WWII was over. Germany was divided into four spheres of influence each controlled by one of the four victors: The US, France, the UK, and Russia, with Russia controlling the eastern sector. Further, the city of Berlin, which was located in the Russian-controlled east, was also divided into four parts.
By 1948, it was apparent that the Western Powers (Great Britain, France, and US) plan to rebuild Germany differed substantially from those of the Soviet Union, and because of that, Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin wanted the allies out of Berlin. To accomplish that, in April, Stalin ordered all American military personnel maintaining communications equipment out of Soviet controlled Berlin. Then, train service was discontinued, and finally, in late June, all land and water access to West Berlin was cut off by the Soviets. There were to be no more supplies from the West.
The allies, however, had other ideas. On June 28, President Truman made a statement that abandoning Berlin was out of the question. Meanwhile, British Commander Sir Brian Robertson had the idea to supply the city by air. In the beginning the only aircraft available were C-47s, which could only hold 3.5 tons each. These were later augmented with C54s, which had a capacity of 10 tons. Supples would be flown in from Templehof Airport in the American sector, and Gatow Airport, controlled by the British.
Brig. Gen. Joseph Smith, who was appointed Task Force Commander, dubbed the mission “Operation Vittles,” because, he said, “we’re haulin’ grub.” The British called their part “Operation Plane Fare”.
When the blockade began, the Soviets rejoiced, because they believed the Western powers had only one option, which was to leave Berlin entirely. However, they hadn’t considered airplanes, and they soon realized there was nothing they could do about it, because in 1945 they’d signed a measure guaranteeing three 20-mile-wide air corridors to Berlin.
So, the Air Lift began. One of the many C54 pilots who took part was Lt. Gail Halvorsen. Halverson had an interest in photography and on his days off often went sightseeing in Berlin and shot film on his personal handheld movie camera. One day in July, he was filming plane takeoffs and landings at Tempelhof, the main landing site for the airlift. While there, he saw about thirty children lined up behind one of the barbed-wire fences. He went to meet them, reached into his pocket and took out two sticks of gum to give to the children. The kids broke it into little pieces and shared it; the ones who did not get any sniffed the wrappers. Watching the children, so many of whom had absolutely nothing, Halvorsen told them that the following day he would have enough gum for all of them, and he would drop it out of his plane. One child asked “how will we know it is your plane?” to which Halvorsen responded that he would wiggle his wings, something he had done for his parents when he first got his pilot’s license in 1941.
That night, Halverson, his copilot, and his engineer pooled their candy rations for the next day’s drop. The accumulated candy was heavy, so in order to ensure the children were not hurt by the falling candy, Halvorsen made three parachutes out of handkerchiefs and tied them to the rations. In the morning when Halverson and his crew made regular supply drops, they also dropped three boxes of candy attached to handkerchiefs. They made these drops once a week for three weeks. Each week, the group of children waiting at the Tempelhof airport fence grew significantly.
Support for this effort to provide the children of Berlin with chocolate and gum grew quickly, first among Halvorsen’s friends, then to the whole squadron.. Now called “Operation Little Vittles,” word eventually reached the United States, where children and candy makers from all over the US began contributing candy. By November 1948, Halvorsen could no longer keep up with the amount of candy and handkerchiefs being sent from America. College student Mary C. Connors of Chicopee, Massachusetts offered to take charge of the now national project and worked with the National Confectioner’s Association to prepare the candy and tie the handkerchiefs.] With the ground swell of support, Little Vittles pilots, of which Halvorsen was now one of many, were dropping candy every other day. Children all over Berlin had sweets, and more and more artwork was getting sent back with kind letters attached to them. The American candy bombers became known as the Rosinenbomber (Raisin Bombers), while Halvorsen himself became known by many nicknames to the children of Berlin, including his original moniker of “Uncle Wiggly Wings,” as well as “The Chocolate Uncle”, “The Gum Drop Kid” and “The Chocolate Flier.”
Operation “Little Vittles” was in effect from September 22, 1948 to May 13, 1949. Although Lieutenant Halvorsen returned home in January 1949, he passed on leadership of the operation to one of his friends. Upon his return home, Halvorsen met with several individuals who were key in making Operation “Little Vittles” a success, and personally thanked his biggest supporter Dorothy Groeger, a homebound woman who nonetheless enlisted the help of all of her friends and acquaintances to sew handkerchiefs and donate funds. He also met the schoolchildren and “Little Vittles” committee of Chicopee, Massachusetts who were responsible for preparing over 18 tons of candy and gum from across the country and shipping it to Germany. In total, it is estimated that Operation “Little Vittles” was responsible for dropping over 23 tons of candy from over 250,000 parachutes.
Col. Halversen retired in 1974, after spending 31 years in the military. Now 97, he and his second wife live in Utah, and still spend winters in Arizona.
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