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Commemorative Air Force Headquarters

COL. Gail "Hal"Halvorsen

Dinner Speaker for July 27, 2000

USAF, WWII Pilot, "Candy Bomber" of the Berlin Airlift

Famous as "The Candy Bomber" from the Berlin AirLift, Col. Gail "Hal" Halvorsen and his lovely wife, Lorraine, treated the Golden Gate Wing to an unforgettable evening July 27th!

As original and current residents of Utah (near Provo), they flew to Oakland to be our honored guests and share incredible experiences of patriotism and service to our Nation. Even before describing the substance of Col. Halvorsen's international fame from the Berlin AirLift, it is touching to note that Hal and Lorraine were high school sweethearts before WWII erupted - he a senior and she a freshman!

When WWII exploded they lost track of each other, each eventually marrying someone else and building separate lives. Many years later - still not aware of each other's whereabouts or status - they had each lost their spouses and were once again living alone.

In what has to be an amazing, romantic true story - and after nearly 60 (!) years of being out of touch - Lorraine happened to be watching the NBC Today Show in May 1998, and couldn't believe her eyes when Hal appeared with Tom Brokaw! Hal was the featured guest commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Berlin AirLift, having just flown a 53-year-old C-54 (DC-4) transport across the Atlantic from NY's Floyd Bennett Field to Berlin!

Naturally, she was stunned to "see" him again after all the years between; she wrote to NBC explaining her situation, and her letter ultimately reached Hal. Six (6) months later they were once again united, in marriage! Incidentally, as Hal told us, they together represent 155 years and remain happy, healthy and vigorous in life.

After high school Hal entered pilot training, first earning his RAF wings - he had volunteered to train with an RAF group in Miami, Oklahoma - followed shortly thereafter by earning his USAAC pilot wings.

Although trained as a fighter pilot, Hal, after graduation, was placed in a multi-engine transport operation to help fill key shortages. As a result he served throughout WWII as a transport pilot in several overseas theaters.

Staying on active duty after the war, and fast-forwarding to 1948, Hal volunteered to fly in the Berlin AirLift to help save our former enemies from starvation by the Soviets. This chapter of experience changed Hal's life forever, and produced amazing blessings to countless people including himself and Lorraine.

Hal quickly stressed how grateful he is for the great leadership and team effort demonstrated throughout the dramatic Berlin AirLift: mechanics; communications staff; cooperation between the British, French and Americans; the superb interaction between the American Navy, Marines, Army and Air Force; and of course, the fantastic German kids! The Allies' leadership (led by Gen. Tunner) resulted in operations running like a symphony of teamwork.

The kids behind the barbed-wire fences at the Tempelhoff Airport in Berlin - hub for the life-saving flights carrying food, flour, coal, etc. - literally changed Hal's life forever! As Hal says, "These kids, only 8 to 14 years old, taught me the true meaning of freedom! Their dream was to have an American style of freedom; their nightmare was Hitler''s past and Stalin's future!"

Hal met these kids by accident one day while planning to take some home movies of the planes landing at Tempelhoff. Since the demands of flying were so intense - he and his crew had to fly three (3) round trips everyday during a sixteen (16) hour shift and stand beside his C-54 plane during loading an unloading - there was no real time to rest, play or tour any of the sights of Berlin from the ground level. So, one day he used his eight (8) hour "off" period to ride on his buddy Bill Christian's airplane to Tempelhoff and take a "joyride" in a jeep to see highlights of Berlin. He wanted to see, for example, the Brandenburg Gate, Hitler's bunker, as well as film the planes landing at Tempelhoff - right between the 5-story buildings at the end of the runways like 27R.

There, beside the barbed-wire fence, were about 30 German kids ranging from 8 to 14 years old. Still wearing his pilot uniform, he became so involved with the kids - their excitement, energy and enthusiasm - that he spent too much time and realized he would miss the jeep ride and the opportunity to see the sights. As he turned away and started to leave - amid all the kid's noisy enthusiasm - he took only three steps before an inner voice stopped him in his tracks! "It hit me like a ton of bricks!" he said, and realized the kids had no candy or gum. So, he turned back to the kids, checking his pockets for any candy and gum. All he had was two sticks of gum - for 30 kids! He feared this would start a big fight, but noticed the kids were not even holding their hands out like beggars, in sharp contrast to experiences elsewhere in the war-torn world where most kids would literally "shake-down" American servicemen. Instead, these kids carefully broke the gum into little pieces and shared with each other, even smelling the foil and wrappers!

