Sunday, December 18, 2016

When hope was candy-coated

Today's crumb first appeared in 2014, but deserves an encore this Christmas. It concerns Air Force Col. Gail Halvorsen, the only American bomber pilot after WWII to receive the German Cross of Merit. Here's how it happened. When the war ended, Germany was divided into sectors governed by victorious allies. Berlin was also divided, but it lay deep within the Russian sector. Hoping other allies would give up their parts of Berlin, the Russians cut off all road and rail access to the city. For 15 months, allied forces had to fly 15 million tons of supplies, mostly food, into West Berlin to guarantee its freedom. Col. Halvorsen was an airlift pilot. One day after landing a planeload of flour, he noticed 30 children outside the fence of Templehof Airport. Ragged and hungry, they never asked for food. When he passed two sticks of gum through the fence, they did not fight over the treats. They cut the sticks into tiny pieces so each child could have a sniff. Halvorsen was so moved by this unselfishsness that he promised to bring more gum the next day and drop it from his plane before landing. "How will we know you?" the children asked. "I'll wiggle my wings," he said.
Fellow pilots gave him their candy rations, and he dropped candy and gum for two weeks, using handkerchiefs for tiny parachutes. As the crowd of children grew, he received thank-you notes addressed to "Onkel Wackelflugel," Uncle Wiggly Wings. When word got back to the United States, the National Confectioners Association offered to donate all the candy Halvorsen could drop. Treats arrived at Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts, where local school children assembled the handkerchief parachutes. By the end of the airlift, 21 tons of candy had been dropped to the children of West Berlin. As one Berliner told Halvorsen years later, "It wasn't just chocolate you gave us. It was hope."

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