Gail Halvorsen, U.S. pilot who dropped candy — not bombs — as World War II ended, dies

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U.S. military pilot Gail S. Halvorsen — known as the “Candy Bomber” for his candy airdrops during the Berlin airlift after World War II ended — has died at 101.

After a brief illness Halvorsen succumbed to his injuries Wednesday at his Utah home, according to James Stewart (director of the Gail S. Halvorsen Aviation Education Foundation).

Berlin loved and venerated Halvorsen, who last visited Berlin in 2019. It was the 70th anniversary of the Soviets lifting their post-War World II supply blockade, cutting off supplies to West Berlin. A big celebration took place at Tempelhof Airport in Berlin.

A plane flies over a crowd

Gail Halvorsen earned the nickname of “The Candyman” for dropping presents in Berlin.

(Associated Press)

“Halvorsen’s deeply human act has never been forgotten,” Berlin Mayor Franziska Giffey said in a statement.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox also praised Halvorsen, who was born in Salt Lake City but grew up on farms before getting his pilot’s license.

“I know he’s up there, handing out candy behind the pearly gates somewhere,” he said.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Halvorsen was trained as a fighter pilot. He also served as a transport pilot in South Atlantic during World War II. Later, he flew food to West Berlin as part the airlift.

According to his account on the foundation’s website, Halvorsen had mixed feelings about the mission to help the United States’ former enemy after losing friends during the war.

After meeting children behind a Templehof fence, his attitude changed and he launched a new mission.

He gave them two pieces of his gum, split in half. It was touching to see the children who had the gum share pieces of the wrapper and the other children who smelled it. Halvorsen said that he would drop enough gum for them all the next day. He was wriggling the wings of his airplane as he flew over the airport.

He began to do this regularly using his own candy ration and handkerchiefs to transport them to the ground. Soon other pilots and crews joined in what would be dubbed “Operation Little Vittles.”

After an Associated Press story appeared under the headline “Lollipop Bomber Flies Over Berlin,” a wave of candy and handkerchief donations followed.

Gail Halvorsen in uniform stands next to a parachute and candy bar.

Gail Halvorsen takes part in a dedication ceremony of a corridor for the Department of Defense Humanitarian Relief and Efforts Abroad in 2009.

(Haraz N. Ghanbari/Associated Press)

The airlift began on June 26, 1948, in an ambitious plan to feed and supply West Berlin after the Soviets — one of the four occupying powers of a divided Berlin after World War II — blockaded the city in an attempt to squeeze the U.S., Britain and France out of the enclave within Soviet-occupied eastern Germany.

278,000 flights were flown by Allied pilots to Berlin. They carried approximately 2.3 million tonnes of food, coal, and medicine.

On May 12, 1949, Soviets realized that the blockade had failed and lifted their barriers. However, the airlift was continued for several months more to ensure that Soviets did not change their mind.

Memories in Germany of American soldiers handing out candy, chewing gum or fresh oranges are still omnipresent — especially for the older generation born during or right after the war.

Many people still fondly remember the first time they ate candy and fresh fruits in a time when bombed-out communities were struggling to survive.

Berlin youngsters surround Gail Halvorsen

Berlin youngsters surround “Candy Bomber” Lt. Gail S. Halvorsen in 1948 to thank him for dropping candy from his plane by handkerchief parachute.

(Associated Press)

Halvorsen’s efforts to reach out to the people of Berlin helped send a message that they were not forgotten and would not be abandoned, Stewart said.

Despite his initial ambivalence regarding the airlifts, Halvorsen, an individual who was born during the Great Depression and grew up in poverty, felt a part of himself in those children behind the fence. He made a connection with them.

“A simple person-to-person act of kindness can really change the world,” Stewart said.

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