In February of 1945 the country of Germany was divided by leaders of the three wartime allies; America, England and Russia.  This was in anticipation of the defeat of Germany that came in May. The eastern half will be Russian and the western half would be shared by England and the United States with France being included later in the year, these were called Zones.  The City of Berlin was located deep in the Russian Zone and divided into four sectors, one for each of the Allies.

During 1946 and 1947, the political friendship that existed between the western allies and the Russians during World War II faded rapidly. The Russians signed one agreement with the western allies for access to Berlin providing three air corridors from the western zones and another for the use of canals. There was no agreement signed for ground access through the Russian Zone of Germany to the allies’ sectors of the city of Berlin. In early 1948 the Russian’s began to restrict ground access to West Berlin, first on the one road and then on the one railroad track.  In June they removed railroad tracks, then closed the roads and the canals thus blockading any land access to the city. The Russian goal was to force the three allies out of West Berlin because it was becoming a beacon of freedom in a Communist world. To save West Berlin the allies launched the “Berlin Airlift” which would use the three air corridors to fly in life’s essentials, except water.


During the Airlift, U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Gail Halvorsen, who was one of several hundred pilots that were ordered to Germany in early July to fly supplies to West Berlin’s 2.4 million people, was flying his typical 12 to 16 hour day where he would make two round trips to Berlin from Rhein-Main Air Base near Frankfurt, delivering coal or flour to Templehof Airport in the American sector of the city. His temporary orders were for 30 days as the airlift was expected to last only a few weeks, yet he stayed in Germany for 6 months.

One day, after his two normal flights, he rode another aircraft back to Berlin to film the aircraft landing at Templehof. After he got the footage of the landing he was attracted to about 30 children watching him from behind a barbed wire fence. The manners of the children impressed him and on an impulse he gave them some gum, and also promised to drop candy the next day. The next day he was true to his word, dropping candy from his airplane which he did using handmade parachutes with the candy attached.

He dropped three little parachutes that first day, but getting candy was restricted to only once a week. By the third weekly drop there was a large group of children waiting for the opportunity to get candy from the sky.  The next day Halvorsen was ordered to see his Commanding Officer, Colonel Haun, who admonished him. But it wasn’t for dropping candy but rather for not informing him of it. General William Tunner, Commander of the Airlift, had phoned and complimented the Colonel for the great job of boosting the morale of the Berliners, which was being accomplished by his airmen with the candy drops. Hahn was embarrassed by the call as he didn’t know about the candy drops. Overnight the news had been printed in papers around the world. General Tunner assigned three secretaries to translate hundreds of letters from Berlins’ children. Halvorsen continued his flying duty, but was also in charge of distribution of parachutes called “Operation Little Vittles”.

With General Tunner’s support other pilots began dropping these candy treasures over the city still showing the damage of a war that ended less than three years earlier.  Thousands of candy laden parachutes were being dropped daily over the western sectors of the city from American aircraft that landed every three minutes in Berlin. The airmen flying and maintaining these aircraft had caught the spirit of giving as the disadvantaged citizens sought the little treasure’s from the sky, giving them hope to escape the severe hardships of cold, little food, almost no electricity, plus Russian troops surrounding the city waiting for the airlift to fail


In early December 1948 Lt. Halvorsen, now known as the “Berlin Airlift Candy Bomber,” was sent to New York to appear on a television show. While there he noticed how the city was decorated for Christmas with silver bells everywhere. Afterward, as he returned to Germany, he thought of the stark contrast between glittering New York and shattered, desolated Berlin.  But little did he know, his short promotional visit and television show appearance started a national spirit, in the US, to support the children of Germany. Service clubs, schools, churches, scout troops, and clubs across America began making parachutes for candy drops. Most were sent to Germany through Westover Air Force Base just outside of Chicopee, Massachusetts. Many had messages of support, encouragement, and friendship written on them. Several resulted in lasting friendships between Americans and Germans. Some even some led to adoptions later in life!

Like other cities in the country, Chicopee had the spirt of “Operation Little Vittles”. A fire station on Grove Street was opened by volunteers for assembly line production of parachutes with candy.  Soon they expanded dramatically to a 24 hour effort with twine, fabric, and candy being donated. Their parachutes had printed “This candy is sent to you from the school children of America” in German on them. 

Two weeks after the N.Y. visit, when returning to Rhein-Main Airforce Base from a regular flight to Berlin, Halvorsen was taken by Air Police to a railroad siding to see a box car filled with 3,500 pounds of candy. This gift resulted from a meeting between Halvorson and a representative of the American Confectioners Association during the Big Apple visit.  With help from his airlift buddies, he was able to move all this candy to safe storage in Berlin, just in time for Christmas.

Lt. Halvorsen was on a routine flight into Berlin at midnight Christmas Eve, wondering how they would get the candy distributed in time for Christmas. With the support of the German Youth Association, the candy was distributed at parties that afternoon in a Berlin that had no electricity for lights or celebrations.  Candles dotted Berlins’ windows that Christmas Eve, even in empty buildings damaged by war.  Candles were carefully placed on trees in the traditional Christmas room, which was closed off to children in the days leading up to the holiday. In Berlin, where most wood was burned for heat, a real Christmas tree was a treasure. Many people used branches with meager decorations and candy bars from parachutes were the only presents many children would receive.


In Berlin, the Radio station In the American Sector (RIAS) played traditional English, French and German Christmas music. In Russian East Berlin, listening to this station was outlawed. At all the bases in West Germany the Christmas spirit was alive. At Fassberg, their “Operation Santa Claus,” distributed over 53,000 parcels from families and friends in the states. At another airbase, “Operation Sleigh Bells” netted 1,400 packages sent from the states for hospitalized children in West Berlin. The Commander of French Zone had several tons of candy flown into Berlin. One American pilot gave out 1,600 candy bars at a pre-Christmas afternoon party then went to a hospital visiting 300 sick, young people. Some lucky Berliners received a CARE package, which was a real present as it had a week’s worth of food for a family.

Movie star Bob Hope came to Germany and performed at air bases and on Christmas Eve her performed in Berlin. Later, Bob Hope’s full cast, along with Irving Berlin, the band, and stars of the Rockettes joined General Lucius Clay, the American Governor of Germany, at his Berlin home. The American air bases all served turkey with all the trimmings on Christmas day, and many held parties for local children.


On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the airlift continued despite heavy fog. The British reported their 50,000th flight into the Gatow airfield in Berlin. At Celle Air Base the 317th Troop Carrier Squadron that arrived from Wiesbaden the day before began flying into Berlin’s new Tegel airfield. At Templehof a giant C-74 aircraft arrived from Mobile Alabama with clothes and gifts for an adopted German orphanage in Berlin.

While these many celebrations were taking place the average Berliner was still struggling with crowded living quarters, little food, no heat, and limited electricity. The displaced people, hand loading and unloading the aircraft supplying the city, got paid low wages but the meal they received could go home with them to feed their family. Food was still the most valued commodity in all of Berlin. Holy Eve (Christmas Eve) is a German tradition and the highest family holiday in the entire year, but sadly most Berliners had little to celebrate with.

What they celebrated was the re-assuring sound of the American and British aircraft flying into the city every three minutes night and day. In June of ’48, before the airlift began, General Clay met with the Mayor of Berlin who told him “the people of Berlin will do what has to be done to survive”. They endured, they overcame, and they survived all the obstacles the Russians could put in their path to freedom. The airlift continued until the end of September 1949 and the parachutes fell until it ended. It would be 1992 before all Berliners became free and celebrated the Holy Eve Christmas as the capital of a new free nation.


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