In times of difficulty, turmoil and loss, we look for goodness, hope and joy. And sometimes we find them in ways we never expect — like in the moments enjoyed by the kind gesture of a chocolate bar.
After WWII ended, Russian forces blocked the Allied control areas of Berlin. As a result, two million German citizens were cut off from food, coal and medicine. Water and land access were blocked, leaving the sky as the only avenue in.
It was June of 1948 when Col. Gail S. “Hal" Halvorsen, a U.S. Air Force pilot who served during World War II, was assigned to the Berlin Airlift to deliver much-needed food, fuel and supplies to the Berliners. The effort was called Operation Vittles by the U.S. and Operation Plainfare by the British.
One day, early in his mission, the 27-year-old Col. Halvorsen spotted a group of German children gathering at the barbed-wire fence along the Berlin airfield. It was common to see children clamoring for attention from the U.S. troops because they often wanted candy and sweets. But this group wasn’t looking for a treat, these children were looking for signs of hope and freedom.
They asked Hal about the airplanes and how much supplies they could carry. The children wanted to understand the reasons for their country’s condition and to learn more about what the world was doing to help them. Seeing that the kids had nothing and were hungry, Col. Halvorsen offered two sticks of gum, which was all he had. He expected them to ask for more, but the children were grateful for the kind gesture and just wanted to hear about Halvorsen’s aircraft missions.
Wanting to give them more, Hal made a bold promise. He promised he would bring them more treats if they agreed to share. But he would not hand treats out through the fence — he would drop them from the sky. He told the children they would know it was him in the air because he would wiggle his wings as he approached.
Hal combined his candy rations with other servicemen to make parachutes of chocolate and gum out of handkerchiefs and string. On July 18, 1948, Operation “Little” Vittles (the special name given to the candy parachutes) took to the air. Hal kept his promise to the children, dropping parachutes of sweets from the sky. People began calling him Uncle Wiggly Wings and The Berlin Candy Bomber because of these heroic acts of kindness.
News of Operation “Little” Vittles soon reached the U.S., which sprung children and candymakers of every kind into action to contribute candy to the mission. From there, the rest is history. By the end of the Berlin Airlift in September 1949, American pilots dropped more than 250,000 parachutes and 23 tons of candy to Berlin children.
Col. Halvorsen remembers, “how grateful they [children] were to look up at the sky and see parachutes with fresh HERSHEY’S candy bars coming to them from the airplane over their head. It was a wonderful feeling to have that kind of support from The Hershey Company.” Hal concludes, “The small things you do turn into great things.”
Col. Halvorsen continued his love of giving far beyond retirement. The Gail S. Halvorsen Aviation Education Foundation was established in 2016 to help children gain a passion for science, technology, engineering and mathematics while learning about the principles of attitude, gratitude and service before self. After all, as Hal always said, “It’s the little things that put you on the path of life, the small acts of kindness.”
Sadly, on February 16, 2022, Hal passed away after a brief illness at 101 years old. But as a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, pilot and humanitarian, his legacy flies on. With more than 8,000 hours of flight time, civilian and military leadership positions and his dedication to “service before self,” Hal’s foundation continues to serve others. Let’s keep spreading his legacy of gratitude, hope and the idea that little things add to big things — even if it’s as small as a chocolate bar.
Catherine Putt is a copywriter for The Hershey Company who also has a passion for sustainability and travel. After living in Sydney, Australia, for one year and exploring New Zealand for a month afterward, she realized her true appreciation for living a sustainable life, taking on new adventures and writing meaningful stories. She hopes to encourage you to live an eco-friendlier lifestyle no matter your journey.