Book talks for readers at Chisago Lakes Middle School.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Candy Bomber: The Story of the Berlin Airlift's "Chocolate Pilot" by Michael O. Tunnell

Candy Bomber by Michael O. Tunnell

Sixty-two years ago the United States and its allies pulled off one of the world’s greatest rescue-relief missions in history, but nearly started World War 3 in the process. Today we know it as the Berlin Airlift. Back then it was known by some as Operation Vittles-a desperate attempt to feed and supply two million men, women and children for an uncertain length of time. From June of 1948 to May of 1949, C-54 Skymaster cargo planes landed every three minutes at airports in West Berlin to unload food and coal to a destitute city caged-in from the rest of the free world. It was if an iron curtain had descended.

[Play newsreel audio]

After Hitler’s defeat in World War 2, Germany and its despoiled capitol city were divided into Eastern and Western zones by the allies. West Berlin was occupied by the U.S., Britain, and France. East Berlin was controlled by the Russians. The Russians, or Soviets, thought they could wrestle away our control over West Berlin by siege. Thus, their plot began, and so blocked anyone and everything from entering the city by land. The Soviets decided they would starve the city into submission. They were confident the blockade would create a situation so dire that the people of West Berlin would beg the United States and its friends to leave. What the Soviets didn’t count on was the German people’s resolve, their resiliency, and their love for freedom.

Another thing the Russians didn’t count on was a secret operation, originally unknown to both sides, that would make a huge impact on this cold war front. It all began with three little packages, filled with hope, dropped by handkerchief parachutes, by a farm boy born in Utah who would forever be known as the “Chocolate Pilot.”

As the airplanes droned overhead, an off-duty pilot by the name of Lt. Gail Halvorsen observed a crowd of kids peering through the barbed wire fence that bordered Templehoff Central Airport in West Berlin. They looked with curiosity as one plane after another landed on the makeshift runway. The Lieutenant intended to film the planes in action with his 8mm home movie camera, but his attention shifted to the kids at the fence.

“Guten Tag. Wie geht’s?” (Hello, how are you?) he asked them.

With one glance he could tell the disheveled looking kids did not have enough to eat. Yet, not one of them begged for anything. Instead they wanted to know more about the planes and the airlift. The children told him they could get by with very little as long as the allies didn't abandon West Berlin. Their concern made the Lieutenant realize that even the children of Berlin considered their freedom more important than food.

As he turned to his jeep, Lt. Halvorsen hesitated. He really had nothing to give them. All he had in his pockets were two sticks of Doublemint chewing gum. He broke them in half, and expected the worst. Would they trample and fight each other for the sticks of gum?

Not one of them made a fuss.

“The lucky four that had plucked the half sticks from his fingers kept the gum, but they ripped the wrappers into strips, passing them around so everyone could breath in the sweet, minty smell.”

What happened next you could say was irresponsible, impulsive, and definitely inspirational. Could an airlift pilot conceivably provide a candy surprise for every hungry boy and girl in West Berlin? Probably not, but Lt. Halvorsen decided to go for it. He would break the rules of the airlift to become the candy bomber. The next day, as the Chocolate Pilot approached the runway in his C-54 cargo plane, he wiggled his wings so the kids at the barbed wire fence would know it was him. Then, he dropped the special payload: three packages floated down by handkerchief parachutes. After the special delivery reached the ground the kids cheered “with both arms waving above their heads and every jaw working on a prize.”

How long could Lt. Halvorsen keep his little operation a secret? If his superiors found out would it really mean a court martial for him and his crew? He'd find out soon enough. A German newspaper reporter happened to take a picture of the Candy Bomber’s plane, the tail number clearly visible in the photo. Would Operation Little Vittles be grounded just when West Berlin needed this kind of encouragement the most?

Read about a man who gave hope to an entire city in one of the darkest moments in the Cold War in the book, The Candy Bomber: The Story of the Berlin Airlift’s Chocolate Pilot,” by Michael O. Tunnell.

For more information check-out the following:

NPR-'Uncle Wiggly Wings' and Berlin's Candy Bomber

The Candy Bombers by Andrei Cherny

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