“Where the North American St. Nicholas Revolution Began”
2015 SPIRIT OF ST. NICHOLAS AWARD WINNER
Nicholas as Our Model – Colonel Gail “Hal” Halvorsen, USAF (retired)
Gail “Hal” Halvorsen is the recipient of the 2015 Spirit of St. Nicholas Award, for his extraordinary embodiment of one of the St. Nicholas Institute’s Core Values: “Nicholas as Our Model.” The attack on Pearl Harbor prompted him to join the Army Air Corps, and he trained on fighters with the Royal Air Force. Reassigned to military transport service, Halvorsen remained in the service at war's end. Better known as “The Berlin Candy Bomber”, Gail assumed important responsibilities as a C-54 pilot during the Berlin Airlift of 1948, following his service in the south Atlantic during World War II.
Gail’s is an inspiring example reveals how one man's simple gesture of kindness, had the power to bring hope and joy to small children during Joseph Stalin’s blockade of West Berlin. Stalin’s siege effectively blocked the Western allies of the United States, England and France from trucking in food, medicine and other basic necessities of life to the post war city. The ruthless Communist dictator tried to starve West Berlin in revenge for the Nazis' siege of Stalingrad.
In response to this ominous threat, the American and English forces initiated a “Berlin Airlift” campaign in June of 1948. This operation sought to forestall Russia’s attempts to starve West Berliners into submission. Halvorsen was among the hundreds of U.S. pilots personally involved in the airlift.
“From little things, big things can happen.” - Gail Halvorsen
Upon his arrival during one of his many air missions over Berlin, he noticed a small group of boys and girls patiently standing outside a barbed wire fence. They were captivated by constant flow of incoming cargo planes that were landing only few minutes apart.
“I reached in my pocket, and all I had was two sticks of gum; Wrigley’s Doublemint Gum. …I thought: ‘Boy, I’ve gotta do something’. …Then, I got an idea.”
As he approached the group of youngsters, he began to sense their silent hope that this American pilot may have a piece of candy to share with them. Yet they remained quiet, and didn’t even put their hands out. They never asked for candy. All simply stood there, patiently hopeful that the slim bomber pilot, with the kind face, may have a little something to share with them. After all each had heard stories about Americans sometimes giving Hershey bars.
Moved by their transparent simplicity, the young American bomber pilot searched in his pockets, only to discover that he only had two sticks of gum. Disappointed by the meager offering of two sticks of chewing gum, he tore the sticks into four pieces and past them through the barbed wire. Overjoyed, the bigger children patiently divided the gum into equal parts, so that every one of them could enjoy a sliver of gum. Their little faces became transfigured as they all giggled for the sheer joy of it all. Even after the flavor from each tiny sliver faded away, they began to pass the foil wrapper around, so that everyone could get at least sniff that wonderful lingering smell of mint.
Overwhelmed by their willingness to share among themselves what little they had, Halvorsen promised he would return the next day with enough candy for each of them to enjoy. His only request was that they would keep the secret tom themselves. Since bombers flew overhead about every three minutes, the young American pilot promised he’d wiggle his wings as he approached, so the children could be ready for a multiple parachute-drop of candy.
The following day, as promised, Gail Halvorsen wiggled his wings as the much anticipated parachute air-drop of candy floated gently into awaiting group of little hands who eagerly snatched them one by one. It wasn’t long before letters with candy requests from all parts of Berlin arrived addressed to "Uncle Wiggly Wings."
Touched by the hunger-stricken condition of these children, Halvorsen shared all he had with him: two sticks of gum. This event would serve as the catalyst for subsequent candy sharing via "candy bombings."
The children from a bombed-out Berlin neighborhood rejoice at the arrival of “Uncle Wiggly Wings’” bomber, as if it were St. Nicholas’ sleigh flying overhead. “From little things,” Gail reminds us, “big things can happen.” When word about “Uncle Wiggly Wings” crossed the Atlantic, one U.S. pilot’s simple gesture of kindness became the stuff of miracles, the day that a large shipment of donated sweets from American candy companies began arriving by boxcars. Just in time for Christmas Eve of 1948, Hershey’s Chocolate Company shipped in 18 tons of chocolate bars for use by “The Berlin Candy Bomber;”yet another nickname that Gail had acquired. Having acquired an air-born delivery style akin to “jolly old St. Nicholas’” himself, Gail busily spent December 24th delivering the “great American chocolate bar” across Berlin’s night sky through his bomber’s flair chute.
The “Berlin Candy Bomber,” Gail Halvorsen, shares his story.
By May of 1949, Stalin’s ground blockade officially ended. A few months later, the airlift was no longer needed. Nevertheless, the enduring memory of “Uncle Wiggly Wings,” and his candy-filled parachutes continue to inspire those who wish to keep the Spirit of Christmas ever alive in their hearts. Gail Halvorsen’s example reminds us that, even if all you have to offer another human being amounts to little more than a few sticks of gum, God can work miracles through each of us, if we truly care.
Mormon Tabernacle Choir television special, “Christmas from Heaven: The Candy Bomber Story”, narrated by Tom Brokaw. (The St. Nicholas Institute thanks the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for kindly providing streaming video footage.)
During the 15-month airlift (“Operation Vittles”), American and British pilots delivered more than 2 million tons of supplies to the city. But it was Halvorsen's decision to airdrop candy to children (Operation Little Vittles) that clinched an ideological battle and earned him the lasting affection of a free West Berlin. Today, Halvorsen is affectionately known by Berliners and many around the world as: the Candy Bomber” ("Rosinenbomber"), “Uncle Wiggly Wings” ("Onkel Wackelflugel") and “The Chocolate Pilot”.
Gail married Alta Jolley on April 16, 1949. They would be blessed with five children, 24 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Three of their grandchildren have attended a school named in honor of their grandfather in Frankfurt, Germany. His loving wife, Alta, died in January of 1999.
After Alta’s passing, Gail eventually married Lorraine Pace, who was his “high school steady” some 62 years earlier. She brought into his life and additional three children, eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Today they live in Arizona.
Halvorsen remains deeply devoted lifetime member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and has been a stake president, bishop, high councilman, and has likewise served in other callings.
Among a variety of recognitions given him over the years, Gail received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2013, for his outstanding service during World War II. The medal is the highest award Congress can give to any civilian.
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