raisin bombers

Following Germany’s surrender in May 1945, the country and its capital-Berlin-was divided. In East Berlin was the Soviets, in the west, the United States, Britain, and France, though the sectors was surrounded by the Soviets.

On 24 June 1948 the Soviets stopped almost all forms of traffic into West Berlin, especially the vital rail lines. It was the first battle of the Cold War. Stalin agreed that the blockade would be removed if the West gave in to remove the new western German Mark currency, but the Allies wouldn’t yield. If they gave in, the Russians would make more demands.

What followed was a massive airlift conducted by a multinational coalition. Lt. Gail Holverson landed in Berlin in June of that year with a film camera and approached a group of school children watching the aircraft land. They asked him questions about him and the planes. He gave the group of kids his only two packs of chewing gum so long as they didn’t fight over them. They didn’t and divided up the gum. Halvorsen told them he would come back with more candy. When asked how they would know if it was him, he said, “I’ll wiggle my wings”. Because of the devastation of Berlin the people didn’t have much. Halvorsen and his crew pooled together their candy rations and planned to drop them via parachute to the kids. Because of their weight they tied silk handkerchiefs to the candy.

The next day Halvorsen flew in his C-54 and wiggled his wings before dropped bars of chocolate and chewing gum attached to parachutes made from silk handkerchiefs he tied himself. The number of children gathered outside the base grew as “Uncle Wiggly Wings” came back time after time dropping his little chutes of candies to the kids.

It didn’t take long for news to get out of what he was doing. Though his CO wasn’t pleased, the amount of praise given by Germans and Americans at home showed that Halvorsen was a bright light in a dark time. Every day the lieutenant was showered in letters of affection from those at home and those in Germany and then came the donations of candies, gum, and more silk to make parachutes made by homemaker Dorothy Groeger and her friends.

Other pilots also followed Halvorsen dropping parachutes to the kids as they brought in the precious cargo of coal, food, medicine to West Berlin. This main operation was called Operation: Vittles, what Halvorsen started became known as Operation: Little Vittles. Although he went home in January 1949, Halvorsen passed on the operation to his friend Captain Lawrence Caskey. Operation: Little Vittles was in effect from 22 May 1948 to 13 May 1949. By the end, over 23 tons of candy had been dropped by 250,000 parachutes. Operation Vittles and Little Vittles was a success. West Berlin held and Stalin relented his blockade.

Halvorsen was showered with praise and awards during his time including the Presidential Gold Star and the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, their highest award. He reenacted the candy drop over Berlin during the 20th anniversary of Operation Little Vittles. Some of those on the ground were the same children who watched the parachutes drop decades earlier. He also recreated drops over Kosovo and other war zones. Not only was candy dropped but soccer balls, teddy bears, and toys.

Halvorsen was nicknamed, Uncle Wiggly Wings, The Berlin Candy Bomber, and the Chocolate Bomber while his comrades were called “The Raisin Bombers” who brought a ray of hope in dark times to Berlin.

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Colonel Gail S. “Hal” Halvorsen (born October 10, 1920) is a retired career officer and command pilot in the United States Air Force known as the original Candy Bomber or the “Rosinenbomber” in Germany. He was born in Salt Lake City, Utah. He is best known for piloting C-47s and C-54s during the Berlin airlift (also known as “Operation Vittles”) during 1948–1949.

Shortly before landing at the Berlin Tempelhof Airport in the American sector of Berlin, Halvorsen would drop candy attached to parachutes to children below. This action, which was dubbed Operation Little Vittles and sparked similar efforts by other crews, was the source of the popular name for the pilots — the candy bombers. Halvorsen wanted to help raise the morale of the children during the time of uncertainty and privation.

Halvorsen started by giving a few treats to children watching the planes from outside the Tempelhof base. Wanting to give more, he promised to drop more candy from his plane the next day. Because the planes would arrive nearly every three minutes, the children naturally couldn’t distinguish his aircraft from the others. However, Halvorsen promised to wiggle the wings to identify himself, which led to his nickname “Onkel Wackelflügel” (“Uncle Wiggle Wings”). The other American candy bombers became known as the Rosinenbomber (Raisin Bombers). 

The operation was soon noticed by the press and gained widespread attention. A wave of public support led to donations which enabled Halvorsen and his crew to drop 850 pounds of candy. By the end of the airlift, around 25 plane crews had dropped 23 tons of chocolate, chewing gum, and other candies over various places in Berlin. 

Halvorsen’s actions as the original candy bomber had a substantial impact on the postwar perception of Americans in Germany and are still pointed to as a symbol of German-American relations.