RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas –
Retired Col. Gail Halvorsen and Ursula Johnson had never met, but a chance encounter between the two conjured a touching reunion 6 decades later at the Randolph Air Show Nov. 7.
Then Lieutenant Halvorsen earned his spot in Air Force history during the late 1940s flying C-54s and C-47s during the Berlin Airlift of World War II. During this time, he earned the nickname "The Candy Bomber" after dropping candy from his aircraft to children below while flying over the American sector of Berlin.
"One day I met some kids in Berlin at the fence around the airport," the colonel said. "We talked for about an hour, and not one of them begged for chocolate. All I had was two sticks of gum, so I gave it to them and they broke it into little pieces, and the kids that didn't get any took pieces of the wrapper and just smelled it. When I realized the restraint they had I knew I wanted to reward them."
Colonel Halvorsen promised he would be back with more candy. He took candy bars from his rations and tied them to makeshift parachutes he fashioned from handkerchiefs. His plan was to drop them from the sky the next day.
"My overall goal was to reward the gratitude of the kids that wouldn't beg for something they wanted so badly," said Colonel Halvorsen. "The incredible thing was that they had the restraint and the gratitude not to ask for chocolate. They were grateful for the freedom we were giving them."
Sixty years later, Mrs. Johnson never thought she would come face to face with the man who had become a hero-of-sorts to so many German children. She remembers hearing the aircraft engines and running out with the other children to meet what they called the "Rosinen Bombers," or "Raisin Bombers," because they would drop raisins and chocolate.
"We were starving, "said Mrs. Johnson, who was born in Berlin in 1941. She lived in a small apartment with her parents, brother and sister. Her mother was a homemaker and her father drove a truck for a construction company. "Berlin is a big city and it was very difficult to get anything. When we heard the planes coming we would all run towards them, but I never got any chocolate."
Although she was never able to catch any of the candy, Mrs. Johnson said the parachutes greatly raised the spirits of herself and the people of Berlin.
"It was such a boost, you don't realize," she said. "From my house to the airport was about a 45 minute to one hour walk and sometimes I couldn't make it there when the airplanes would drop the candy. But for the kids who lived in Tempelhof and for all the children in Berlin, it gave us a lot emotionally.
"They'd open their windows and wave, and of course we'd be on the ground screaming our lungs out, and the little parachutes would float down. It was a big deal because it grew from there, from one person to more and more people dropping parachutes for the children."
Initially, Colonel Halvorsen didn't have time to get proper approval for dropping the candy.
"I hoped that no one knew about it except for the kids because I didn't want to get caught," he said. "I didn't have permission."
Although Colonel Halvorsen was the first "candy bomber," the effort grew from the first drop he made. The airlift commander, Gen. William Tunner, found out about the drops and approved of and encouraged continuing the efforts. Other pilots started donating candy, and soon an entire squadron was filling the skies over Berlin with sweet treats. Eventually, the American Confectioners Association became involved, donating candy to the cause, and American school children in Chicopee, Mass., contributed by tying small parachutes to the bundles of candy and shipping them to Germany completely prepared for distribution.
According to Colonel Halvorsen, between July 1948 and September 1949 more than 250,000 parachutes equaling more than 20 tons of chocolate were dropped.
"Gratitude changes the world. It changes enemies into friends," he said. "The gratitude of the people for what we were doing energized us to do whatever was required.
"The truism is that there's no true fulfillment in life unless you serve somebody. The thing that made it all work was that we were doing a service for someone else that needed it and was grateful for it. It all ties to the Air Force core value of service before self. It's a reward you can't get any other way."
Mrs. Johnson, who moved to the U.S. in 1967, said meeting Colonel Halvorsen was an unexpected surprise to her day at the air show.
"I never thought I'd meet him," she said. "I heard his name announced over the loud speaker and I said, 'I've got to go meet this gentleman.' It was very emotional. It felt really good because I could actually personally thank him for what he did for us."
Although the colonel has met many people who benefited from his actions in Berlin, he said each meeting is reminder of the personal connections that were made.
"It's an incredible feeling to make a connection from that many years ago," the colonel said.
The two spoke like long-lost friends, reminiscing about the years of the airlift and discussing the changes that have occurred since then.
"We talked about how the candy was a symbol of hope; knowing that someone from outside of that community cared about them," said the colonel. "People can live without rations, but can't live without hope."
As Colonel Halvorsen and Mrs. Johnson parted ways, the two hugged, traded kisses on the cheek, and Mrs. Johnson gave Colonel Halvorsen a teary-eyed farewell, saying, "Enjoy the rest of your life."
A fitting goodbye from a woman grateful to a man who gave hope to countless children --all from two sticks of gum.