Well, suddenly Hal hit on the idea that on his next landing he would drop enough gum and candy for all of them. Through animated exchanges with the kids, as he tried to leave again, he understood they were yelling "Which airplane will be yours?" There were so many identical-looking planes operating, Hal told them he would "wiggle his wings", as he came over Tempelhoff''s beacon. Remember, Hal and his crew were flying a big 4 - engine aircraft carrying 20,000 pounds of vital cargo, so to wiggle the wings for the kids at such low altitude and weight was somewhat extraordinary!

When Hal returned to his base, he immediately told his crew about the kids and his decision to drop them candy and gum. In order to get the necessary candy and gum - both rationed - he asked them for their ration coupons. He then experimented ("a little R & D", as Hal said) with small handkerchief parachutes so the kids wouldn't be injured by the falling treasure. Of course he knew that it was strictly against regulations to drop anything from the aircraft, but told his crew that he would accept full responsibility.

Then, as he brought his heavily laden C-54 on final approach - between those dangerous 5-story buildings - he spotted the kids waiting by the barbed-wire fence, wiggled the wings and had the handkerchief parachutes pushed out. As he told us, "Unlike the B-52 "Spirit" Bomber of today, we had no rear-view mirror and couldn't see the results. I was worried we would drop the parachutes too late and they might land past the barbed-wire, thereby denying the kids."

As it turned out, the very first drop was a direct hit, thrilling the kids! The word spread rapidly among more kids, and each day the crowds grew. Very soon, the growing sea of kids was waving at each airplane coming in for a landing. Other pilots, who didn't yet know what was going on (due to Col. Halvorsen's candy drops) thought the kids were trying to tell them their landing gear hadn't yet come down. So, at least one pilot pulled-up and went around! Obviously this kind of attention and result worried Hal and his crew.

Finally, after three (3) weeks of gum-candy parachute drops, the crowds were absolutely huge. And, one day when the weather was so bad they couldn't fly, Hal walked into his flight operations area. There on the desk was a huge stack of letters and mail, all addressed to "Uncle Wiggly Wings"!

Understandably, Hal felt he had pushed his luck to the absolute limit with these unidentified, unauthorized drops to the kids. After talking with his crew, they decided, nevertheless, to "do it once more, and that's it!" Well, as Hal told us, that decision to do it once more is dangerous in any language!

Sure enough, the next morning after "doing it once more", he was told "Col. Haun wants to see you right now!" After a very lively exchange, Col. Haun thrust at him a copy of the Frankfurt newspaper. There, on the front page was a photo of a C-54 dropping all the handkerchief parachutes - with the tail number clearly visible! Obviously, it was Hal's plane and he was "dead"! What had happened was a German news reporter had heard about the growing crowds of kids and went there to see.

Col. Haun continued to scold Hal that he should've been informed of Hal's "clandestine" operations, so that when the top boss, General Tunner, called him, he would've known what was going on! Col. Haun was caught flat-footed, so-to-speak, and feared he now had lost any chance for future promotion. Hal admitted that one of the lessons he learned was "never sandbag your boss!" Of course, Col. Haun admitted he would've denied Hal if he had known.

Fortunately, though, Gen. Tunner liked the candy-gum operation and thought it should continue! Lucky for Hal!

Next, Hal realized he and his crew had run out of handkerchief parachutes and the materials to make more. But, the Berlin kids started sending them back!

In addition, the international publicity reached around the world, and the school kids from twenty-two (22) schools in Chicoppee, MA made and sent all the parachutes Hal could use. Finally, the American Confectioners Association volunteered to send all the candy and gum they could use - free of charge! Thus, the famous candy - gum operations continued until, by the end, twenty-three (23) tons of goodies were dropped to the German kids!

