The Candy Bomber

Michael O. Tunnel

“I can live on thin rations, but not without hope.”

Our children need stories like this. We need stories like this. 

The first chapter of The Candy Bomber briefly outlines a complicated political situation – the Soviet blockade of Germany’s capital city, Berlin, in 1948. When WWII was over, the Allies divided Germany into four occupation zones. The city of Berlin was inside the Russian zone, but the United States, Britain, and France each wanted access to the city, so they divided it four ways as well. The Russians got East Berlin, and the other three countries divided the west side of the city. 

The Russians wanted none of western democracy. They blockaded Berlin, expecting it wouldn’t take long for the starving West Berliners to beg the Allies to leave so the Russians would allow them food. The Russians could block access by land and water, but the treaty provided for certain air corridors which couldn’t be denied without risking political consequences. 

The Allies began what came to be known as the Berlin Airlift. The goal was to provide food and fuel to over two million people for as long as necessary. The Chocolate Bombing grew out of an experience one Airlift pilot, Lt. Gail Halvorsen, had on a sightseeing trip in Berlin. He encountered a group of German children who asked him questions and told him about the experiences of their relatives in East Berlin. 

When it was time for him to leave, he wanted to give something to these children, who were not only hungry but had long been deprived of sweets. All he had with him was two sticks of Doublemint gum. Though he was afraid he might be starting a fight, he tore both sticks in half and handed the pieces to four children. Rather than fighting, the children tore the wrappers into strips and passed them around so everyone would have a chance to savor the smell. Halvorsen says, “In all my experience, including Christmases past, I have never witnessed such an expression of surprise, joy, and sheer pleasure.”

It was then that he had the idea to drop gum and chocolate to these kids when he flew back into Berlin the next day with the normal supplies. He told them he would wiggle the plane’s wings so they would know it was him and be ready for the drop. 

At first, all Halvorsen had to give was his own chocolate ration and those donated by his fellow airmen. He was also operating without permission. However, the operation soon had the blessing of his superiors and enough attention that people in the United States were raising funds and donating candy. They were also donating fabric to be used for the little parachutes necessary to make the drops without injuring anyone. The Life Savers company even donated 4,000 rolls of candy to the effort. 

In May of 1949, the Soviets lifted the blockade, as it clearly wasn’t having the desired effect. “During the sixteen months of the Berlin Airlift, seventy USAF and Royal Air Force personnel lost their lives in plane crashes and other accidents, especially during the brutal winter weather . . . Pilots and their crews made 277,569 flights into West Berlin to deliver food, coal, and liquid fuel totaling 2,325,510 tons (2,109,000 kilograms). Not included in those numbers were the tons of candy and gum delivered by Uncle Wiggly Wings and Operation Little Vittles.” Halvorsen says, “All in all, my buddies and I ended up dropping over twenty tons of candy and gum,” during the fourteen months after the Doublemint gum incident.

Besides attempts to stop the Airlift by using intimidating tactics against the planes, the Soviets even, “bribed West Berliners by offering fresh vegetables, coal, and other necessities to those who agreed to sign up for East Berlin ration cards. Very few West Berliners–perhaps four percent–participated in the Soviets’ ploy to win them over.” 

In the prologue, Halversen says, “This book is special to me because it tells about the people of Berlin who valued freedom over food.” He adds, “Children felt this way too. ‘I can live on thin rations but not without hope,’ one ten-year-old boy told me”

This is a story of the selflessness and compassion of countless people. The Germans of Berlin could hardly believe their very recent enemies were now so dedicated to saving their lives. Such stories of virtue are important, but what I find most important in this one is the attitude of the suffering Berliners. Their city had been bombed to rubble, surely all of them had lost loved ones, they were starving and were facing a winter without fuel for heat or cooking. I imagine parents being near desperation for the sake of their children. But they knew some things are more important than physical comfort, and that some are even worth dying for. 

Throughout most of human history, life has been tough. Our children need stories of people enduring real, hard circumstances for greater purposes. They need to ask themselves, “Would I have the fortitude to live on thin rations for something greater than myself?”

We all need stories about people rising to the occasion to help their neighbors. We need to be reminded who Jesus said our neighbors are. Anyone in need. 

Note: At the time of this writing, Colonel Halvorsen is still alive and is 101 years old.