Pilots recall mission of goodwill at service

Airlift: At a pre-Memorial Day ceremony, a retired Air Force colonel remembers his role in taking candy to the children of West Berlin.

May 31, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

In the heat of a Timonium cemetery, dozens of old soldiers sweated like young grunts, their eyes fixed on a farmer from Utah, their hands grasping this Western visitor's weapon of choice.

Chewing gum.

The Candy Bomber -- retired Air Force Col. Gail S. Halvorsen of Provo, Utah -- launched the observance of Memorial Day yesterday, 24 hours early, during an unusual ceremony at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens. Punctuated by the giveaway of 1,500 packs of Wrigley's Doublemint, the service largely avoided scattershot remembrances of combat past in favor of a targeted seminar on the history of the Berlin airlift of 1948 and 1949 -- and Halvorsen's surreptitious role in it.

The colonel's speech, combined with private testimony from a half-dozen airlift veterans seated behind him, offered a timely reminder of the value of two American traditions not always celebrated on Memorial Day: straying from the rules, and showing humanity toward enemies.

"It's hard to countenance standing by when you have the ability to support people who are suffering, no matter who they are," said Halvorsen, 78, after his address to an audience of about 850, many of them veterans and their relatives. "In the Berlin airlift, 31 Americans laid down their lives for an enemy who [had] become our friend. That experience and others since then have given me testimony that we help ourselves by helping others."

Nearby, Fred Hall, a retired Baltimore city employee who flew 89 missions in the airlift and now organizes reunions of Berlin veterans, nodded from behind sunglasses. "We should take pride in what we did in Germany and use it as a focal point for similar missions. Today, the government in Berlin is now helping the people of Kosovo. Aren't you glad now we planted that seed?"

Ever since the late John W. Armiger Sr. built the cemetery on an old farm and airstrip 41 years ago, the service at Dulaney Valley -- with a distinct theme each year -- has become a holiday fixture, part of a weekend that includes solemn ceremonies in Carroll County and Curtis Bay, holiday sales of mattresses and music, and parades from Sharpsburg to Berlin, Md.

This year, the cemetery's owner and president -- Ar- miger's son and namesake, John Jr.-- took the unprecedented step of moving the ceremony to Sunday in order to accommodate the Candy Bomber's schedule. Armiger promoted the day with news releases that included Doublemint gum wrappers. "It was a Hail Mary invitation," said John Jr., 55. "We didn't expect him to come. We've never had someone of Colonel Halvorsen's stature come before."

The second of three children born to Mormon sugar beet farmers in Utah, Halvorsen was a little-known lieutenant in the Air Force when the Soviet Union blockaded Berlin in June 1948. That left the American- , British- and French-controlled sectors of the city without food and supplies.

During the next 15 months, pilots such as Halvorsen kept West Berlin alive by flying in more than 2 million tons of food and fuel in more than 200,000 missions. By contrast, the 26,000 American runs over Berlin during World War II dropped 73,000 tons of bombs.

At first, Halvorsen said, he was deeply ambivalent about helping even starving Germans only a few years after the world learned of the Holocaust. But he was profoundly affected by an encounter with about 30 hungry children at a fence on the edge of the Tempelhof airport in West Berlin.

Breaking the rules

When he reached into his pocket at the end of the conversation, he had only two sticks of Doublemint gum to give away. He worried that the children would fight over the gum; instead they split the bounty into pieces and shared them. The personal contact with the German children violated Air Force rules on fraternization; it also inspired his next move.

Swearing his crew mates to secrecy, he collected the candy rations of colleagues and attached them to handkerchiefs, to form makeshift parachutes. Wiggling the wings of his C-54 transport as a sign to the children, he made dozens of unauthorized candy drops.

The Schokoladen Flieger, or Chocolate Pilot -- as children called the flier -- avoided detection until an article appeared in the German press.

Halvorsen's colonel at first expressed annoyance, but approved more flights as a goodwill gesture.

Halvorsen ultimately helped drop 23 tons of candy on Berlin playgrounds, schoolyards and church lots. One 9-year-old sent him a map with the location of his house; when Halvorsen missed, a follow-up letter criticized his accuracy, asking, "How did you guys win the war anyway?"

Halvorsen eventually returned home to work as an engineer in the space program. He retired from the military in 1974, after a four-year tour as commanding officer of Tempelhof airport, where he had met the German children.

Since then, he has worked as a dean at Brigham Young University, served a Mormon mission to Russia with his wife, and tended his farm near Provo.

In demand as speaker

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