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Candy Bomber
The Story of the Berlin Airlift's "Chocolate Pilot"

  • 995

By: Michael O. Tunnell

A moving and true story of life after war.

In 1945 Germany fell to the Allied powers at the end of World War II. The United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union divided up the country, and likewise the capital city of Berlin, into four occupation zones. The Soviets decided to distance themselves from the Allied forces. They blocked off West Berlin and stopped all food shipments in the hopes of driving the Allies out of Berlin altogether. But the Allies dropped supplies by plane into the city. One pilot, after a brief encounter with several German children living in war-torn Berlin, began to drop candy and gum into the city, bringing the children not only a little joy, but a great deal of hope. He was known to the children as “Uncle Wiggly Wings,” because he’d signal their treats by wiggling the wings of his plane when he flew over with supplies.

What began as a one-time gesture of compassion turned into an official U.S. Air Force operation. “Operation Little Vittles” grew, as more and more pilots volunteered to drop the parachutes, and donations of candy and cloth poured in from all over. This inspiring story of one man’s contribution to the rebuilding of a country after war is a unique look at history.

Illustrated with archival photographs, personal photographs from Lt. Gail Halvorsen—the Chocolate Pilot—letters, and documents, Candy Bomber is an important and interesting addition to studies of World War II.

Look Inside the Book:

Author & Illustrator Bios:

Michael O. Tunnell, author

Michael O. Tunnell is a professor of children’s literature who has twice served on the Newbery committee. He is the author of Mailing May (HarperCollins), The Children of Topaz: The Story of a Japanese-American Internment Camp Based on a Classroom Diary (Holiday House), and other books. He lives in Orem, Utah.

Read more about Michael.

Awards & Honors:

  • Orbis Pictus Honor Book
  • NCSS/CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People
  • A Junior Library Guild Selection
  • CCBC Choices
  • The Kiddos Forty - Best Pageturners
  • IRA Young Adults' Choices
  • NYSRA Charlotte Award Suggested Reading List
  • Capitol Choices Noteworthy Titles for Children and Teens
  • Booklist's Top Ten Biographies for Youth
  • Beehive Book Awards: Informational

Editorial Reviews:

Booklist, starred review

Curious about the city into which he ferried goods during the Berlin Airlift in 1948, pilot Gail Halvorsen stayed over to visit, met some children, and offered to drop candy and gum when he next flew over. This simple idea grew into a massive project with reverberations today. Tunnell tells this appealing story of a cold war soldier who made a difference clearly and chronologically, weaving in just enough background for twenty-first-century readers and illustrating almost every page with black-and-white photographs, many from Halvorsen's own collection. Opening the book with a shot of a nine-year-old boy looking for the plane that will wiggle its wings, the author captures young readers with the very idea of the "chocolate pilot" and keeps them with a steady focus on the German young people, including their letters and drawings. He concludes with a chapter describing Halvorsen's successful military career, his meetings with children who caught the candy, an anniversary drop, and more--highly satisfactory results from his spontaneous good deed. Halvorsen contributes a prologue; biographical, historical, and research notes add information; and selected references, including further-reading suggestions (though no source notes), close out this accessible and positive portrayal of a serviceman who wasn't on the battlefield. Irresistible.

Kirkus Reviews

Who would guess that candy, handkerchiefs and one man would play a significant role in post-World War II Germany? As the subtitle indicates, Gail Halvorsen, a lieutenant in the U.S. Force, became the "Chocolate Pilot" when his face-to-face encounter with a group of starving children in Berlin led to a personal mission. Halvorsen gave them two sticks of gum, which they all shared, and that was the start of Operation Little Vittles. Inspired by the children's willingness to forego Soviet-offered food in favor of freedom, Halvorsen and fellow pilots made numerous flights, dropping hanky parachutes that carried tons of candy and gum to eagerly awaiting children, who learned that the planes' "wiggling their wings" meant goodies were on their way. Illustrated with black-and-white archival photos, the six chapters convey Halvorsen's life, interjecting comments and correspondence from individual children. The abundance of war details aid in the transition from one chapter to the next but tend to overrun the telling, hampering narrative flow. Readers who stick with it, however, will gain a unusual perspective on the beginnings of the Cold War.

