At the close of World War II, the victorious Allies split Germany into four parts — one controlled by France, another by the UK, a third by the U.S., and the final one under control of the Soviet Union. Berlin, even though it was embedded within the Soviet-controlled sector, was itself divided into four similarly-managed parts. These divisions weren’t meant to be political borders but rather a method of parceling out administration obligations. But a fracturing relationship between the Soviets and the western powers changed that. In 1948, the Soviet Union used the odd geographical location of Berlin to its political advantage, blockading the west from the city. In what would later be called the “Berlin Blockade,” access to Western-controlled Berlin via rail, road, and water were all severely restricted by Moscow.
In response, the Western powers began to airlift supplies to the cut-off West Berliners. Starting on June 28, 1948, a coalition of nations lea by the U.S. and UK made regular landings at Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport with planes filled with goods for the isolated West Berliners. Typically, those goods were fuel (coal, often) and food, but on July 17, 1948, the manifest included two sticks of Wrigley’s Doublemint Gum.
Those sticks of gum were in the pocket of an American pilot named Gail “Hal” Halvorsen. On that date in July, a small act of kindness started one of history’s nicest traditions. The Herald, a newspaper based in near Colonel Halvorsen’s home town of Salt Lake City, Utah, explained:
Halvorsen said he met approximately 30 kids at a barbed-wire fence inside the airport and talked to them for more than an hour. When he was walking away, however, he realized none of the children — ages 9 to 13 — had asked him for chocolate, which is something they hadn’t had in more than two years.
As he was walking away he said he thought to himself, “Dummy, don’t you know kids like chocolate?”
Halvorsen said he felt in his pocket and found two sticks of gum, which he broke in half and gave to the children. None of the kids fought for the gum. In fact, Halvorsen said those who didn’t get the gum just wanted a strip of the wrapper in order to smell it.
Halvorsen realized that these kids had gone without a treat for a long time — and that two sticks couldn’t please the whole city’s complement of kids, not by a long shot. So he expanded his operations. He promised to bring them more gum and candy on his next flight into the airport and to keep on the lookout for his plane. The kids wanted to know how they’d recognize him, so Halvorsen improvised a solution; according to the official website of Hill Air Force Base, “he said he would ‘wiggle his wings’ as he approached their position” — something a child could easily see from the ground below.
In his next flight, Halvorsen delivered. He brought with him candy, purchased via his rations and that of some friends. He explained in an interview with HistoryNet.com:
My copilot and engineer gave me their candy rations—big double handfuls of Hershey, Mounds and Baby Ruth bars and Wrigley’s gum. It was heavy, and I thought, Boy, put that in a bundle and hit ’em in the head going 110 miles an hour, it’ll make the wrong impression. So, I made three handkerchief parachutes and tied strings tight around the candy.
The next day, I came in over the field, and there were those kids in that open space. I wiggled the wings, and they just blew up—I can still see their arms. The crew chief threw the rolled-up parachutes out the flare chute behind the pilot seat. Couldn’t see what happened, of course. It took about 20 minutes to unload the flour, and I worried all the time where the candy went. As we taxied out to takeoff, there were the kids, lined up on the barbed-wire fence, three handkerchiefs waving through, their mouths going up and down like crazy.
Three weeks we did it—three parachutes each time. The crowd got big.
From that point on for the duration of the airlift operations, Berlin’s children waited for the man they called Onkel Wackelflugel — “Uncle Wiggly Wings” — and later “Rosinenbomber,” or “the Candy Bomber.” He even received mail to his base addressed to those names. After a while, Air Force officials became aware of his unauthorized bombing runs and not only permitted it to continue, but encouraged it (and provided real parachutes). Other pilots joined Halvorsen in delivering candy, and Americans back home, having learned of their efforts, sent package after package of chocolate for redistribution.
In 1949, it all came to a stop — but for good reasons: the Soviet Union lifted the blockade fifteen months after instituting it, opening the path to more traditional commerce. The airlift efforts, over that time period, delivered approximately two million tons of supplies during its operations, including an untold amount of chocolate. Halvorsen, for spreading good cheer when it was so widely needed, was decorated by both the U.S. (in 2014) and West German (in 1974) governments for his efforts.
From the Archives: The Candy Desk: Where to get candy if you’re in Congress.
Take the Quiz: Here’s the slogan. Name the candy.
Related: Doublemint gum. Also, a book about the Candy Bomber for kids grades four to six.