The 'Candy Bomber' Of WWII Has Died At Age 101

World War II veteran and retired Air Force Colonel Gail Halvorsen passed away recently at the age of 101 (via NPR). Halvorsen's passing provides a chance to share the sweet and inspiring story of a member of "The Greatest Generation."

Some background: A defeated post-war Germany was divided into four "zones of occupation:" American, British, French, and Soviet quarters (via The History Channel). The decimated capital Berlin itself was also split, with the Soviets taking control of the Eastern part of the city. Fearing a Western takeover of East Berlin in 1948, the Soviets cut off points of entry (rail, road, and canal) to this half of the city, leaving no routes by which medicine, fuel, electricity, and food could enter. That deprived an estimated 2.5 million people of essential items. Alarmed, the United States responded with daily airdrops of food and other necessities to East Berlin.

The Berlin Airlift lasted more than a year and saved countless lives. One of the pilots of the mission was Gail Halvorsen, who would later become known as the "Candy Bomber." One day, Halvorsen spotted some East Berlin children near the airfield's fence. He offered them some sticks of gum, which they gratefully divided among their group. This simple act and the children's gratitude for a small treat led to a heartwarming and iconic campaign of kindness and goodwill that became one of the most memorable and symbolic aspects of the famous mission.

Candy from the sky brought hope

Gail Halvorsen flew a C-54 cargo plane in WWII and during the Berlin Airlift, known officially as "Operation Vittles." When Halvorsen, then 28, saw what joy a piece of chewing gum brought the children of East Berlin, he began collecting his fellow airmen's candy rations and spent his own money to prepare "candy drops” for the kids. Halvorsen's commanders soon lent their support, and more candy was procured from the military and American civilians alike. School children in the U.S. assembled "handkerchief-sized parachutes" that gently delivered the candy. In the end, Operation "Little" Vittles dropped more than 23 tons of chocolate, gum, and other treats over East Berlin (via NPR). The "Candy Bomber" received so much mail from the city's children, two secretaries were assigned to manage it.

Halvorsen leaves behind an indelible legacy. In Germany, there are still schools named after him. Karin Edmond, a North Carolina resident who was a child in East Berlin during the airdrops told NPR, "To us children he was a big hero." Today she raises money for an annual candy drop that educates children about the sweetest aspect of Operation Vittles. Tim Chopp of the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation said Halvorsen's candy diplomacy was "a symbol of hope" for East Berliners. Halvorsen himself once said, "My experience on the Airlift taught me that gratitude, hope, and service before self can bring happiness to the soul when the opposite brings despair" (via the Gail S. Halvorsen Foundation).