WWII

Archive interview with late Gail Halvorsen reveals joy over his Candy Bomber role

The archive BFBS the Forces Station audio was recorded in 1998 to mark 50 years since the Berlin Airlift

Archive recordings have unearthed the moment the late famed 'Candy Bomber' Gail Halvorsen spoke about his efforts to drop sweets to German children and his role in the Berlin Airlift. 

The archive radio broadcast also features interviews with other Second World War survivors in post-war Berlin talking to BFBS the Forces Station, giving a graphic account of what it was like to be on the receiving end of the Western forces' humanitarian efforts to drop supplies during the Soviet blockade of the German city. 

In the interviews, Retired Colonel Gail S Halvorsen, whose funeral took place yesterday following his death last week aged 101, is heard speaking in the interviews years earlier about how he became affectionately known around the world as the 'Candy Bomber' and 'Chocolate Uncle' for his part in dropping sweets to children. 

Candy Bomber Retired Colonel Gail S Halvorsen 21 November 2016 (Picture: dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo).
'Candy Bomber' Colonel (Retired) Gail Halvorsen pictured on 21 November 2016 (Picture: dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo).

The 11-month Berlin Airlift, also known as Operation Vittles, between 1948 and 1949, involved Anglo-American missions flying essential supplies of food and fuel from RAF Fassberg, now a German airbase, to West Berlin following the Soviet Union's blockade of all rail and road travel to and from the city. 

After one of those missions, while waiting for his aircraft to be reloaded, Col (Retd) Halvorsen saw 30 German children by the wire fence. He spoke with them for a while and was astounded by how grateful they were for something as simple as a bag of flour.

Speaking with BFBS in 1998, Gail described the children he met, saying: "The children of Berlin didn't have any gum and candy, hadn't had any for months. 

"And the ones I met didn't beg for any, I couldn't believe that these kids would not ask for it. 

"They were so grateful, thankful to have flour, to be free. They wouldn't lower themselves to be beggars." 

Video: Col (Retd) Gail Halvorsen returns to the newly-renovated Operation Vittles memorial at his former airbase in 2016.

The moment moved Col (Retd) Halvorsen so much that he broke the two pieces of chewing gum he had on him in half and was able to hand out four pieces to the children, but 26 others went empty-handed. He said: "They just wanted a piece of the wrapper to smell and then once they got a half a stick, tore off the wrapper and let them smell it. 

"And I couldn't believe it for a smell, the reaction."

This chance encounter inspired Col (Retd) Halvorsen to return with more chewing gum plus sweets and chocolates for the children of Berlin.

The 'candy', as sweet treats are known in America, was wrapped in handkerchiefs and dropped out of aircraft in miniature parachutes. This act of kindness became known as Operation 'Little Vittles' and Col (Retd) Halvorsen soon became known as the 'Candy Bomber' for his part in that.

Operation Little Vittles Colonel Retired Gail Halvorsen drops sweets candy to Germany children at Tempelhof Airport Berlin Germany (Picture: RBM Vintage Images / Alamy Stock Photo).
Colonel (Retd) Gail Halvorsen drops sweets to German children at Tempelhof Airport, Berlin in 1949 (Picture: RBM Vintage Images / Alamy Stock Photo).

What was it like for the children of Berlin?

In the late 1950s, BFBS the Forces Station spoke to a woman who was a child at the time of the Berlin Airlift. She witnessed first-hand the handkerchief wrapped parachutes of sweets and chocolates flying down from the sky. 

She described her initial anxiety about seeing planes overhead again following the end of the Second World War and bombing campaign. However, her fear soon subsided when she saw the aircraft flown by Col (Retd) Gail Halvorsen. She said: "When I went to school, in the playground, I saw the parachutes dropping and we were all excited. 

"The teachers allowed us to go out in the playgrounds. We waved every time. I never got a parachute because I was so small. 

"My Grandma then says to me 'I might write a letter to ask for a parachute. We wrote a letter to my Chocolate Uncle and then I wait in the garden. 

"There was no parachute and in the beginning of November 1948 there was a letter and I was proud about this letter from the pilot because my father was pilot." 

Col (Retd) Halvorsen had filled these children with hope and excitement, a vast difference compared to the fear and dread they must have felt upon hearing the familiar sound of aircraft approaching during the Second World War. 

Listen: Archive BFBS the Forces Station audio of Col (Retd) Gail Halvorsen speaking in 1998.

Operation 'Little Vittles' 

Following his first encounter with the children of Berlin, Col (Retd) Halvorsen was determined to return as soon as possible with more treats, so that those who missed out the first time could enjoy some 'candy'. He said: "I told the other kids they could come back the next day and ... I'd drop enough gum for all of them to have some. 

"Well, we couldn't buy very much gum and candy in the American military, so I'd have to wait a week. 

"All week the kids were out there still waving, so I dropped it again and the crowd got bigger and bigger." 

A few weeks later, one of the miniature parachutes containing sweet treats almost hit someone who worked at a German newspaper, prompting him to take a photo of Col (Retd) Halvorsen's aircraft and the parachutes.

This was a turning point in the story of the Candy Bomber as the veteran explained to BFBS, saying: "He got a picture of my airplane and the parachutes and my Colonel saw it and he got angry with me. 

"He said, 'Why didn't you ask permission?' And I said, 'I didn't think you'd approve it' and he said 'you're right but the General saw it and he likes it so keep doing it'. 

"So we got all the stuff we could drop." 

Col (Retd) Gail Halvorsen makes miniature parachutes filled with sweets for German children in Berlin as part of Operation Little Vittles (Picture: Newscom / Alamy Stock Photo).
Col (Retd) Gail Halvorsen makes miniature parachutes filled with sweets for German children in Berlin as part of Operation Little Vittles (Picture: Newscom / Alamy Stock Photo).

Cover: Retired Colonel Gail S Halvorsen (Picture: US Air Force photo / Donna Burnett Released).