Another heartwarming and humorous episode dealt with a nine (9) year old German boy named Peter Zimmerman. He wrote a letter to Hal complaining that he couldn't run as fast as the other kids and never could get any of the "goodies". He, therefore, enclosed a detailed map and directions for Hal, explaining where to drop "his" parachute. After several unsuccessful attempts to hit Peter's target - including another letter from Peter telling Hal that he would build a fire in his backyard, and to drop it upwind (!) - an exasperated Peter wrote another letter addressed to "Uncle Wiggly Wings" saying, "You're a pilot; you can't hit my target; how did you win the war?!" Hal, amused by the letter, then mailed Peter a big package containing candy, gum, shoes and boots. As an epilogue to this episode, the one-time 9 year old was later adopted by a Pennsylvania family and became a productive American citizen!

There are many similar stories about other German kids, including a delightful girl named Mercedes, but space doesn't allow more in this article. The brief exception is to mention that the East German kids wanted the parachute drops too! So, after Hal made a few "excursions" over East German boundaries - all highly unauthorized (!) - the Soviets angrily complained to the U.S. State Department about this "dirty capitalist trick" to sway the kids from Communism! Another international incident, this time from a simple, innocent humanitarian action.

The cost of the Berlin Airlift, in human terms alone, was very high: 31 American fliers and 39 British fliers lost their lives during the dangerous, around-the-clock flights - all for a former enemy who had become friends!

A final note about the candy and goodies for the German kids: in December 1948 Hal and his colleagues were shown a huge boxcar full of candy and gum. They then arranged for its distribution that resulted in wonderful Christmas parties all over Berlin that Christmas!

Throughout Hal's talk he stressed the gratitude he still has for those German kids, for the powerful lessons they crystallized in him that changed his life forever:

* taught him the real meaning of freedom! (the right to choose)

* taught him the importance of principle over pleasure (the key to fulfillment, happiness and success)

* taught him the utter importance of the "little decisions" in life! (These seemingly little decisions often become the real compass in life's journey - e.g., "two sticks of gum" and his spontaneous decision to turn around back to those original 30 kids forever changed his life!)

Following his main talk and some insightful questions and answers, Hal showed a dramatic 6 - minute video of the color home movies he had taken during the Berlin airlift. This included the original group of kids; planes landing "through" the 5 - story buildings at Tempelhoff's runway ends and various highlights of Berlin. He also repeated a theme, "two sticks of gum", throughout the evening to symbolize the importance of the little decisions. Once more, he illustrated this by the following three (3) additional examples:

In 1995, a lady from Arkansas called Hal and told him she remembered him from the Berlin airlift! She and her husband raise Arabian horses, and she asked if he could use one. He said, "Yes, but I can't afford one." She told him she was giving him one. Then, she asked how many horses his trailer could hold. When he told her "two", she said, "I'm giving you two horses!" When Hal asked her why she would do such a generous thing, she replied "remember the two sticks of gum?!" To this day Hal and Lorraine ride these two beautiful horses!

In May of 1998, as part of the 50th anniversary of the Berlin airlift when Hal flew the C-54 back to Germany, he was told to fly low over Berlin so the Berliners could hear those big radial engines once again! He did, and later a man approached Hal and told him, "50 years ago when I was 10, out of the low-hanging clouds above me dropped a parachute that landed at my feet! It carried a Hershey chocolate bar that I took a week to eat. It meant HOPE - the Americans knew I was in trouble and they cared! It gave us hope! Thank you!"

In May of 1998, again, while appearing on NBC's Today Show with Tom Brokaw following his commemorative flight to Berlin, his long-lost love (Lorraine) from high school saw him, propelling them to reuniting (in marriage) 6 months later. "All for two pieces of gum!"

Although not part of his public presentation, I learned during the social and dinner hour that Hal earned both a bachelors and masters degree in aeronautical engineering while still in the USAF. As a young major, he shouldered key responsibility for the booster rockets for the famed X-20 Dyna-Soar Program - the predecessor to today's mighty Space Shuttle! Later, after his long Air Force career, he served many years as the Assistant Dean of Students at Brigham Young University.

Thank you, Hal, for an unforgettable evening of Patriotism, Freedom, Principle over Pleasure, Faith and Responsibility! The message of your powerful experiences and life-lessons would well serve every young person - and every person! We would like to find a way to have everyone experience what you shared with us fortunate few on 27 July 2000!

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