School Library Journal

Tunnell brings to life a little-known post-World War II story. What started as a single pilot's car tour of bombed-out Berlin turned into an international campaign to help lighten the suffering of the children of West Berlin. The time was 1948, and the Soviet Union had closed all land access to the isolated Free World sectors of West Berlin in an attempt to starve the people into accepting communist rule. On an impulse, a C-54 cargo pilot, Lt. Gail S. Halvorsen, shared the only two sticks of gum he had with a group of about 30 children. What started as a somewhat clandestine candy-dropping operation by Halvorsen and his buddies eventually became a USAF-sanctioned operation. As the airlift of food and fuel continued for almost two years, tons of candy were dropped (using tiny parachutes) for the children who waited in the flight path below. The text is liberally illustrated with black-and-white photos, copies of letters, and a diagram of how the flight patterns worked. Endpapers contain colored reproductions of a few of the many pieces of children's artwork that Halvorsen received as the "Chocolate Pilot," "Uncle Wiggly Wings," and "Dear Onkl of the Heaven." Vocabulary is relatively easy, but adequate for the topic, which makes the text flow easily. The book concludes with extensive biographical, historical, and author's notes. This is a real treat--a World War II title with a happy ending. Make it a first purchase.

The Horn Book Magazine

Chocolate raining from the sky is something many children would love, but for children living in blockaded post-World War II West Berlin, the delivery of chocolate via bomber plane meant more than just a treat. It began when American pilot Gail Halvorsen noticed a group of German children and gave them the two pieces of gum he had. When he saw how they passed the gum around "so everyone could breathe in the sweet, minty smell," he began to deliver gum and candy, dropping them-attached to handkerchief parachutes-from his plane. Halvorsen persuaded his fellow servicemen to donate theirs, and eventually the candy drops became an institution. The copious photographs and the reproductions of the touching letters Halvorsen received bring the children and their gratitude to life. By beginning with these personal stories, Tunnell piques readers' interest in learning more about the background of the conflict between the Soviets and the Germans, information he provides in later chapters. With its story of the ongoing relationship between the American serviceman and the German children that lasts to the present day, this is not just a glimpse into history but also a look at promoting understanding between former enemies. Appended are an author's note, selected references, further reading, and an index.

The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

The 1948-9 Soviet blockade of West Berlin left citizens in dire need of food and fuel; American and British troops took to the air to ferry supplies into West Berlin airports every few minutes for the duration of the blockade. United States Air Force Lt. Gail S. Halvorsen launched an unauthorized drop of his own: he tied donated candy rations into small bundles, attached them to tiny silk parachutes, and dropped them through emergency flare tubes in the aircraft as they flew cargo into the Templehof Airport. Sugar-starved kids and their parents quickly learned to scan the skies for Halvorsen's signature wing wiggle; his delivery service made the news, catching the attention of superior officers, who then turned the covert benevolence into an official mission, "Operation Little Vittles." Tunnell, who draws much of his information from personal interviews with Halvorsen, captures not only the excitement on the ground but also the popularity of the mission back in the U.S., where candy and handkerchief-parachute donations allowed civilians to make their own contributions to the Marshall Plan. Moreover, he makes clear to candy-sated twenty-first-century readers the almost unimaginable value of blackmarket sweets--one major shipment, for example, was placed in a locked jail cell under guard awaiting distribution. Heart-tugging prose occasionally gives the text a bit of a saccharine aftertaste ("The lieutenant's eyes panned the thirty hungry faces, and his heart skipped a beat. These were the children he was here to save"), but the grassroots goodwill operation can hardly be discussed without eliciting some warm fuzzies. Lots of black-and-white photographs, some from Halvorsen's personal collection, as well as references, an index, and updated information on Halvorsen himself, round out this valuable addition to the growing collection of children's literature on the Cold War.


