Have you ever experienced an act of kindness that changed the course of history?
“Fulfillment in life comes from service,” Gail Halvorsen told an interviewer in 2013. And he would know, for almost 70 years ago, in 1948, as the Cold War was just heating up, he performed a simple act of service that was felt around the world.
On 24 June 24 1948, West Berlin was taken hostage by the Cold War. From 1945, since the end of World War II in Europe, Germany had been divided in two: the east was now under the control of the Soviet Union (USSR), while the Allies -- France, Britain, and the USA -- occupied the west. The capital city of the once whole nation, Berlin, was situated deep inside the Soviet Occupation Zone and, therefore, also divided: Soviet East and Allied West. But the Soviets wanted it all. So in 1948 troops blocked transit links into the city and refused to allow food or supplies to enter.
Two million Germans were trapped. The Berlin Blockade had begun.
The Soviet Union assumed the Western Allies would cave and abandon Berlin to them, rather than let its residents starve. Instead, the United States and Britain decided to launch a massive airlift of supplies to the besieged city.
It was a desperate plan. To keep West Berlin from starving or freezing to death required a staggering 5,000 tons of food, fuel, and medical supplies each day. No one knew if an operation on this scale was even possible, but the Allies felt it was important enough to try. They pooled their planes, pilots, and resources for what the Americans called "Operation Vittles" and the British named "Operation Plainfare." Soon, 1,500 flights were landing per day at the Berlin Tempelhof airstrip -- built by French forces in a record 90 days -- often in treacherous winter weather. The planes brought enough supplies to keep the city alive, but only barely, and there was little room for luxuries beyond the bare necessities.
Our hero, Lt. Gail Halvorsen, a farm boy from Utah, was part of the airlift. During one mission, he noticed a crowd of German children watching through a barbed wire fence as he landed his plane. When Gail approached the kids, he was distressed by their gaunt faces and tattered clothes. One little girl in a mismatched outfit told him, in clear English, that he did not need to worry about them. The children of Berlin, the girl insisted, could survive on less food than adults and were ready to suffer for their freedom.
Gail decided right then and there that, no matter the consequences, he was going to help lift the spirits of the children of Berlin. Without permission from his authorities, he collected rations of chocolate from other pilots. Then, he rigged tiny parachutes and dropped the sweets out of his airplane. As he flew over the city, he rocked the wings of his plane as if waving. The Children would watch the packages flutter gently toward the bombed-out streets, and enjoy a moment of kindness amidst the horror of the blockade.
Gail was certain that when his commander found out, he would be courtmartialed. But when pictures of his C-54 plane dropping candy parachutes were caught by the press, he became an overnight sensation. They dubbed him “the candy bomber" and, following his example, gifts of chocolate and sweets began to pour onto airbases all over the States from American companies and families.
Gail’s simple gesture captured the hearts of people from all over the Western world. He had managed to cut through the complex politics of the Cold War by offering a small kindness to children who had been caught up in the conflict. Everyone wanted Gail to keep dropping candy on Berlin.
The blockade ended on April 15, 1949, with the Allies keeping their hold on West Berlin. But the impact of Gail’s “candy bombs” lasted much longer. Decades later, the little girl in mismatched clothes tracked Gail down in Utah, and offered her profound thanks for his small act of service. That's why he's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. Many thanks to Oliver Latsch of Los Angeles, CA, for nominating this sweet man.
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