Fifty years ago, they worked around the clock to keep Berlin from starving. Now, in a year-long celebration, Berlin invites them back.
- By Linda Shiner
- Air & Space magazine, July 1998
(Page 5 of 7)
At an airlift veterans' reunion last October, old-timers remembered the group of young pilots who had a wild time before Tunner showed up. "You'd take off after your buddies, scream around the circuit [to Berlin and back], and try to be there when they got back so you could ask what took 'em so long," Halvorsen recalled, shaking his head. "Stupid."
"People really did that?" a listener asked.
"Oh, yeah," said Halvorsen, adding sheepishly, "I did that. Once."
Well, he was young. And, as Berliners will tell you, he more than made up for his hijinks. They may not know the name Halvorsen, but every one of them can tell you the story of the Berlin candy bomber.
Halvorsen was a fresh-faced beanpole from Utah when he volunteered for the airlift. One day he spotted a group of kids watching the airplanes land at Tempelhof and, after a brief chat, got the idea to drop them his candy rations. He did it secretly at first, fearing he'd get in trouble, his copilot and flight mechanic adding their chocolate bars and chewing gum to his, tying their handkerchiefs to the small bundles as parachutes, and bombs away! on final approach. Somehow a reporter with the Frankfurter Zeitung got wind of it--almost bonked on the head with a candy bar, the story goes--and Halvorsen came back to his bunk one night to find it piled high with handkerchiefs and chocolate bars. The other airmen on the base had read the paper. The Air Force loved it, and sent him home for a weekend to do a couple of national TV shows. The candy drops became Operation Little Vittles, complete with corporate backing and its own statistics. Chocolate and handkerchiefs came into Rhein-Main from all over the United States. The town of Chicopee, Massachusetts, which set itself up as the U.S. headquarters for candy bombing, alone shipped to Germany 2,000 sheets for parachutes, 3,000 handkerchiefs, and 18 tons of candy.
This year Halvorsen, 78, is returning to Berlin to drop candy from The Spirit of Freedom, a C-54, restored by the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation, that carries airlift memorabilia and photographs instead of coal or flour. One of Berlin's favorite heroes, Halvorsen will be a popular figure at the events commemorating the airlift's 50th anniversary. At the 40th celebration in Berlin, he signed autographs for hours from the cockpit of a parked C-54, frequently on tattered pieces of cloth handed him by middle-aged Berliners who had been lucky enough to catch them many years before.
In Halvorsen's estimation, the real heroes of the airlift were the mechanics. "They weren't in covered facilities," he says. "The airplanes were out in the weather. Sometimes it got so cold, they were freezing their fingers to the head bolts of the cylinders."
"We had an hour and forty minutes for everything--refueling, reloading, preflight inspection, reservice, and any maintenance that had to be done." says James Spatafora, 69, who left his job in a Brooklyn necktie factory when he was 17 to join the Air Force. Spatafora had been trained as a hydraulics specialist on P-51 fighters and says he "really had to crack the books" when he got to Rhein-Main and started working on C-54s. "But there was no such thing as staying in your specialty," he recalls. "I helped props people change props, instruments people, electricians, towed airplanes. I loved every minute of it. Nothing heroic about it. Just ordinary people living in extraordinary times."