The fascinating true story of a U.S. Airforce pilot's attempt to bring candy to children in post-war West Berlin is brought to life with abundant b/w photos, letters, and a compelling text. After WWII, the Soviets blockaded food and other vital imports from coming into West Berlin. The Allied forces circumvented the blockade by flying in food and medicine in what was known as the Airlift, but luxuries were not allowed. Lt. Halvorsen started a project of dropping small handkerchief parachutes carrying candy to the children, and this caught on with other pilots and eventually attracted donations from the candy companies and U.S. civilians who wanted to help. Tunnell's text is inviting, with many quotations from Halvorsen, other pilots, and West Berliners, and the author makes it easy for school-age readers to follow the events with just enough historical detail to make sense without overwhelming. The book design is first rate: photos on every other page, letters and drawings from the children, further reading, and index (but no source notes). The book concludes with comments from Halvorsen (who is still alive) and adults who were children in West Berlin at the time of the airlift. Although this describes a relatively small part of history, it is fascinating.

The Fourth Musketeer

Halvorsen continued his career with the Air Force long after the candy drop ended, but he and the children never forgot. In fact, when he returned to Berlin in 1970 as Commander of the base there, he was deluged with dinner invitations from grateful children, now grown. Halvorsen was even given the honor of leading Germany's team into the arena in Salt Lake City during the 2002 Winter Olympics. The book concludes with a biographical note about additional humanitarian missions Halvorsen has participated in, including candy drops to other war-torn regions such as Kosovo. At 87, he was even able to attend a ceremony in Germany commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift.

The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs and memorabilia from Halvorsen's personal collection, including some of the hundreds of letters he received from Berlin's grateful children. The author also includes a brief bibliography as well as a historical note providing additional background material on World War II and its aftermath.

This book would be an outstanding addition to school and public libraries, and could be read in conjunction with Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot, a lovely picture book on the same topic by Margot Theirs Raven (Sleeping Bear Press, 2002). This picture book focuses on the story of one particular child and her encounters with Lt. Halvorsen, but also provides background on the entire chocolate bomber story.

A side note: Today's [July 19th, 2010] Los Angeles Times ran a front page article on Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, the airport used by the candy bombers and other pilots who airlifted supplies to post-war West Berlin. The airport is now used as a big, unplanned, and very popular park, according to the Times.

Everyday Reading

Candy Bomber: The Story of the Berlin Airlift's "Chocolate Pilot" is a terrific non-fiction offering for older elementary students and middle grade readers. It was a story I've never heard before and it also explained the post-war occupation of Berlin more clearly than I'd understood it before.

I picked this book out of the Charlesbridge catalog based solely on the title and when it arrived earlier this week, Bart was with me when I opened the box. When I pulled this book out, Bart said, "Hey, that is my friend's grandfather!" Who knew?

Amusingly, when I opened the book and saw some of the pictures, the family resemblance between the pilot and Bart's friend (who I know quite well) is extremely strong, which made the book even more fun for me.

The story is about Gail S. Halvorsen, an Air Force pilot after WWII, who was stationed in Germany after the war. During a brief tour of Berlin, he met some children and handed them some gum (there were about thirty children and he only had two sticks), but felt badly that there wasn't enough for all of them. He told them he'd collect some candy and then drop it by plane over the fence where they were standing. They asked how they could identify his plane and he said he would wiggle the wings before he dropped it.

He thought he might get in trouble for it, so he didn't ask his commanders if it was okay to do so, instead asking his fellow airman to donate their candy rations to him. Despite the great worth of candy (which was practically non-existent in Germany), many of the men pitched in, and Halvorsen made little parachutes out of handkerchiefs so that the candy wouldn't hurt the kids when it dropped.

