Who Is Gail Halvorsen? Pilot Was Renowned 'Candy Bomber' in Berlin Airlift

A U.S. military pilot who became known as the "Candy Bomber" for airdropping candy during the Berlin Airlift after World War II ended, died Wednesday at the age of 101.

After a brief illness, Lieutenant Gail S. Halvorsen died in his home state of Utah while surrounded by most of his children, the director of the Gail S. Halvorsen Aviation Education Foundation said Thursday.

"I know he's up there, handing out candy behind the pearly gates somewhere," Utah Governor Spencer Cox said of Halvorsen.

Halvorsen was accepted into a pilot-training program and joined the Army Air Corps after the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. He trained as a fighter pilot and then served as a transport pilot in the South Atlantic Theater of Operations, according to the foundation.

At the end of the war, Germany was divided and occupied by U.S., British, French and Soviet forces. The German capital of Berlin was included in the divided and occupied zones, with Soviet troops controlling the eastern sector of the city and the U.S., United Kingdom and France controlling the western portions.

But the wartime alliance between the Soviet Union and Western Allies ended and relations began to sour. Soviet forces began to blockade access to rails, roads and water to areas of Berlin controlled by the Allies on June 24, 1948. That triggered the Berlin Airlift, with the U.S. and U.K. transporting food and fuel from Allied airbases in western Germany to Berlin. Soviet forces ended the blockade on May 12, 1949.

Gail Halvorsen Dies
A U.S. military pilot who became known as the "Candy Bomber" for airdropping candy during the Berlin Airlift after World War II died Wednesday at age 101. Prior to taking off in the "Candy Bomber," Berlin Airlift veteran Gail Halvorsen laughs at Schonefeld Airport in Berlin, Germany, on May 12, 2009. AP Photo/Franka Bruns

Halvorsen was one of the pilots airlifting supplies during the Berlin Airlift, but he initially had mixed feelings about being involved in a mission that benefitted a former U.S. enemy, according to an account on the foundation's website.

"When World War II ended, the last thing I ever thought might happen was that in 1948 I would be in Europe, flying day and night to Berlin. Flights would be in thunderstorms, fog, ice and snow to feed the former enemy," Halvorsen was quoted as saying.

But an encounter with children spurred a change in his attitude, and led to his reputation as the "Candy Bomber."

"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. The result was unbelievable. Those with the gum tore off strips of the wrapper and gave them to the others. Those with the strips put them to their noses and smelled the tiny fragrance. The expression of pleasure was unmeasurable," he said.

Halvorsen said he was so moved by what he witnessed "that I promised them I would drop enough gum for each of them the next day as I came over their heads to land. They would know my plane because I would wiggle the wings as I came over the airport."

Upon arriving back at the base, he attached gum and chocolate to handkerchief parachutes and then airdropped them next day in what he described as a "jubilant celebration." He enlisted others to help, allowing pilots to complete more and more deliveries. They soon started receiving letters, and later were sent a wave of candy and handkerchief donations after the Associated Press ran a story about him titled "Lollipop Bomber Flies Over Berlin."

"My experience on the Airlift taught me that gratitude, hope, and service before self can bring happiness to the soul when the opposite brings despair. Because not one of 30 children begged for chocolate, thousands of children in Berlin received over 20 tons of chocolate, gum and other goodies, delivered on the ground, or dropped from C-54 Skymaster aircraft over a 14 month period," he wrote in the account.

Halvorsen became a beloved figure in Berlin and visited the city for the last time in 2019 as it celebrated the 70th anniversary of the day the Soviet forces lifted the blockade, AP reported.

Berlin Mayor Franziska Giffey said in a statement after Halvorsen's death that his "deeply human act has never been forgotten."

Update 2/17/22, 5:10 p.m. ET: This story has been updated with additional information and background.