In July, the Lundell family of Kiron, Iowa, honored my father, Gail S. Halvorsen at the King Theater in Ida Grove, Iowa where the Lundells generously supported the showing of aviation masterpiece, “Top Gun: Maverick.” They dedicated it to dad, the Berlin Candy Bomber by placing his name on the marquee.
Journalist, Doug Clough of Ida County Courier, reported in the July 20, 2022 edition, “who is the one person who could outshine Tom Cruise as an airman of character? The Chocolate Pilot. . . the Candy Bomber. . . Col. Gail S. Halvorsen himself.”
Col. Halvorsen was raised on sugar beet farms in Idaho and Utah. While working on the family farm he often looked up to see the airplanes fly over on their way from Brigham City, Utah to Malad, Idaho and said, “wow, I want to do that!” He applied for, and received a scholarship in the new government program to provide more pilots for the war effort—non college fight training.
After high school graduation in 1939 (and finishing his certification for refrigeration and air conditioning), using his scholarship, he completed his private pilot license in 1941. Soon after, in December, he was washing his car on the farm and heard the news of Pearl Harbor on the radio. He determined he would apply for the Army Air Corp. On a spring day a small note in the Garland Times caught his eye. The United States Army Air Corps would test applicants for Aviation Cadet appointments at Utah State University in Logan on May 17, 1942. He passed the physical and written tests and was sworn in that very day to become a military aviator. There was a backlog for the Aviation Cadet program, so while waiting for his call, he attended Utah State University for just two quarters and met his future wife, Alta Jolley Halvorsen! His active duty life began on March 23, 1943.
Gail’s preflight training was at the San Antonio Texas Aviation Cadet Training Center, then his flight training was with the Royal Air Force Number 3 British Flying Training School in Miami, Oklahoma. He was awarded the coveted Royal Air Force cloth wings and the United States Army Air Corps silver wings on June 17, 1944. The sugar beet field seemed far away and almost unreal as his dream had come true.
Although he was trained as a fighter pilot, he was assigned to fly cargo for the war effort in Natal Brazil in foreign air transport operations. He was flying the C-47 “Gooney Bird” passenger and cargo routes in the South Atlantic Theatre. He also was introduced to and checked out in the Douglas C-54 Skymaster. While in Brazil, Halvorsen decided to stay in the Army Air Corp and make it his career. After the war ended, he was sent back to the States and in 1947 was assigned to Brookley Air Force Base in Mobile, Alabama.
After the 1945 defeat of Germany, the country was divided into four quarters with France, the United States, Britain, and Russia. Berlin, the capital was located inside the Russian quarter and it was also divided into four sectors. Other sources contain details of the politics that led up to the imposition of a blockade into Berlin by the Russians. Written provisions had been made for air access to West Berlin through three air corridors, from West Germany to Berlin. On June 24, 1948 Stalin blocked all surface routes into Berlin including one autobahn, one rail line, and one canal system. This left the remaining three air corridors (written into the treaty) which would supply a city of nearly 2.5 million people living in the British, French and American sectors.
The Blockade, which was one of the first tests of the Cold War, necessitated supplying Berlin by air, and was supported by President Truman and ally, Prime Minister Clement Attlee of Britain. The Berlin Airlift started in June 1948 and continued through September, 1949. An airplane would land the average of every three minutes from West Germany into Berlin, a distance of about 110 miles. Gail Halvorsen was one of the pilots who flew food, coal, milk, and other dried good to Berlin.
After one of his trips, instead of sleeping, he jumped back on to a C-54 heading to Berlin to take some “movies” and photographs of airplanes landing at Tempelhof Airbase. In the process, he met about thirty children near a barbed wire fence surrounding the airbase. He was impressed at their expression of gratitude for food and coal. They told Halvorsen how grateful they were for their freedom and encouraged him to “keep flying.” “If we lose our freedom,” they said, “we will never get it back.” After his hour long conversation with them, he turned to leave and wanted to give them something. All he had was two sticks of gum, but he tore each one in half and handed it to them through the fence. The children who didn’t get any, smelled the wrapper. Halvorsen was so impressed, he had an idea of how he could make them happy by dropping candy parachutes on his flight the next day. “Just look for me to wiggle the wings,” he told them. That next day “Operation Little Vittles,” was born–a sweet component to “Operation Little Vittles,” and the British name for the Berlin Airlift, “Operation Plainfare.” Halvorsen’s small act of kindness changed his life and the lives of his family members yet unborn.
The Western Allies won the first battle of the Cold War without even firing a single shot. Because Halvorsen noticed children, another World War was avoided! Halvorsen often spoke of the courage and bravery of the children of Berlin and their families. He praised those unloading the aircraft, those who were in the radio towers, mechanics who kept the planes flying, and the crews who flew day and night. Halvorsen said “thirty-nine of my British comrades lost their lives, and thirty-one of my American friends in the efforts to save a former enemy.
Now back to the Lundells! Jim and Vance originally met dad in Osh Kosh, Wisconsin at a fly-in. They bonded over their love of airplanes. My father has had the honor of meeting many good families like the Lundells. Vance and Jim visited Dad in Tucson and in 2017, dad and I went to Iowa to hear Jim read “Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot, and Christmas From Heaven with the Tabernacle Choir and Tom Brokaw, to the fourth grade children in nearby communities.
Jim recalled, “when I met Gail in Osh Kosh, I read the book about Mercedes and it was very moving. It’s about his lifelong relationship with a German girl who wrote a letter to him. He brought candy to her home personally, and they remained friends through her adulthood.” Lundell brought the book to his home in Kiron, Iowa and read it to his grandchildren. “It went over so well that I decided to read it to the kids in school.” When we visited the Lundell family in Iowa, we visited fourth grade classes in Denison, Odebolt, and Ida Grove with Jim.
Jim always passes out candy to the children after he reads to them saying, “imagine what it would be like if you had little food and no candy. They get wide-eyed at the thought.” In May, Vance attended dad’s Celebration of Life held in Provo and Spanish Fork, Utah.
The Halvorsen family is proud to know our wonderful mid-western friends, the Lundells.