Retired Air Force Col. Gail Halvorsen’s legacy is built on chocolate, bubble gum and hope.
The military leadership at Joint Base Charleston, S.C., renamed the base’s C-17 aircrew training building after Halvorsen during a June 15 dedication ceremony in honor of the legendary “Berlin Candy Bomber.”
In 1948, the Soviet Union placed the German city of Berlin in a tight blockade, cutting the city off from the West. World War II had concluded a few years before, and its aftermath had left Berlin in ruins. Allied bombings during the war had reduced the city’s buildings to large, thin fingers pointing toward the sky. The streets, once filled with busy urban life, were left littered with debris. Berlin’s people were scared, homeless and hungry.
The United States and its allies quickly devised and launched an airlift to get supplies to the city’s stricken populace.
In those days, a hungry German boy might have cried for help, and the sound of his voice may have echoed faintly into silence, as if no one could hear his plea. But then, through the darkness of clouds and smoke, a tiny parachute attached to a candy bar might fall softly to the ground at the boy’s feet as a subtle reminder that somebody knew he was in trouble and that somebody cared.
That somebody was then-Air Force Lt. Gail Halvorsen, forever referred to as “The Candy Bomber” in Germany for his actions during the 1948 Berlin Airlift, known as “Operation Vittles.” The airlift helped to end the Soviet blockade.
Halvorsen’s simple act of kindness gave hope back to the children of a war-torn Germany.
“When I first flew over Berlin, I could look through the buildings,” Halvorsen said. “I didn’t understand how 2 million people could have lived there.”
Halvorsen dropped candy from his C-54 aircraft for the German children below. His kindness inspired other crews to do the same. Halvorsen, along with more than 20 other candy bombers, dropped more than 3 million pounds of chocolate, gum and other candies for the German children.
“Colonel Halvorsen is, in large part, a symbol of hope and kindness for an entire nation,” Air Force Col. Erik Hansen, commander of the 437th Airlift Wing, said during the building dedication ceremony. “His greatest accomplishment was found, not only from his extraordinary aviation skill, but also from his compassion.”
Halvorsen’s compassion sparked a flame of inspiration throughout Berlin. The inspiration eventually caught on with American children, who made their own parachutes and donated candy for the German children.
“Halvorsen’s kindness provides the ‘why’ to what we do day in and day out as an airlift wing,” Hansen said. “His inspiration played a major role in saving Berlin and proved the concept of airlift as a strategic tool during the Cold War years and beyond.”
Although Halvorsen is an Air Force legend, he remains humble and wishes for the training building to be a reminder of those who sacrificed their lives in the name of freedom.
“There are 31 American heroes and 39 British heroes of the Berlin Airlift,” Halvorsen said during the building dedication ceremony. “And I’m not one of them. Today’s dedication is not mine; the dedication is for those that gave their all for the cause of freedom. So, I’m not here for myself. I’m here to represent them.”
Halvorsen also spoke about the importance of heritage to America’s future generations.
“It’s important young people know their heritage and why they have freedoms and blessings that others are denied,” Halvorsen said. “The United States is dedicated to freedom today, like our forefathers were yesterday.”
According to Halvorsen, those freedoms are provided, in large part, by the U.S. military’s humanitarian missions of yesterday and today.
“It is easy to measure the military and diplomatic success through the vital supplies flown into Berlin,” Hansen said. “The statistics are clearly impressive and directly responsible for the eventual collapse of the Soviet blockade in Berlin. What can’t be measured is the hope, delivered symbolically by Colonel Halvorsen, and his impact on the global struggle for freedom.”
Today, at age 92, Halvorsen said he remains as optimistic about the idea of freedom as ever.
“In man’s search for happiness, sometimes he’ll chase for riches,” Halvorsen said. “But money doesn’t buy happiness. The only real reward you get in life is getting out of yourself and helping others, and that’s worth more than anything money can buy.
“As time goes by, we look in the rear view mirror of the past to learn,” he added. “But, you can’t look in the rear view for too long and wonder ‘What if?’ or else you’ll miss a turn on what you might become. We need to look into the windshield of the future and give hope to the young people of what their life can be.”
Hansen said naming the building after Halvorsen links today’s mission here to the ideals past heroes. “This training building will be an unbreakable link of the hope Colonel Halvorsen and his fellow airmen gave to the people of Berlin and the hope Team Charleston provides to people everywhere around the world today.”