Col. Gail S. Halvorsen, also known as the “Berlin Candy Bomber” died peacefully on Feb. 16 in the Utah Valley Hospital after a brief illness.
He became known worldwide after dropping candy to children in Berlin during the Berlin Airlift in 1948 and 1949.
After his time in Berlin, Halvorsen led a life of service and inspired many. He became the Assistant Dean of Student Life at BYU in 1976 and left the university in 1986 to serve two missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in England and Russia.
“Halvorsen’s deeply human act has never been forgotten,” Berlin Mayor Franziska Giffey said in a statement.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox also praised Halvorsen, who was born in Salt Lake City but grew up on farms before getting his pilot’s license.
“I know he’s up there, handing out candy behind the pearly gates somewhere,” he said.
After the United States entered World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Halvorsen trained as a fighter pilot and served as a transport pilot in the south Atlantic during World War II before flying food and other supplies to West Berlin as part of the airlift.
According to his account on the foundation’s website, Halvorsen had mixed feelings about the mission to help the United States’ former enemy after losing friends during the war.
But his attitude changed, and his new mission was launched, after meeting a group of children behind a fence at Templehof airport.
He offered them the two pieces of gum that he had, broken in half, and was touched to see those who got the gum sharing pieces of the wrapper with the other children, who smelled the paper. He promised to drop enough for all of them the following day as he flew, wiggling the wings of his plane as he flew over the airport, Halvorsen recalled.
He started doing so regularly, using his own candy ration, with handkerchiefs as parachutes to carry them to the ground. Soon other pilots and crews joined in what would be dubbed “Operation Little Vittles.”
After an Associated Press story appeared under the headline “Lollipop Bomber Flies Over Berlin,” a wave of candy and handkerchief donations, followed.
The airlift began on June 26, 1948, in an ambitious plan to feed and supply West Berlin after the Soviets — one of the four occupying powers of a divided Berlin after World War II — blockaded the city in an attempt to squeeze the U.S., Britain and France out of the enclave within Soviet-occupied eastern Germany.
Allied pilots flew 278,000 flights to Berlin, carrying about 2.3 million tons of food, coal, medicine and other supplies.
Finally, on May 12, 1949, the Soviets realized the blockade was futile and lifted their barricades. The airlift continued for several more months, however, as a precaution in case the Soviets changed their minds.
Memories in Germany of American soldiers handing out candy, chewing gum or fresh oranges are still omnipresent — especially for the older generation born during or right after the war.
Many fondly remember eating their first candy and fresh fruit during an era when people in bombed-out cities were starving or selling their family heirlooms on the black market for small amounts of flour, butter or oil just so they could get by.
Halvorsen’s efforts to reach out to the people of Berlin helped send a message that they were not forgotten and would not be abandoned, said James Stewart, the director of the Gail S. Halvorsen Aviation Education Foundation.
Despite his initial ambivalence about the airlift, Halvorsen, who grew up poor during the Great Depression, recognized a bit of himself in the children behind the fence and made a connection with them, he said.
“A simple person to person act of kindness can really change the world,” Stewart said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.