Halvorsen was known as “Uncle Wiggly Wings” to the starving children of Berlin during an airlift mounted by the U.S. military to supply civilians who were caught up in a global power struggle. The Soviet military cut off land access to Allied-controlled sections of the city in 1948, putting many people at risk of starvation. Halvorsen worked candy wrapped in handkerchiefs into the cargo dropped from his Douglas C–54 Skymaster. What began with passing two sticks of gum to children through a fence catalyzed “Operation Little Vittles.”
“One day in July 1948 I met 30 kids at the barbed wire fence at Tempelhof in Berlin. They were so excited. All I had was two sticks of gum. I broke them in two and passed them through the barbed wire…Those with the gum tore off strips of the wrapper and gave them to the others,” Halvorsen said.
Incredibly moved by the children’s response, Halvorsen promised he would fly over and drop enough gum for each of the children… “They would know my plane because I would wiggle the wings as I came over the airport,” Halvorsen recalled on the Gail S. Halvorsen Foundation website.
Halvorsen successfully dropped 23 tons of candy to the children of his former German foes, supplying not only morsels of food but also hope to thousands.
His mission was a success, and it was not the end of Halvorsen’s humanitarian efforts. In 2008, Halvorsen was still dropping candy to children— but this time, American children, and from a somewhat smaller aircraft: a light sport Remos G3 600 that he flew to demonstrate his technique for safely distributing 23 tons of candy from an aircraft in flight to German children in 1948 and 1949.
A highly decorated Air Force pilot with more than 8,000 hours of flight time, Halvorsen was no stranger to recognition. He received dozens of awards for his service and sacrifice, including the Ira Eaker “Fellow” Award, Americanism Award Air Force Sergeants Association, Service Cross to the Order of Merit, and Distinguished Humanitarian Award.
In addition to his humanitarian efforts over the skies of Berlin, Halvorsen also held various military and civilian leadership positions. He was the commander of Tempelhof Air Base from 1970 to 1974 during the Cold War and was the assistant dean of student life at Brigham Young University for 10 years after he retired from the Air Force.
A firm believer in service before self, Halvorsen started a foundation in his name to share his love of aviation, community, and education. His website stated the program will continue “Col. Gail Halvorsen’s mission to share the values that have led his life [for] 100 years… ‘gratitude, hope, service before self and little things add up to big things.’”.