Guest Blog: Grateful Gail

Note: Anna asked a question at today’s ISS Technology Briefing at Kennedy Space Center, shown on NASA-TV. Look for replays here. And we’ll have lots more this week! In the meantime…

Lofty Ambitions welcomes WWII pilot Gail Halvorsen, The Candy Bomber in the Berlin Airlift. He earned his private pilot’s license in 1941 and joined the U.S. Army Air Corps the next year, training with the Royal Air Force before returning to the Army Air Corps. In the 1950s, Gail Halvorsen participated in research and development for the Titan III Space Launch Vehicle. He retired in 1974 with more than 8000 flying hours in 15 different aircraft and a slew of honors. For ten years, he served as the Assistant Dean of Student Life at Brigham Young University. Since his second retirement, he’s been traveling the world, including for the food resupply over Bosnia in 1994. Gail Halvorsen will be at Chapman University November 17-20, 2010, and we’re happy to have his voice among our Guest Bloggers.


In 1948 and 1949 more than two million people were cut off from all the necessities of life by a Soviet blockade of West Berlin. A British, French, and American airlift was mounted to supply the former enemy with food, coal and all the necessities of life.  I was one of the airlift pilots.

One day in July 1948, I met thirty kids by a barbed wire fence at Tempelhof Central Airport in Berlin. They were excited. They said, “When the weather gets so bad you can’t land, don’t worry about us. We don’t have to have enough to eat. Just give us what you can. Someday we will have enough to eat, but if we lose our freedom we will never get it back.”

For the hour I was at the fence not one child asked for gum or candy. In other countries, children I had met during and after the war had always begged insistently for such treasures. These Berlin children were grateful for flour. To be free, they would not lower themselves to be beggars for something more. It was even the more impressive because neither gum nor candy had been available there for years.

When I realized this silent, mature show of gratitude and the strength that it took not to ask, I had to do something. All I had was two sticks of gum. I broke them in two and passed them through the barbed wire. The result was unbelievable. Those with the gum tore off strips of the wrapper and gave them to the others. Those with the strips put them to their noses and smelled the tiny fragrance. The expression of pleasure was immeasurable. I was so moved by what I saw and their incredible restraint that I promised them I would drop enough chocolate and gum for everyone the next day. They would know my plane because I would wiggle the wings as I came over the airport.

Such a plan required approval, but there was no time. When I got back to Rhein-Main in West Germany, I attached gum and even chocolate bars to three handkerchief parachutes. We wiggled the wings and delivered the goods the very next day, just as I’d told the children I would. What a jubilant celebration!

We did the same thing for several weeks before we got caught and threatened with a court martial, which was followed immediately by a pardon. In fact, General Tunner said, “Keep it up.”

Letters came by the hundreds. A little girl, Mercedes, wrote that I scared her chickens as I flew in to land, but it was okay if I dropped the goodies where the white chickens were. “When you see the white chickens, drop it there. I don’t care if it scares them.” I couldn’t find her chickens, so I mailed her chocolate and gum through the Berlin mail.

Twenty-two years later, in 1970, I was assigned as the commander of Tempelhof, because of those two sticks of gum. Then, a letter kept asking my family to come to dinner. In 1972, we accepted.  The lady of the house handed me a letter dated November 1948. It said, “Dear Mercedes, I can’t find your chickens. I hope this is OK. Your Chocolate Uncle.”  I had attached a box of candy and gum. The lady who’d invited me to dinner said, “I am Mercedes. Step over here, and I will show you where the chickens were.” My family and I have stayed with Mercedes and husband, Peter, more than thirty times since 1972. I will again in 2011, visiting the same apartment where Mercedes lived in 1948.

My experience on the Berlin Airlift taught me that gratitude, hope, and service before self can bring happiness to the soul when the opposite brings despair.  Thousands of Berlin children received over 20 tons of chocolate, gum, and other goodies, delivered on the ground or dropped from C-54 Skymaster aircraft over a 14-month period. This occurred because not one of the children begged, not even by body language or voice inflection, for something more than the ultimate commodity: Freedom. What greater “Lofty Ambition” can anyone have?


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