This Saturday, in the home of his daughter about 40 miles south of Salt Lake City, surrounded by mask-wearing relatives, a gentle man will quietly celebrate his 100th birthday. Once, long ago, he was famous, a star of the newsreels and the first days of national television. Today, Gail S. “Hal” Halvorsen, the Candy Bomber of the Berlin Airlift, is a hazy memory clattering about in the attic of our national consciousness, stuffed into a dusty box alongside Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyan and other legends whose stories we only dimly remember. Yet this man, the single individual most responsible for healing the wounds between Germans and Americans after World War II, still walks among us. His kindness and courage amid desperation and distrust is at once a rebuke to us in this mean, low moment and a guide for how we might yet salve our deepest wounds.
In 1948, three years after the fall of the Third Reich, the Soviets, having toppled nascent democracies across Eastern Europe and substituted puppet governments, turned their attention to western Berlin. There, surrounded by Soviet occupied territory for at least 100 miles on every side, two and a quarter million people, the great majority of them the women and children who had survived the war, lived amid the ruins of Germany’s capital, but in freedom under the occupation of the United States, Great Britain, and France.
On June 24, 1948, the Russians instituted a total blockade of western Berlin, cutting off access to food, fuel, electricity, medicine—everything a city would need to survive. There were 21 days of meager rations stockpiled before starvation would set in. For the United States, the immediate choices were to retreat from Berlin in ignominy and defeat, thereby precipitating a likely fall of all of Germany and perhaps more of Western Europe to the communists or to attack the Soviet armed forces, which would most certainly have set off a third World War. The Soviets outnumbered the combined armed forces of the Western democracies in Europe by 62 to one.
What happened next was the famed Berlin Airlift, in which tiny planes no larger than a modern yellow school bus flew 24 hours a day carrying supplies from western Germany into western Berlin, landing and taking off every 90 seconds in a carefully choreographed logistical miracle that managed to provide the bare amount of sustenance and heat needed to keep the Berliners alive for a year until the Russians folded amid the embarrassment of their futility.
However, saving Berlin took more than airplanes and American generals. It required, most of all, the Berliners themselves. America entered Germany determined to teach Germans a lesson so that they would not rise up once again and threaten the world. After three years of a harsh occupation, trust between Americans and Germans, the conquerors and the conquered, the liberators of the camps and the perpetrators of the Holocaust, had been no more rebuilt than the bombed-out buildings in which the Berliners eked out their existence. It was widely assumed that if given the choice between starving for freedom or surrendering to communism with the promise of survival, Hitler’s recent subjects would rise up against their Western occupiers.
Into this situation stepped 27-year-old Hal Halvorsen. One day, having delivered a planeload of supplies into Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport, he happened upon a group of about 30 emaciated children, dressed in rags, standing on the other side of the barbed-wire fence. After a quick exchange of the few words they could find in common, he handed them the two sticks of gum in his pocket. They tore them into pieces and shared them amongst themselves. Those who did not get any gum dreamily sniffed the Doublemint wrappers. Halvorsen realized it was perhaps the first sweet they had ever experienced.
The next day, surreptitiously, he flew overhead and, tying Hershey bars to handkerchiefs, dropped three candy parachutes onto the children below. After a couple more secret missions, with now hundreds of children waiting everyday by the Tempelhof fence, the identity of the Candy Bomber was revealed. Instead of being court martialed for breaking the strict rules of the Airlift, he was allowed to continue and recruit other pilots to join in his mission.
Halvorsen became a national celebrity in the United States, and this American pilot became the first beloved hero of the children of war-torn and then postwar Berlin. Their parents were also inspired by him and by his fellow pilots who were risking, and in some cases giving, their lives to save the same people they had been bombing only a few years earlier. Rather than buckle, all through a miserable winter, they stood their ground. Had they not, there would have been no independent West Germany, no Marshall Plan, no NATO. We would have inherited a very different world.
Halvorsen’s story may seem a saccharine anachronism from a simpler time, but the scared, scarred world he helped transform was in so many ways darker than our own. Amid the ugly tribalism and angry tweets of the present moment, we would do well to remember the lesson of our newest centenarian: that the decisions of the powerful may shape our world, but that it is only the tiny acts of compassion and conscience that send ripples through the lives of those around us that can tear down the walls of enmity and rage.