  The only resistance they offered was occasional harassment – like sending fighters to “buzz” the cargo planes, flying close to them in an effort to frighten the pilots.

Shipments during the first week were light, averaging no more than 90 tons of supplies per day.  By the second week, they had increased to an average of 1,000 tons per day.  The number of planes assigned to the airlift steadily grew during the summer, so that by mid-August, the supplies reaching West Berlin had reached an average of 4,500 tons daily.

Gail Halvorsen – The Candy Bomber

I talked about Gail Halvorsen earlier on in this post.

He was one of the Berlin Airlift pilots.

According to the AP article at the top of this post:

“After the United States entered World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Halvorsen trained as a fighter pilot and served as a transport pilot in the south Atlantic during World War II before flying food and other supplies to West Berlin as part of the airlift.”

Halvorsen had mixed feelings about the mission to help the United States’ former enemy after losing friends during the war, but that changed when he met a group of children behind a fence at Tempelhof airport in West Berlin:

“He offered them the two pieces of gum that he had, broken in half, and was touched to see those who got the gum sharing pieces of the wrapper with the other children, who smelled the paper.  He promised to drop enough for all of them the following day as he flew, wiggling the wings of his plane as he flew over the airport, Halvorsen recalled.

“He started doing so regularly, using his own candy ration, with handkerchiefs as parachutes to carry them to the ground.  Soon other pilots and crews joined in what would be dubbed ‘Operation Little Vittles.’”

Then-Lt. Gail Halvorsen demonstrates how handkerchief parachutes were used to drop sweets (at an interview in New York in 1949).

“Allied pilots flew 278,000 flights to Berlin, carrying about 2.3 million tons of food, coal, medicine and other supplies.

“Finally, on May 12, 1949, the Soviets realized the blockade was futile and lifted their barricades.  The airlift continued for several more months, however, as a precaution in case the Soviets changed their minds.”

After returning home in January 1949, Halvorsen remained in the Air Force and retired in 1974.

Halvorsen won numerous awards and international acclaim, and was beloved and venerated in Berlin.  He last visited in 2019 when the city celebrated the 70th anniversary of the day the Soviets lifted their post-World War II blockade cutting off supplies to West Berlin with a big party at the former Tempelhof airport in the German capital.

Throughout his retirement he continued to lead an active life, including as founding director of the Gail S. Halvorsen Foundation starting in 2016:

The foundation was organized by a group of Civil Air Patrol (CAP) members in Utah to promote the Candy Bomber story to future generations and to encourage interest in aviation.  CAP and the foundation share a common interest:  to help children gain a passion for science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.

I was particularly struck by this image from the website, with numbers from both “Operation Vittles” and “Operation Little Vittles”:

Halvorsen died from respiratory failure in Provo, UT on February 16, 2022, at the age of 101.

So now I know the bare bones of the Berlin Airlift – the who, what, where, when and why.

I also know that Gail Halvorsen would be pleased that my acquaintance Karin, a child from post-war Berlin, fondly remembers and still talks about the American “candy bombers.”

A sweet memory out of so many bad.

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