TUCSON, Ariz. (KSAZ) - War typically doesn't bring back many good memories, but for one man given the nickname of "The Candy Bomber" and "Uncle Wiggly Wings," he helped change that for thousands of German children.
Gail Halvorsen was a transport pilot during the Berline Airlift after World War II, and in addition to dropping off much-needed supplies, he dropped candy to the children who had nothing.
"Being a farm kid, I wanted to fly. Watching the airplanes going over the farm, I'd be down in the dirt, and the airplanes up in the sky, I though boy I want to do that," said Gail Halvorsen.
For those that remember World War II or the Berline Airlift, you may have heard his name before.
"He was the epitome of the American, who stays, who helped in the situation and also continued to guarantee West German freedom later on," said Professor Volker Benkert.
After WWII, the allies split up the defeated Germany into four zones of occupation. The Soviet Union took control of the eastern half, and the western half was divided among the United States, Great Britain, and France. The German capital of Berlin was located deep in the Soviet zone and in June of 1948 the Soviets planned to starve the western city by blocking all entrances and cutting off supplies.
"It can't supply itself. You can not grow enough food in this city to supply 2.2 million people. All of it's energy needs were met from power plants that happened to be in the East, so really from one day to the next this city is without food, it's without fuel, it's without power, it's without water, everything is shut off," said Benkert.
So American leaders planned to supply the city by air, the effort known as the Berlin Airlift. The effort lasted nearly a year and carried more than 2.3 million tons into the city. During that time, a supply plane took off and landed every 30 seconds.
"We couldn't even get off the base to look around and coming in over the city; it looked like a moonscape. The sky scrapers were empty buildings, just fingers to the sky. Just terrible, you couldn't believe the devastation flying in," said Halvorsen.
The planes made almost 300,000 flights, many of them belonged to Col. Halvorsen and one, in particular, changed everything. During some downtime, he decided to do some sightseeing.
"I wanted to get on the ground, I always carried a movie camera, and I wanted to get pictures on the ground," he said.
On this day he saw about 30 kids playing near the fence of Templehof Air Base, they began talking with the young pilot. "Don't worry about us, we don't need enough to eat, just don't give up on us. Someday we'll have enough to eat, but if we lose our freedom, we'll never get it back. Kids 10 to 15 giving me a lecture of America and how important freedom was and it just blew me out of my socks. I just couldn't believe those kids."
After about an hour with the children he started to leave.
"I started to run, and I made it about 50 yards and a voice came to me clear as a bell and I stopped, and I couldn't figure it out. I thought why are these kids so different, and then I knew what they'd been through and their attitude."
That voice told him to go back.
"I reached in my pocket, and all I had was two sticks of double mint gum, I looked at 30 kids right here, eyeball to eyeball, two sticks and we're going to get bloody noses.".
He passed the gum through the fence and watched as they split it up and passed it all around. When there was none left they passed the wrappers around to smell. This inspired him to do more.
"For flight regulations I was known as a tough guy and fly by the book and everything else, and I was horrified to hear myself say come back tomorrow stand in the same place when I come in I'll drop the candy bars so you can share it."
The next day he dropped three candy parachutes made from handkerchiefs through the flare chute before landing. The children knew it was him because he did what he'd say he'd do, he'd wiggle the wings of his plane.
"The next day came back about noon, good weather, came over the top of the airfield, 30 kids right up to the gate, they hadn't told another soul. I wiggled the wings, and they just went crazy."
Halvorsen dropped his candy rations several more times before being caught by a German reporter who filmed his sweet act of kindness.
"I went in a saluted the Colonel and he said, Halvorsen, what have you been doing? Flying like mad sir. I'm not stupid he said, what else have you been doing? He set down the paper and there my airplane is, beautiful shot of the parachutes and everything."
Rather than being punished he was encouraged to continue the candy drops. Soon letters made out to Uncle Wiggly Wings arrived with children requesting drops in certain areas.
"They'd say, when you take off, come down spray river turn right, go down one block, then the second house on the right; I'll be in the backyard every day at 2 o'clock, drop it there."
The drops became so popular it expanded into "Operation Little Vittles," and once this news hit the USA, candy donations began pouring in.
"Out of little things proceeded that which is great, I got taught in Sunday school, that little decisions you make put footsteps on where you end up in life, good or bad," said Halvorsen.
In the end, the Candy Bomber and his crew dropped 23 tons of chocolate. What started with two sticks of gums transformed the perceptions of two countries once at war, later lending a helping hand and making freedom a reality.
"Without hope the soul dies, so without hope the soul dies, so you have to have hope, and that candy was just a symbol of hope. It was hope for a better future, and it kept them going."
In 1970, Halvorsen returned to Germany, this time as a commander of an air base in West Berlin. Schools in Germany are named after him, and he was even awarded the highest medal of honor by the German military.
Halvorsen still flies and does candy drops for some special occasions; he resides in the Tucson area.