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.”
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.”