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The City Journals

Berlin Candy Bomber urges students to serve others

Apr 10, 2018 04:07PM ● By Julie Slama

The “Berlin Candy Bomber,” retired Air Force Col. Gail Halvorsen, talks to Golden Fields student council members after he recounted dropping candy to German children in the post-World War II years. (Abigail Slama-Catron/City Journals)

The “Berlin Candy Bomber” had two messages he wished to convey to a multi-purpose room filled of students at Golden Fields Elementary: serve others and be grateful.

“It’s service itself, deciding and going through the process, to help others and by doing it, that will enrich your life,” said retired Air Force Col. Gail Halvorsen, who has two great-grandchildren attending the school. “That, and gratitude — being thankful for what you have and living in America.”

The 97-year-old Halvorsen, who still speaks at several schools each year, recounted his story about he and other Air Force pilots dropping candy attached to parachutes during the Berlin airlift after World War II. 

“We flew the four-engine C54 cargo plane that was my favorite, but it was pretty drafty since we flew without the doors. We would either lift up the escape hatch or throw the candy out the door,” said the Utah County man, who recently re-enacted his candy drop at the request of a Provo school.

But he still remembers the first flight.

“I recall thinking at my first sight was that ‘2 million people live in a place like that,’ he said. “The people of Berlin needed food and freedom, and we had both”

Halvorsen said they were given 20,000 pounds of flour to give on each flight to the Berliners. He landed his plane to “see what was there.”

“The kids would run out with their arms extended through the barbed wire of the Soviet-controlled East Berlin,” he said. “They were desperate, as they were cut off from all food. They grew their own food, but the German government controlled it so they gathered it and only distributed some back.”

Halvorsen said they didn’t push or shove trying to get more than their fair share.

“They were so appreciative and said, ‘Thank you for the food,’” he said. “They were school children like you. “It was flour. That’s when we knew we could do more.”

Halvorsen said he reached in his pocket and gave the children two sticks of gum. They split it up among them, and those who didn’t receive any gum didn’t complain but instead smelled the wrappers.

“Those two sticks of gum turned into 23 tons of chocolate bars and candy,” he said, saying that at first, he dropped the candy in secret since he didn’t ask permission from his superiors.

After he got the blessing of those in charge, he taped a map to the wall noting where he dropped candy and then, other pilots — some he still hears from — joined in his crusade. 

“I would get letters telling me to come down the street, turn right one block and drop it right there at 2 p.m., or how a child’s teddy bear got burned and asked if I could help,” he said, adding that he still has the letters today. “I felt so blessed to be doing something for these children.”

At one point, Halvorsen considered joining the space race, but Berliners rallied for him to stay in the Air Force, where he was made commander of Tempelhof base, and he became a 31-year career military man.

In 1998, he returned to Berlin and was reunited with some of those children, who greeted him.

“They took me to dinner and told me their stories,” he said. “It was a wonderful experience.” Halvorsen also said the girl who gave him directions still lived in the same house. 

Although Halvorsen received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2014 for his service, he said he wanted to help the children and urged Golden Fields students to seek ways they can serve.

“My dad always told me to look for an opportunity to help someone else and that in itself is your reward,” he said.

He told students to “Listen to your spirit; your conscious will help you. Your attitude, your gratitude will direct your life.”

Halvorsen also answered some questions that students had prepared while learning character education traits of courage, compassion and gratitude from his granddaughter-in-law Susie Halvorsen, who works in the school library.

“I thought of him and how he is always kind to others and thought his message would resonate with our students,” she said. “We want to try to get people to do nice things to everyone at all times.”

First-grade teacher Stephanie Murray said students are encouraged to help one another. In the fall, they collected items for those who suffered from the hurricanes, and this winter, they collected items for those in need around the Salt Lake Valley.

Still, she hoped students learned the lesson Halvorsen conveyed.

“I hope they look for the opportunity to serve others,” she said, adding that his message ties into the school’s kindness challenge where they are encouraging students to show ways to “make someone’s day.”

Sixth-grader Gage McCoy said that he tries to be kind by inviting others to play at recess or through service projects with his Boy Scout troop.

Classmate Emma Thomas said she has helped rake leaves or shovel snow for neighbors.

Principal Kyle Hansen said that was the desire he hoped students would learn.

 “Our society desperately needs to learn how to help one another. These students learned about what he did and why he did, and that can lead to the kind of ways these kids can serve.”