Over the Veterans Day weekend I drove into San Antonio with a friend to listen to 93-year old Gail “Hal” Halvorson tell a story about two sticks of chewing gum that changed his life and the lives of countless others following World War II.
As a young pilot Halvorson had flown cargo planes into Berlin during the infamous Soviet blockade of 1948-1949. It was designed to give the Soviet Union control over Germany’s entire capital city following the war. The Soviets had taken possession of half the country which left Berlin isolated within the territory they claimed as theirs. The city itself had been partitioned between the American and European allies but now, all of a sudden, they found that ground access to the city was denied to them. The threat of starvation, cold and disease weighed heavily upon the citizens of the now beleaguered capital.
The allies, led by the United States, organized a daring rescue that resulted in vast tonnage of food, fuel and other necessities being flown into the American sector of Berlin in order to break the blockade. Young Hal Halvorson was one of the pilots of the C-47 and C-54 cargo planes that carried out the mission.
One day, with some time on his hands, Hal noticed some German children watching the planes land from behind a barbed wire fence that surrounded Tempelhof Airport in the American sector. He walked over to them and was impressed with their friendly, respectful good manners. He wanted to give them something but upon searching through his pockets he found only two sticks of chewing gum. He handed them through the fence half expecting to see a fight over who would get to keep the treats. These were children of former enemies whose cities had been bombed into rubble by allied forces. They had precious little in the way of food, let alone sweets.
Instead of a fight, he watched as they broke the sticks of gum into small pieces and distributed them among themselves as far as they would go. When they ran out of gum they handed out pieces of the wrappers so, at least, they could smell the sweet minty fragrance that lingered there. Hal told the children that the next day as he made his approach to the air field, he would drop some chocolate bars to them. Because planes were landing at three-minute intervals the children asked how they could recognize his plane. Hal told them that he would “wiggle his wings” as he came in.
Halvorson spent his next waking hours scrounging chocolate bars from fellow airmen and other military personnel and attaching them to little parachutes made from handkerchiefs. True to his word his crew dropped the precious gifts to his young friends who had gathered near the airfield’s perimeter. This was repeated day after day as word spread among the children. More and more of them gathered to watch for the special plane piloted by “Uncle Wiggly Wings.” It wasn’t long until other flight crews joined in the effort.
Hal had been warned that he could get into big trouble by dropping unauthorized cargo from his plane and, sure enough, one day he was summoned to the office of the commander of the airlift operation. The candy drop had brought the attention of the media and stories of the candy drop had spread across the land. “Why wasn’t I let in on this?” demanded the commander. He gave his whole-hearted support and “Operation Little Vittles” became an official part of the Berlin Airlift. The pilots and crews were affectionately designated “Candy Bombers.”
Halvorson’s crew dropped more than 850 pounds of candy to the children in an attempt to raise their morale during a time of uncertainty and privation. They had endured Nazi tyranny, allied bombs, and now the threat of Soviet oppression loomed heavily over their young heads. By the end of the airlift, around 25 plane crews had dropped 23 tons of chocolate, chewing gum and other candies. The Confectioners Association of America donated large amounts to the effort and American school children cooperated in attaching the candies to parachutes.
Hal returned to Germany in the 1970’s as the commander of Tempelhof Air Base. As such he was required to host official parties at his residence. A devout member of the LDS Church, he became famous for his non-alcoholic concoctions served at these parties. He went on to become an ambassador for German-American relations and has been cited by both countries for his efforts. The 93-year old retired Colonel Gail Halvorson, with his wife at his side, told his story with all the exuberance of a man half his age. “And all because of two sticks of chewing gum!” he declared.
It is written, “Wherefore, be not weary in well-doing, for ye are laying the foundation of a great work. And out of small things proceedeth that which is great.” (D&C 64:33) And also, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matt. 25:40)