In June 1948, the Soviet Union cut off land access to West Berlin, deep inside Soviet-controlled East Germany, by the Allied powers occupying the city’s western sectors and West Germany. The people of West Berlin were faced with near starvation and an impending winter without fuel.
The airlift, which continued for 15 months, claimed the lives of 31 American airmen and 39 British fliers in accidents, but it thwarted Stalin’s attempts to drive the West from the city. By time it ended in September 1949 (the Soviet blockade had been lifted the previous May), Allied pilots had flown more than 277,000 missions, sometimes buzzed by Soviet fighters, to supply the western sectors of Berlin with 2.3 million tons of food, flour, coal, medicine and construction equipment.
Lieutenant Halvorsen, a native of Utah, flew 126 Berlin airlift missions, joined by his co-pilot, Capt. John Pickering, and his navigator, Sgt. Herschel Elkins.
When early press reports on the candy drops identified Lieutenant Halvorsen as the source of the sweets, he was summoned by Maj. Gen. William H. Tunner, the airlift commander. He feared he would be court-martialed, since Air Force regulations prohibited any deviation from the airlift procedures.
But General Tunner was impressed by the good feelings Lieutenant Halvorsen had engendered for the United States only a few years after its bombers had left Germany in ruin. He encouraged the candy drops, from Douglas C-47s and later the more advanced C-54 transport planes, in what Lieutenant Halvorsen called Operation Little Vittles.
In September 1948, the Air Force sent Lieutenant Halvorsen back to the United States to publicize his efforts, and he appeared on the CBS-TV program “We the People.” American candy manufacturers began to donate sweets, and schoolchildren volunteered to wrap them in simulated parachutes, made from handkerchiefs and twine, for shipment to West Germany.
At least two dozen pilots from Lieutenant Halverson’s squadron were among those who also took part in the candy drops. They all became known as Candy Bombers.