World War II ended on May 8, 1945 in Europe, leaving the three major allied powers (United States, United Kingdom and the Soviet Union) in place, in and around the former Nazi capital of Berlin. Representatives of the 3 met at Potsdam, capital of the German federal state of Brandenburg between July-August, hammering out a series of agreements known as the Potsdam agreement.
Built on earlier accords reached through conferences at Tehran, Casablanca and Yalta, the agreement addressed issues of German demilitarization, reparations, de-nazification and the prosecution of war criminals.
The Potsdam agreement called for the division of defeated Germany into four zones of occupation, roughly coinciding with then-current locations of the allied armies. The former capital city of Berlin was itself partitioned into four zones of occupation. A virtual island located 100 miles inside of Soviet-controlled eastern Germany.
During the war, ideological fault lines were suppressed in the drive to destroy the Nazi war machine. Such differences were quick to reassert themselves in the wake of German defeat. In Soviet-occupied east Germany, factories and equipment were disassembled and transported to the Soviet Union, along with technicians, managers and skilled personnel.
The former Nazi capital quickly became the focal point of diametrically opposite governing philosophies. Leaders on both sides believed that Europe itself, was at stake. Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov put it succinctly, “What happens to Berlin, happens to Germany; what happens to Germany, happens to Europe.”
West Berlin, a city utterly destroyed by war, was home to some 2.3 million at that time, roughly three times the city of Boston.
Differences grew and sharpened between the former allies, coming to a crisis in 1948. On June 26, Soviets blocked access by road, rail and water, to western occupation zones.
This was no idle threat. Of all the malignant governing ideologies of history, Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union has to be counted among the worst. These people had no qualms about using genocide by starvation as a political tool. They had proven as much during the Holodomor of 1932 – ’33, during which this evil empire had murdered millions of its own citizens, by deliberate starvation. To Josef Stalin, two million dead civilians was nothing more than a means to an end.
At the time, West Berlin had only 36 days’ worth of food, and 45 days’ supply of coal.With that many lives at stake, allied authorities calculated a daily ration of only 1,990 calories would require 646 tons of flour and wheat, 125 tons of cereal, 64 tons of fat, 109 tons of meat and fish, 180 tons of dehydrated potatoes, 180 tons of sugar, 11 tons of coffee, 19 tons of powdered milk, 5 tons of whole milk for the children, 3 tons of fresh yeast for baking, 144 tons of dehydrated vegetables, 38 tons of salt and 10 tons of cheese.
With electricity shut off by Soviet authorities, heat and power for such a population would require 3,475 tons of coal, diesel and gasoline.
All of this and more was going to be needed. Every. Single. Day.
What followed is known to history, as the Berlin Airlift. At the height of the operation, a cargo aircraft landed every thirty seconds, in West Berlin. Altogether, the USAAF delivered 1,783,573 tons and the RAF 541,937 on a total of 278,228 sorties. The Royal Australian Air Force delivered 7,968 tons of freight in over 2,000 flights.
Added together, the Berlin Airlift covered nearly the distance from Earth to the Sun, at a cost of 39 British and 31 American lives.
US Army Air Force Colonel Gail “Hal” Halvorsen was one of those pilots, flying C-47s and C-54 aircraft deep inside of Soviet controlled territory. On his days off, Halvorsen liked to go sightseeing, often bringing a small movie camera.
One day in July, Hal was filming take-offs and landings at the Templehof strip when he spotted some thirty children, on the other side of a barbed wire fence. He went over to speak with them, and felt impressed. It was normal for children to ask GIs “Any gum, chum?” or “Any bon-bon?” Not these kids. Dirty, half starved and possessed of nothing whatsoever, these kids had spirit. Halvorsen remembers:
“I met about thirty children at the barbed wire fence that protected Tempelhof’s huge area. They were excited and told me that ‘when the weather gets so bad that you can’t land, don’t worry about us. We can get by on a little food, but if we lose our freedom, we may never get it back.'”
Reaching in his pocket, Halvorsen found two sticks of gum. Wrigley’s Doublemint gum. Breaking them each into four pieces he gave them to the nearest children, only to watch them break the gum into smaller pieces, to share with their friends. Those who got none received tiny slivers of the wrappers themselves, small faces shining with joy at just a whiff of mint from the wrapper.
Halvorsen told the kids he’d be back tomorrow, on one of those planes. He’d have enough for them all, he said. You’ll know it’s my plane because I’ll wiggle my wings.
That night, Halvorsen, his co-pilot and engineer, pooled their candy rations. Even small boxes can’t simply be tossed out of a moving aircraft, and so, the three rigged handkerchiefs. Tiny little “parachutes”, for tiny little packages.
Halvorsen made such drops three times over the next three weeks and noticed each time, the group of children waiting by the wire, grew larger.
Newspapers got wind of what was going on. Halvorsen thought he’d be in trouble, but no. Lieutenant General William Henry Tunner liked the idea. A lot. “Operation Little Vittles” became official, on September 22.
What had begun between Halvorsen and his friends spread to the whole squadron. Word quickly crossed the ocean and children all over the United States gave up their own, for kids who had less. Soon, candy manufacturers themselves joined in.
By November, what had begun as a trickle had turned to a confectionery avalanche. College student Mary Connors of Chicopee Massachusetts stepped up and offered to take charge of the flood. By now, this was a national project. Volunteers were assembled in their hundreds to collect candy and tie them to little cloth parachutes.
“Christmas from Heaven: The Candy Bomber Story” with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra, Narrated by Tom Brokaw
Before long, pilots were dropping little packages, all over Berlin. They were the Rosinenbombers. Raisin Bombers. Halvorsen himself came to be known by many names, to the children of Berlin. “Uncle Wiggly Wings”. “The Chocolate Uncle”. “The Gum Drop Kid”. “The Chocolate Flier”.
Colonel Halvorsen’s work even earned him two letters, proposals of marriage, but he turned them both down. He was carrying on a romance by letter at this time, with Miss Alta Jolley. The couple would go on to marry in April of 1949, a marriage which would last, for fifty years. Alta Jolley Halvorsen passed away on this day in 1999 leaving her husband, 5 adult children and 24 grandchildren.
On this day in 1949, the Berlin Airlift had barely cleared the mid-point. The largest humanitarian airlift in aviation history would last until the blockade was lifted on May 12, 1949, and then some. Operation Little Vittles continued throughout the period, dropping an estimated 23 tons of candy from a quarter-million tiny little parachutes.
Over the years, many of those now-grown children have sought Halvorsen out, to say thank you and to tell stories. Tales of hope, and fun, of fond anticipation. All in a time and place when such things were very hard to find.
You never know, he said. “The small things you do turn into great things.”