The chocolate bomber

C-54 approaching Templehof Airport

Gail Halvorsen dropped candy from his C-54 as it approached Templehof Airport.

They were ragged and starving, these kids who had gathered, amid the ruins, to watch airplanes bring food to Berlin. It was mid-July 1948. Twenty-seven-year-old Lt. Gail Halvorsen had been on the airlift for two weeks, flying an exhausting three round trips each day. Sure that the Russians couldn’t take the heat much longer, he decided to tour Berlin while he still could. So instead of going straight to bed after the day’s flying, Halvorsen picked up his camera and borrowed a jeep. His first stop was the approach end of Runway 27, to watch the landing C-54s. That’s when he saw the kids.

“They could speak a little English,” Halvorsen says. “Their clothes were patched and they hadn’t had gum or candy for two or three years. They barely had enough to eat.”

As he turned to walk back to the base, Halvorsen felt the gum in his pockets. “I had only two sticks, so I broke those in half and handed them to the kids through the fence,” he says. “They chewed the gum and passed around the wrappers and licked them.”

Halvorsen told the kids to come back the next day and he’d drop candy from his C-54. How would they know him from the other transports landing every three minutes? He would rock his wings, he told them.

“The same kids came back the next day. They kept the numbers down by not advertising,” says Halvorsen, who kept his end of the bargain by dropping bundles of candy tied to handkerchief parachutes. More kids showed up the next day, and more the next. Halvorsen kept on delivering, picking up nicknames like “The Chocolate Bomber.”

Although Halvorsen wanted to keep Operation Little Vittles a secret (“It seemed like something you weren’t supposed to do”), a newspaperman snapped photos of the tiny parachutes blooming and drifting to earth, and soon the news blanketed the U.S. “Then boxes started coming from the States with candy and parachutes attached,” he says. “All we had to do was cut the boxes open and dump them outside.”

Gail Halvorsen

Gail Halvorsen, the leader of Operation Little Vittles.

He was reassigned stateside in February 1948, but his friends kept the operation going until September. Twenty-five years later Halvorsen became commander of Tempelhof, a post he held until his retirement five years later, in 1974. Somehow he kept in touch with some of the kids.

“Not long after I started dropping goodies I got a letter from a little girl named Mercedes, who said all those landing airplanes disturbed her white chickens, which were easy to see,” says Halvorsen. “She wrote that the chickens weren’t laying eggs, ‘but when you see the chickens, drop some candy and everything will be okay.’ I tried to find the chickens from the air, and we really saturated the area with candy, but I could never find those chickens. So I sent her a letter and some candy.”

“Before we left in 1974 we kept getting dinner invitations with a woman—she sent invitations month after month—and we finally decided to go. Well, it was Mercedes. She reached into a china cabinet and pulled out the letter I had sent her. And then she took me to the back of her apartment and showed me the courtyard and said, “That’s where the chickens were.”

2 Comments

  1. Gary and Alice Nelson says:

    We flew our Cessna 182 into Templehoff just before it closed (August, 2006 was our flight). We flew there because of the airports history – to see it for ourselves. Our trip did not dissapoint. Berlin is a beautiful city; for us, east Berlin is now indistinguishable from West Berlin. (except for the Checkpoint Charlie museum.)

  2. Harold Coghlan says:

    I had the rare privilege of getting to know Col Halvorsen in person in 1998 at a ceremony celebrating the Berlin Airlift in Birmingham, Alabama. My wife (Patricia Coghlan)was the Director of the Alabama Germany Partnership (AGP) and she was a military veteran like myself, so she decided to organize and host a big celebration and invite any living Berlin Airlift veteran from the state of Alabama to come. Since just having a really nice dinner was not enough to say thanks, she used her contact in the German Consulate in Atlanta and the German Embassy in D.C., and ask the German Government if they would like to attend. Not only they wanted to attend, they shipped a big photo exhibit of the berlin Airlift (dozens of photos in poster size)to the Birmingham Aviation Museum, where the Celebration was held, and then when they found out that Col Halvorsen and other Vets would be there, the German Ambassador had German Freedom Medals and certificates made and he personally presented them at the Ceremony. We had over 200 people in attendance, with Veterans, their families, and a number of other military dignataries from the U.S. Air Force as well as the German Military Mission. This was a great event, to honor a great bunch of valiant fliers who risked their lives to feed the people of Berlin. I was very happy that my aviation company was financially able at the time to bear the cost for sponsoring the event and the dinner, since it was for such a great cause. Watching those Berlin Airlift Veterans getting their German Freedom Medals and Certificates of Achievement was awe-inspiring, and there was not one dry eye in the house.
    Amazingly, one of the American veterans was a B-17 pilot who was shot down over Germany in 1944, spent nearly a year as a POW, and then after the war when he was an Airline pilot, volunteered to come back in the service and fly C-54 cargo planes on the berlin Airlift. At the ceremony there was an U.S. Air Force retired pilot who had been born in Berlin during the war, and who nearly starved after the war, yet whenn he saw as a boy those brave Airlift pilots sacrificing, and even crashing, to bring in the food and coal desperately needed by the berlin citizens, he decided he wanted to come to the USA, become an American and join the Air Force as a career.
    Like I said, this was one of the premier events celebrating the Berlin Airlift 50th Anniversary held in the United states, and I am just glad to be married to the woman who could pull off and organize such an event!