“I will miss his goodness in the world.
This is the immediate message I received from a friend after hearing the news that Colonel Gail Halvorsen, aka “The Candy Bomber”, had died Wednesday at the age of 101.
The legendary pilot, who served in the Berlin Airlift after World War II, died surrounded by loved ones, according to a statement from his family.
A life of service
Halvorsen – born in Salt Lake City, Utah on October 10, 1920 – joined the United States Air Force in May 1942 after earning his private pilot’s certificate in 1941 through the Civilian Pilot Training Program and his service in the Civil Air Patrol.
His initial Army pilot training was in Miami, Oklahoma, where he entered a joint program with the Royal Air Force and the British Flying Training School, operated by the Spartan School of Aeronautics. Assigned to large transport aircraft, he spent the war years in the South Pacific theater.
After the end of World War II he remained in the newly chartered US Air Force and as a lieutenant was ordered to Germany to participate in Operation Vittles, what we call the Berlin Airlift. In July 1948 it began this tour of duty with flights which delivered pallets of food and essential supplies to German civilians for a period of 11 months.
Observing the missions from the ground, Halvorsen noted the children all around and after speaking with them, he imagined what would become “Operation Little Vittles”. He found a way to affix bags of gum and chocolate to tiny parachutes and set them down specifically for young people to gather and enjoy, a bright spot in an otherwise terrible time. The “Candy Bomber” earned its nickname and place in German history as a hero.
Halvorsen retired from the USAF in 1974 with over 8,000 hours in his logbook.
Souvenir of the Berlin Airlift
Some 70 years later, in June 2019, following the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day, a group of fifteen Douglas DC-3s, C-47s and other variants crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the D-Day squadron J. Their mission? Fly over the beaches of Normandy in tribute to those who served and whose lives were lost.
A handful of these planes flew to Berlin after the event to remember the Berlin Airlift and to provide a connection to those still alive who benefited from Operation Vittles and Little Vittles.
The airlift – and its commemoration – holds a special place in the hearts of the crews who flew with Halvorsen on what would be his last major mission.
Sherman Smoot, pilot of Bomber Biscuit from Betsy, from Estrella Warbird Museum in Paso Robles, California, participated in this memorial in June 2019. He remembers Halvorsen’s unique nature and gift of kindness.
“Colonel Halvorson was a very gentle and gracious man,” Smoot said in response to the Colonel’s passing. “We were honored to be able to fly him in our C-47 at his celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift to a small airport just south of Berlin where his entourage picked him up. We were very lucky to chat with him and it was a very interesting conversation.
“Gail will forever hold a special place with the D-Day Squadron,” said the D-Day Squadron in a statement this week. “Our mission to Germany in 2019 would not have been the commemoration of the century without him. He was part of the crew and piloted our WWII veteran, Lassie placid, among other C-47s involved for the 70th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift.
“Now, with the flyovers continuing, we can honor his legacy, pay tribute to his military service and celebrate the life he led, impacting all those he came in contact with and those he inspired from afar. Gail was a lifelong member of our DC-3 society, leaving a legacy for our members.We will never forget the strength and kindness he showed to all of us.
“He actually autographed our plane, which thrilled our crew,” Smoot added. “He told me he had no idea that a simple little attention for the children of Berlin would lead to such a tremendous humanitarian hammer blow against the Soviet Union.”
“I knew the stories and understood the meaning, but not on a visceral level,” said Eric Zipkin, pilot and operator of placid lassie in a previous interview with FLYING about the 70th anniversary event in Berlin. “With 50,000 to 60,000 people boarding the plane and breaking down and crying, that direct connection, it’s extraordinary. We ended a military operation with a humanitarian mission.
“It shows how, as a country, we are stepping forward as a leader.”
We “step up” through heroes like Halvorsen, their kindness and humanity. He never considered himself a star, but he clearly shone as one in the eyes of so many whose lives he touched.