The Wedge of the San Rafael

The Wedge of the San Rafael
Someone has to live here, in the middle of desert beauty. Might as well be the Kellys.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

In praise of Hal Halvorsen

Next booksigning is this Saturday, April 9, at Deseret Book, 989 S. University, Provo, Utah, from 1-3 p.m.

When I travel, as I did last week to Cardston, Alberta, for a booksigning, I like to take along an unabridged novel or history to listen to. I got lucky and picked out The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America's Finest Hour, by Andrei Cherny. There might be a bit of hyperbole in the title, but it was a great book to listen to.

And never more than on this trip, when I was headed to Canada, and drove right past the turnoff in northern Utah to Garland, Utah, where Col. Gail S. Halvorsen is from. He's still alive - 91, I think - and still remembered in Berlin, for his little effort to provide some chocolate and other candy to Berlin's children, who had never known such luxury during all those years of war and its aftermath, when the Soviets did their darnedest to shut down Berlin and drive out the allies. (The Soviets come across as thoroughly nasty in the book, and you know, they were.)

Probably most literate people know the story (and only literate people read this blog, I am convinced). Here was an army pilot with Air Transport, the least glamorous kind of flyer. His WWII was spent flying prosaic transports from here to there. The Berlin Airlift became Hal Halvorsen's defining moment. He had taken a brief tour of Berlin and noticed the little group of children watching the planes land at Tempelhof Airfield. In poor German, he chatted with him. The few kids who had some English responded. As he left, he was struck by the fact that in all his other duty posts around the world, kids just naturally came up to Americans and asked for candy and gum. Not these kids. They were polite, hungry, traumatized, in rags, and expected absolutely nothing from him.

On an impulse, he handed out the two sticks of gum in his pocket, after breaking them in half.  Those four sticks were appropriated with shy thanks, and then the wrappers circulated among the children, who just sniffed them and handed them on. Touched, Halvorsen resolved to save his little weekly ration of chocolate and gum and send it out the flare chute of his C-54 transport. He told the kids that he would wiggle his plane's wings as he flew over Tempelhof. They would know to look for the three modest parachutes made of his handkerchiefs.

It began with three parachutes. As word spread, Halvorsen's kind little gestured evolved into Operation Little Vittles, which materially altered German fear and distrust of Americans. It allowed Americans to send candy and handkerchiefs to the flyers of the Berlin Airlift. Thousands of chocolate bars - tons of candy - dropped over Berlin before the blockaid was finally lifted, and Berlin remained at least half free and in allied hands.

The book is far more than just Halvorsen; it's the complete story of Berlin after WWII, as a shattered people began to regroup and eventually defy the Soviet Union's heavy-handed efforts to choke off Berlin from the West. It's the story of President Truman, more and more demonstrating the political skill that shaped him, the "accidental president," into one of the country's finest presidents. What a story: the Truman/Dewey campaigns for the presidency in 1948; the courage and savvy of Gen. Lucius Clay, who resisted all efforts to have Allies pull out of Berlin, once the blockade began. And Gen. Tunner, who shaped the at-first-haphazard airlift into a well-oiled machine that landed a transport every three minutes at the [eventually] three airfields in Allied hands and keep Berliners alive more more than a year, when the Soviets backed down. What a good book.

Oh, the booksigning in Cardston was just super. The weather was frightful, but that didn't stop folks from turning out on Ladies Night to buy lots of books. I love Canadians, especially Darren and Verena Beazer and their kids, and Sister Barb Niche. It was good to see my son, Jeremy, and celebrate his birthday on April 4 with a chocolate pie with meringue/walnut crust.

And then I drove by Garland, Utah, again on the return home, and gave a little salute to Hal Halvorsen. Nice to be reminded there are still heroes among us. (The Germans have never forgotten him. At the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Col. Halvorsen, still plenty spry, carried the German placard in front of the Olympic team. No, they haven't forgotten, and we shouldn't, either.)

Sorry I'm so long in catching up with the blog. I think about it a lot, and don't want to waste your time with inconsequentials.


  1. Good grief! I always learn so much from you! By the way, Caitlin and Billy are going to try to make it to the book signing tomorrow! And I'll put a shout out to the Barrow kids, as well!

  2. Carla,
    Did you happen to read "The Berlin Candy Bomber" by Gail Halverson? Cedar Fort published it just a few months ago. I think it came out in November. :)

  3. Riah, I haven't read it yet, but hope to. Such a small thing he did out of kindness for children in a bad spot. The result was so much good, which had a significant effect on Berliners' will to resist Soviet aggression. Three cheers for Gail Halvorsen, one of our own.

  4. Tricia, I hope to see them at the booksigning tomorrow. I hope I'm there, what with more snow. Sigh. I'll get there, slow but sure.