In what is described as a grab for power, Russia erected barricades between East and West Berlin. As a result, the people of West Berlin did not have access to food or other necessities. Thus American forces put in place “Operation Vittles.” American planes would fly in designated air corridors carrying relief for the people.
One of the pilots of a C-54 flying Operation Vittles was Col. Gail S. “Hal” Halvorsen. He was a small town boy with small town values who grew up on farms in Utah and Idaho.
As the story goes, children would gather outside Tempelhof Air Force Base in West Berlin to watch the planes takeoff and land. One day, Col. Halvorsen noticed a group of them while he was taking home movies of planes arriving and departing. They were standing behind a barbed wire fence at the end of the runway.
Some could speak enough English for Col. Halvorsen to talk with them. They asked what the planes were bringing in. At the time, the plane he flew carried 20,000 pounds of flour.
Soldiers knew that children in other countries would beg for food — especially candy. The people of West Berlin were existing on little food. Yet, those children did not asked for anything.
He had only two sticks of gum in his pocket but he gave them to two of those in the group of about 30 children.
In a narrative by television newsman Dan Brokaw, he said that Col. Halverson remembered the many times he had heard his father say, “From little things come big things.”
Col. Halverson was amazed that the children tore the gum into enough pieces for each child to have a small taste. They did not argue or fight over it. Some even kept the silvery wrapper just to smell of it.
He could have walked away that day knowing he had done a good thing. He had put a good taste in the children’s mouths, smiles on their faces and had been an example of the goodness in Americans.
But that was not enough. Hal Halverson had the spirit of a humanitarian. Seeing hungry children sharing so willingly touched his heart. Wanting to bring joy into their lives, he devised a plan. He would bring candy for them the next time he flew into the airport and drop it to them from the plane.
There were many airplanes going into West Berlin daily carrying supplies. At times, planes were arriving at the rate of every three minutes. The children needed to know which plane was his.
So Col. Halverson explained how they could identify his plane. When he flew over he would “wiggle the wings” of his C-54. That would be his signal.
The next day, the children were waiting when he wiggled his wings and dropped parachutes he had made from handkerchiefs with candy attached. The children began calling him Uncle Wiggly Wings.
Others wanted to be a part of what Col. Halverson had started. Letters addressed to Uncle Wiggle Wings arrived from people in other areas of West Berlin asking that their children be included.
At the same time, crews of other planes volunteered to help. They began dropping candy, too. Some called the operation “Little Operation Vittles.” The planes were called Chocolate Bombers.
As news of the planes dropping candy for the children was spread, the American public got involved. School children and churches began collecting and sending candy to be delivered to the German children. Candy manufacturers did, too.
As a result, during a 14-month period, more than 20 tons of chocolate, gum and other candy were dropped from the air or delivered on the ground for the children.
Thus was born the legend of Hal Halverson aka Uncle Wiggly Wings.
The Uncle Wiggly Wings story reminds us that one ordinary person can make a difference in the lives of others in our world.
Reflecting on the success of “Little Operation Vittles,” Hal Halverson said, “My experience on the airlift taught me that gratitude, hope and service before self can bring happiness to the soul …”
On this Fourth of July, let us resolve that, like Uncle Wiggly Wings, we will let others see that the spirit of America is alive and well through the things we do for others. It will bring happiness to our souls, too.
Marguerite Cline is former mayor of Waleska.