Uncle Wiggle-Wings Bombs Berlin with Candy
Updated: Dec 18, 2020
As World War II came to an end, the country of Germany was divided in two by the Allies. The United States and Great Britain controlled the western portion of the country, with the eastern section under the control of the Soviet Union. In addition to the country, Germany’s capital, Berlin, was also divided – east and west – with the same Allied arrangement.
The down side of this arrangement for the U.S. and Great Britain was the fact the city of Berlin was located in the eastern portion of Germany, under Soviet control. As a result, the Soviets attempted to cut off access to the western portion of the city. With only one recourse available to help the people of West Germany, the U.S. and Great Britain began ‘Operation Vittles’ – also known as the ‘Berlin Airlift’.
Stationed in Berlin at Tempelhof Air Field, Gail S. Halvorsen was one of the pilots involved in the airlift. It was typical for the pilots to encounter German children at the airfield asking, “Any gum, chum?” On one of his days off, Halvorsen took his movie camera and went sightseeing. After filming planes taking off and landing at Tempelhof, he noticed a group of about 30 children standing together on the other side of the barbed-wire fence which encircled the base. As he walked over to meet them, he quickly noticed they had nothing. One of the children, wise beyond his years, told the pilot, “When the weather gets so bad that you can’t land, don’t worry about us. We can get by on a little food, but if we lose our freedom, we may never get it back.”
The children’s behavior caught Colonel Halvorsen by surprise. Reaching into his pocket, all he found were two sticks of gum, which he offered to them. His small token of kindness excited the children, who broke the two sticks into many small pieces to pass around. Those who did not receive gum inhaled the scent of the wrappers. As he watched them, he promised to drop candy for them on his next flight. Given the number of aircraft housed at Tempelhof, the children asked how they would be able to know which plane was his. He told them he would ‘wiggle his wings’ to let them know it was him.
On September 22, 1948, Operation Little Vittles was born. Using handkerchiefs to create parachutes, Halverson dropped bubble gum and candy bars from his plane. It only took one drop for the children to know Uncle Wiggle Wings would come through for them – and then word spread quickly. At first, Halverson used his own candy rations for the children, but that did not offer much. He then began to request donations from the rations of other pilots in order to increase the quantity.
With more and more children showing up for the candy drops, newspapers reported what was going on and the news soon reached Halvorson’s superiors. Having never asked permission prior to starting Operation Little Vittles, he was probably a little concerned as to
what he would hear when he was called in by the commanding officer. Thankfully, ‘the brass’ was quick to see the tremendous PR opportunity Halvorson’s efforts gifted the U.S. military. As additional pilots joined the ‘bombings’, the group became known as the Rosinenbombers (raisin bombers).
Halvorsen now became the face of America’s efforts at the beginning of the Cold War. By now, the American citizens had grown weary of continually being asked to contribute food aid to Europe; however, their attitude brightened towards the idea of offering candy to the children of West Berlin.
In addition to delighting the children, the candy drop also served to foster a new relationship with a former enemy. The Allies were able to maintain control of West Berlin and support for the effort back home. In 1949, the Soviets finally lifted the blockade, allowing for food deliveries to resume by land.
It did not take long for the task of preparing the candy and gum for the ‘bombings’ to become too much for Halvorson and his friends to handle alone. A college student by the name of Mary Connors stepped in and took charge of what was now a nationwide effort. Enlisting the help of the National Confectioner’s Association, they worked together to prepare the candy and tie the handkerchiefs.
Operation Little Vittles took place from September 22, 1948 to May 13, 1949. In January 1949, then Lieutenant Halvorsen returned stateside. Before he left Germany, he turned command of the operation over to a close friend, Captain Lawrence Caskey.
Once back home, Halvorsen called on one of his biggest supporters, Dorothy Groeger. This homebound patriot had enlisted the help of friends and acquaintances to assist her in sewing handkerchiefs and seek donations of funds.
In addition to Dorothy, Halvorsen also met the members of the Little Vittles Committee, located in Chicopee, Massachusetts. These children were responsible for preparing upwards of 18 tons of candy and gum to be sent to Germany. All total, Operation Little Vittles dropped approximately 23 tons of candy, using 250,000 handkerchief parachutes.
Operation Little Vittles had an intense effect on lives, not only in Germany and the United States, but around the world as well. Halvorsen’s efforts substantially impacted German-American relations for years. In September 1989, Halvorsen reenacted the first candy drop to celebrate the airlift’s 40th anniversary. On the receiving end of this candy drop were the grandchildren of those who were there originally.
In 2014, a woman who had witnessed the candy drop as a child had the opportunity to meet Uncle Wiggle Wings in person. Though she never caught any of the candy, the daily drop filled her with hope of better days to come. During their meeting, Halvorson told her, “The small things you do turn into great things.”
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"Children hold the future of the entire world in their hands."
Colonel Gail. S. Halvorsen