Angel of the Berlin airlift: Uncle Wiggly Wings turns 95


During the Berlin airlift in 1948 a gesture by US pilots – dropping candy in little parachutes – drew a huge response from children. The pilot credited with starting the airdrop of sweets, Gail Halvorsen, recalls how the gesture to children in the former enemy country went a long way in building US-German friendship.

The children of West Berlin knew exactly when Uncle Wiggly Wings would come.

They would sometimes wait for hours by the airport gate until his DC-4 appeared – wiggling its wings. It was the signal that Gail Halvorsen had arrived.

As Halvorsen’s plane approached little parachutes dropped from the sky with candy attached.

The gesture by a US officer helped make the Berlin airlift popular around the world and served to help re-establish German-American friendship only a few years after the end of World War II. In the process it gave Halvorsen the Uncle Wiggly Wings nickname, which still makes him proud.

Today Halvorsen, who turns 95 on Saturday, lives on a farm in Utah.

“I’m doing great,” the man who was also known as the Candy Bomber tells dpa. He hikes and rides his horse most every day. He travels too, even to Germany. “Berlin is my second home,” he says – in German.

Nearly 70 years ago he belonged to a group of pilots who supplied West Berlin with food and other essentials on a daily basis after the Russians attempted to starve out the city by blockading the roads leading into it.

The Cold War had begun, living conditions in Berlin were tough and food was scarce.

“One day there were some children on the gate of the Tempelhof Airport,” Halvorsen recalls. “I wanted to give them some candy. They hadn’t seen such a thing in years.”

But Halvorsen, a first lieutenant in the Army Air Corps, didn’t have enough. He promised to come back, but when the children asked how they would recognize his plane, Halvorsen answered: “I’ll wiggle my wings.”

The next day he kept his word and wiggled the wings of his plane to identify himself. Then before landing at Tempelhof he tossed out small parachutes he had fashioned from his handkerchiefs, each one with a piece of candy attached.

Word of the airborne candy spread fast, and the flock of waiting children grew ever larger.

Halvorsen’s comrades joined in and more and more mini-parachutes dropped from the American planes. Eventually his superiors became involved, and in the process the action took on a larger, political dimension.

Soon thousands of US children were donating their own candy and attaching them to small parachutes.

To the children in Berlin the sweet treats provided a glimmer of hope that someone cared about them. It became known as Operation Little Vittles, a humanitarian mission that continued for 15 months.

Halvorsen wanted to expand the candy drop to children who lived in East Berlin because they had even less, “but the Russians didn’t like it,” and his superiors forbade it.

All the more for the children of West Berlin: more than 23 tonnes of sweets were dropped during the air lift.

Of course it was not a given that the Americans would behave this way.

“The war was just over,” Halvorsen noted. And then there were memories of his best friend Conrad whom he had taught to fly. Conrad was shot down and killed by the Germans. “The same Germans I now provided with food.”

But as Halvorsen got to know more Germans, he eventually said to himself: “Aren’t all people the same? They all want one thing most and that’s peace.”

Halvorsen considers the airlift the most significant event of his life, though other achievements came later, including a period as the commander of Tempelhof Airport – the very place he landed his DC-4 during the airlift.

Halvorsen dons his old officer’s jacket – many of the decorations on it come from Germany – as he prepares for a trip out of Spanish Fork for his 95th birthday. He spends winters in Arizona, which is warmer than Utah.

“I love being over there,” he says, referring to Germany. “The people are so friendly, and, yes, still very grateful.” But it is almost embarrassing to him that there are schools there named after him.

His attention these days is turned toward a different group of children.

“I have 24 grandchildren and 43 great-grandchildren,” he said. “Trust me, there’s no such thing as boredom!”