Guest Commentary: The legacy of the ‘Berlin Candy Bomber’

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Lauren Schatz writes for The Mobility Forum, where this was first published.

The legendary Col. Gail S. Halvorsen, better known as the “Berlin Candy Bomber” and “Uncle Wiggly Wings,” passed away earlier this year at age 101. He is survived by his five children and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as well as the airmen he inspired.

Col. Halvorsen impacted countless people throughout his life, and his legacy of compassion will continue to impact many, many more.

Halvorsen is best known for his leadership during the Berlin Airlift, a massive humanitarian mission to aid starving West Berliners following World War II. Conflict with the Soviet Union had resulted in a Soviet blockade that left 2 million residents deprived of necessary supplies, including food and water. The U.S. and British air forces orchestrated airlifts for more than 11 months, which were crucial to the survival of the citizens of West Berlin. This project was known in the United States as “Operation Little Vittles.”

Although Halvorsen, who had lost friends during the war, originally had mixed feelings about helping his country’s former enemy, he was extremely touched by an encounter with a group of German children.

Halvorsen spotted the children on the other side of an air base fence and went over to talk with them. According to Halvorsen, the starving children did not beg for treats from those in uniform like other children did but instead expressed profound gratitude for what the allied forces were doing. The children even showed more concern for the well-being of the airmen than for themselves. They recognized the importance of focusing on the bigger picture — in their case, to yearn for a freer future.

The young airman’s father always emphasized the importance of acts of kindness, so Halvorsen decided to share his two sticks of gum with the group. The youngsters shared the small portion of gum, with no one attempting to get a larger piece. Halvorsen was inspired by this exemplar of humanity and promised he would be back the next day with more goodies.

Halvorsen soon began saving and dropping his and others’ candy rations, via handkerchief parachutes, down to the children. He would “wiggle” the wings of his plane, so they knew it was him approaching. Other airmen then joined, and Operation Little Vittles was born.

With the children’s eyes to the sky to collect the candy, Operation Little Vittles served not only as a continual act of kindness but also as a symbol of their hope.

Operation Little Vittles grew, as Halvorsen’s story hit American newspapers. It became a large operation, thanks to the support of the airmen, as well as the public who donated candy and sewed parachutes. What started with two sticks of gum ended with more than 23 tons of candy being provided to West Berlin. Halvorsen once said that, although he had many favorite parts of his life, Operation Little Vittles was one of his most treasured memories.

Later in his life, he and members of the Civil Air Patrol organized the Gail S. Halvorsen Foundation to continue the inspiration of the Candy Bomber’s legacy. The organization has since earned a Gold Seal of Transparency for its mission to advance aviation education, promote youth leadership development and enhance community emergency response and humanitarian services.

In honor of Halvorsen, think about how you would like to be remembered. Are you creating a legacy of which you will be proud? A legacy is often the accumulation of many small deeds. By keeping that in mind, you can make decisions you are proud of when opportunities arise.

As leaders, you will make a difference in the current world and with the next generation of airmen. Halvorsen carried his father’s value of small acts of kindness. By staying true to those kinds of values, you can help carry his torch.

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