As difficult as it may be for the world to celebrate the holidays in the face of the global pandemic, we can count among our blessings the marvels of modern electronic media. With these, we can at least reach out to one another and with a visual confirmation, show our love and appreciation to each other.
Now imagine a holiday season where you couldn’t do even that. Not only could you not see one another, but no conversation by phone nor even holiday cards could be exchanged between family and friends. This was Berlin in December of 1948.
After World War II, President Harry Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Premier Josef Stalin, met in Potsdam, Germany to lay out plans for post war Eastern Europe. As part of the compromise struck in that pivotal conference, it was agreed that metropolitan Berlin would be divided into four separate sectors; one each, forming West Berlin for the U.S., France, and England, and one larger sector, known as East Berlin, controlled by the Soviet Union.
Within that Soviet controlled sector, in keeping with the mantra of the dictatorship and Communist doctrine, religion was not only discouraged, but openly prosecuted. To counter the threat of Soviet expansion into one of the three Western European held sectors, the U.S., England, and France merged their three zones into a single “West Berlin,” giving the newly established sector the same size in square miles as Soviet controlled land.
This enraged Stalin and he immediately ordered that all roads, rails, and any other means of entering or leaving West Berlin be blocked, sealing off all access and severing communication lines between the two sectors. By the end of June 1948, if you did not happen to be with your family at the time of the blockade, you would have no opportunity to see them as far as anyone knew at the time, ever again. The purpose, of course, was to starve the Western European held sector until they caved into Soviet control.
The Kremlin, however, did not count on one thing- the generosity of a free people in the Western world. Cargo aircraft of the United States Air Force were stationed throughout Europe and supplies of fresh food, flour, coal, soap, toiletries, and whatever the besieged people of Berlin needed, were flown over the Soviet blockade and dropped by parachute into the restricted zone. Planes were taking off every forty-five seconds and releasing more than 6,000 tons of relief supplies every day. It was one of the single greatest humanitarian efforts ever.
The author of this column wanted to mention this during our trying times as we attempt to celebrate as best we can in the era of COVID-19, so that we can count our blessings and know that while we wish we could be with one another, at least we know there will come a day when we can. The people of Berlin in 1948 had no idea if they would ever get to be with their loved ones from the other side of Berlin, nor did they know if, at some point, Stalin would order the “Angel Planes” to be shot down.
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One such leader who provided hope for so many hundreds of thousands, was Gail Halvorsen. A World War II combat pilot who was assigned to transport planes in Europe after the war, he was among the first of the American airmen to begin dropping supplies in ravaged Berlin.
After completing a mission and strolling along the reinforced steel fence that the Soviets had implanted along the sector border line, on the other side were scores of children staring at freedom from the confines of their imprisoned city. Halvorsen walked over, divided as many sticks of gum as he had, and handed them out to the kids. Their smiles led him to an idea: why not solicit donated candy from the citizens of the U.S. and free nations of the world, then load the candy onto a plane and drop them one at a time by parachute into the hands of awaiting children below?
Without consent from superiors, he rounded up chocolates and gum from fellow soldiers at the air field where he was based, folded handkerchiefs into tiny parachutes, attached them to the candy, and on Christmas Eve 1948, took off in his C-54 transport plane loaded with treats for the young people who had not known the luxury of sweetness in their life since the beginning of the war, or, perhaps, ever.
Halvorsen had also, in advance, spread word among the children to watch for him. He had promised they would know to expect the special delivery when he would dip his wings in an aviation practice known as “wiggling.” Swooping down to treetop level, he tipped the aircraft side to side to announce his arrival, then opened the cargo hold and released thousands of handmade parachutes with their chocolate rewards dangling beneath them.
“The Candy Bomber,” as he came to be known, was the Santa Claus of the heavens, bringing a taste of sweetness to a crowd of children who otherwise had only known bitterness in the frigid winter of the Cold War.
Encouraged by the drop’s success, the Air Force ordered Halvorsen’s plan enlarged, and boxes of candy poured into the U.S. base from candy companies, corporations, and private citizens (specifically children) all across the United States. Daily flights were launched in free Germany with youngsters throughout Berlin looking to the skies every day for an aircraft to wiggle its wings and release its candy cargo into the sea of outstretched hands below.
Over a period of more than six months, 28 tons of candy was dropped upon the people of Berlin. The airlifts of other foods, goods, and supplies continued until May of 1949, when the Soviet government gave up and removed much of the blockade, and freedom, not to mention candy bars in their marketplaces, returned to West Berlin.
“Uncle Wiggly Wings” as he was affectionately called, remained with the Air Force for another 25 years and visited Berlin many times as a hero to its children of all ages. He went on to become the Dean of Student Life at Brigham Young University, and in 2013, was the subject of the award winning children’s book, “Christmas From Heaven.”
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I had the privilege to get to know Col. Halvorsen and have him sign a model of his aircraft (and a candy wrapper) for me. This last month he celebrated his 100th birthday at his daughter’s home in Provo, Utah. He remains an active humanitarian and continues to love children … and chocolate … into his second century.
Let us not lament our limited soirees and gatherings of the holiday season in this COVID-19 tempered year, but rather remember those who had much less and could only look to the skies for help at the birth of the Cold War. May a reminder of their endurance, and a free peoples’ determination to see that they persevere, warm our hearts this holiday season.
David V. Wendell is a Marion historian, author and special events coordinator specializing in American history.