Monday, June 02, 2008

The Berlin Candy Bomber

A different sort of war hero lived just down the street from a family I was staying with, and he was old friends with them. He was not just a hero, really, more of a mythical creature or icon, a man perfectly tailored to fit America's post-Big War self-image, one of a beneficent powerhouse showering the globe with the blessings of its innovation, mass production, and cornucopic agriculture. The myth was real, as low-key as an old hardware store, and lived nine houses away; his name was Gail Halvorsen, and he was the Berlin Candy Bomber.

For those who remember, that phrase evokes a dim interval when the Cold War had not yet cooled into its unstable jello mold. Anything could happen, some did, including Soviet fighters crashing into passenger planes from buzzing them too close, and war was widely expected. In 1948, in response to the announcement of a separate West German currency, Stalin's planners figured an island of troublesome capitalism could be blockaded and starved out. With roads blocked off, air supply seemed logistically impossible, and capitulation would come by winter at latest. The Soviets kicked off their blockade in July.

My friends arranged the meeting. In his living room, I asked Gail Halvorsen about the unprecedented logistics required to supply the 2 million denuded residents of West Berlin with 7,500 tons of necessaries per day in the winter, about 5,000 per day in summer. An airborne conveyor belt was hastily suspended to send in the basics of coal and flour, then sped up, enlarged, and was finally perfected to send in over 2 million tons of everything by the time it was over. Every bit of it by air. The allies wiped the nose of communism in 2,200 glorious calories per day, and although the blockade ended in May, 1949, the airlift kept going until September for good measure.

West Berlin was 110 miles inside the Soviet Zone. Halvorsen and his C-54 crew would fly 3 or 4 supply missions into Tempelhof airport every day, leaving only 4 or 5 hours for sleep; touched down in Berlin, airmen were not allowed to exit their planes. An avid photographer, Halvorsen decided to forgo a night's sleep and hitched a ride on a buddy's flight so he could tour Berlin by jeep, see the Reichstag, Hitler's Bunker, the Brandenburger Tor. While waiting for his driver, he walked down to the end of the Tempelhof runway to take a picture of an infamous apartment block which had to be dropped over or dodged by overloaded C-54s on their landing runs, the cause of fatalities and lots of stress. Just beyond the field's barbed-wire perimeter were 30 or so German children standing in the rubble watching the planes come in. They came up to the barrier, stuck their hands through and begged him to come visit them.

Halvorsen talked with the children for some time, enough to deeply impress him and make him late for his rendezvous. The thoughtful questions, gratitude, and maturity from the pint-sized people flummoxed him. They thanked him for bringing food to their families. As he hustled away it occurred to the Lieutenant that none of the children had asked him for candy or chewing gum, as children everywhere else had so assuredly done, it being considered within their rights. He reached into his pocket, felt the two sticks of the Wrigley's gum he sometimes chewed against drowsiness, and reluctantly made a decision which would change the course of his life.

He turned around and broke the two sticks into halves, walked back and gave them to the children at the wire. At that time, three sticks of gum in Berlin would buy two week's worth of laundering, or greater favors; anywhere in West Germany, adults would immediately dive for a casually flicked cigarett butt, with ensuing wrestling and fisticuffs. But the gum was not fought over, and the children split the Wrigley's Spearmint wrappers amongst themselves
to savor like frankincense.

Halvorsen felt bad for not being able to give more, so he decided to break Air Force regulations. He told the kids to look for the plane that wiggled its wings as it flew over the apartment the next day, and he would drop some chocolate bars. His apprehensive crewmates went along, using their weekly gum and Hershey bar rations, tying them to handkerchief parachutes and finally tossing them down the flare tube just as they cleared the apartment block.

The ecstatic kids mobbed the wire at the end of Tempelhof and cheered. After a few more runs, the press picked up on a mystery Candy Bomber, the whole thing snowballed and Berlin went wild. Rather than face disciplinary action, Halvorsen became a celebrity, and eventually many pilots were helping drop US-donated candy all over West (and sometimes East) Berlin. A firehouse in Chicopee, Massachusetts was converted into a packaging center to deal with all the private donations even before the Stateside candy companies got involved. The Soviets lodged a formal diplomatic protest over stray candy, but the food and supplies, the chewing gum and chocolate kept on coming, vital flourishes to go along with the flour.

It is difficult to put your finger on anything particularly special about Gail Halvorsen. Nice guy, constitutionally good-natured. Salt of the earth, like you'd expect of a former Utah beet farmer. Wholesome and unassuming, yet very much his own man. Twenty years after he first dropped Hershey bars to some rubble-rats, the people of Berlin demanded that he be made the commandant of Tempelhof Airport, which he became upon his promotion to Colonel. After his military service ended he was named Dean of Student Affairs at a large university. Amongst many other honors, he was chosen to carry the German national team's sign in the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics. Retired when I met him, sitting easy in his worn recliner, he was surrounded by pictures. Some were of his children and grandchildren, but these swam in a sea of pictures hung and piled everywhere, all of them bearing messages and smiles from grateful Germans.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I hadn't heard about the Candy Bomber - thanks!