As Air Force 1st Lt. Gail Halvorsen and his crewmates lobbed handkerchief-wrapped chocolate bars out the window of his C-54 Skymaster over a war-shattered Berlin, he had no way of knowing a chance encounter 71 years later would reveal the true impact of his actions to help those in need.
As a special guest speaker and attendee at the 51st annual Airlift/Tanker Association Conference in Orlando, Florida, Oct. 23-26, Halvorsen shared his personal memories flying many of the Berlin Airlift’s 278,000 flights into the blockaded city between June 1948 and September 1949, recounting how he – without permission – started Operation Little Vittles, an effort to raise morale in Berlin by dropping candy via miniature parachutes to the city’s residents below.
Among the hundreds of Air Mobility Command Airmen who met and thanked Halvorsen for his contributions as a mobility legend, it was a very personal thank you from Senior Airman Andreas Gehde that caused the 99-year-old aviator to pause and smile.
“If you hadn’t done what you did, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you,” Gehde said, a client systems technician in the 521st Air Mobility Operations Group at Naval Station Rota, Spain. “Your airdrops fed my grandparents, Helga Deibrich and Joachim Gehde.”
Somewhat astonished, Halvorsen chuckled softly.
“Yeah, it (the Berlin Airlift) was a big morale builder,” he said. “It sure is something that your grandparents remember it.”
Gehde went onto share with Halvorsen that Joachim and Helga, who were orphaned by the war, went onto marry in 1960, and that one of their children, his father Joerg, married an Air Force intelligence Airman, Dawn Gehde, in the late 1980s before moving to the United States while he was an employee of Delta Airlines.
Gehde, who is slated to sew on Staff Sergeant Nov. 1, later told Halvorsen he was born in Orlando just a few miles from where they were sitting, and that after his first encounter with the colonel at the A/TA conference, he called and shared with his grandparents in Germany the news of who he’d met. Gehde, who learned German when his parents briefly returned to the family’s home country in the early 1990s, smiled broadly as he shared with Halvorsen the highlights of that call.
“My grandparents were astonished that I just met you and asked me to thank you for saving them,” Gehde said. “If you hadn’t done what you did, they said I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you, so thank you.”
Gehde remarked that his grandmother recalled being ‘adopted’ by U.S. Soldiers during the Christmas of 1948, who cared for them while away from their own children back in the United States. He added they still had vivid memories of the loud planes flying overhead and how all the orphans at St. Mary’s would run out to catch the candy bars parachuting from the C-54s and C-47 Skytrains flying overhead.
“They’d try to run to get the candy, but were too small and slow to get any,” said Gehde of his grandparents.
Over the course of the 16-month airlift, Halvorsen and his fellow crew members purchased with their own pay approximately 23 tons of chocolate bars, which they air-dropped to thousands of children across both West and East Berlin as they flew in and out of Berlin’s Templehof Airport. By the time the Soviet Union relinquished its ground blockade of West Berlin, Operation Vittles had airlifted approximately 2.3 million pounds of coal and food staples to the city’s 2.4 million starving and cold residents.
“People are on this planet because of you,” Gehde said as he showed pictures of his grandparents to a man his family regards as a savior.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Halvorsen noted. “And I’m glad you’re free.”