Over the course of a few weeks, he and a few other airmen a few more drops (the crowds of children getting larger each time), until he was called in by his commander who had been notified by the government after a reporter nearly got beaned by a candy bar and wrote an article that was spreading through Europe. The commander wasn't angry that Halvorsen was dropping candy, he just felt stupid that he'd been called with congratulations on the good publicity for the US military in Berlin and he hadn't known anything about it.

After that, donations started pouring in and the candy drops became larger and more frequent. And it just got bigger from there, as Halvorsen likes to say, "for two sticks of gum."

The book gives enough background to make the situation make sense, but not so much that it's distracting or that it drags. I didn't know anything about the Berlin Airlift project before this and it explained it in very clear terms.

The book is full of great pictures and images and it's a quick read (I finished it in less than an hour). This is a book that is definitely worth picking up.

Language Arts Magazine

This inspiring story begins in 1945 after the end of World War II. Germany was divided amongst the victorious allies, and all of the Allied powers wanted a presence in Berlin, located within the Soviet-controlled zone. West Berlin was allocated to the remaining Allied powers, but the Russians cut off land and water travel to the city, so air transportation was the only way to deliver food and supplies. Gail Halvorsen, a pilot participating in the humanitarian airlift, was impressed by the enthusiasm of a group of children to whom he gave two pieces of gum. He promised to return with more sweets and told them they would know it was him because he would wiggle the wings of his airplane as he flew overhead. Local newspapers picked up the story of small bundles of candy falling from the sky in parachutes, and the donations poured in, turning the project into an official United States Air Force operation that lasted for almost two years.

The Author gives just enough historical background to inform but not overwhelm. The text contains numerous photographs--many from Halvorsen's own collection--and copies of heartwarming letters and drawings. The story flows chronologically, with Halvorsen contributing a prologue and back matter that includes fascinating biographical, historical, and research notes.

Kiss the Book

After World War II, Lt. Gail Halvorson helped with "Operation Vittles," airlifting food, fuel and other essentials to the citizens of West Berlin, who were hemmed in by the Russians. Lt. Halvorsen saw another need and soon became known as the man with the candy, as his operation extended all over West Berlin, to bring a little joy and hope to the children, along with the food they needed to survive. Mr. Tunnell has written a wonderful book about one of Utah's own heroes. I would suggest that every school that teaches Utah history or looks at WWII have this book on hand as a way to bring the human element to this war. Even, or especially, elementary children should know about Gail Halvorsen, as he continues to participate in drops to places such as Kabul, Bosnia and Mississippi (after Hurricane Katrina).

NC Teacher Stuff

Lt. Gail Halvorsen was a pilot in Germany during the Berlin Airlift. One day he took a tour into Berlin so he could get a closer look at the bombed-out city. While waiting on his ride, he struck up a conversation with a group of German children. The children told him that they would rather make do with little food than succumb to the Soviet threat. This touched the young lieutenant and he gave the children two sticks of gum and was surprised how the large group was able to share the tiny amount of sugar without squabbling. As this scene unfolded, a C-54 roared above and provided Lt. Halvorsen with the inspiration to start the effort to provide the children of Berlin with candy. What transpired was an amazing story that continues to this day.

Candy Bomber is my favorite nonfiction book of 2010. Gail Halvorsen is a real deal hero from the greatest generation. Michael O. Tunnell has crafted an unforgettable tale about how an act of kindness led to a heroic effort by American and British soldiers. The individual accounts of German children and their reactions to the candy drops are incredibly touching. My favorite was Peter Zimmerman and his detailed instructions to Lt. Halvorsen on where to drop the candy. I can't imagine how difficult it was for Tunnell to decide what to include in the book and what to leave out. I think upper elementary and middle school students will enjoy reading Candy Bomber and perhaps be inspired to take on a project of their own.

Abby the Librarian

In accessible text and with many photos and other visual aids, Candy Bomber tells the story of Lt. Gail Halvorsen, an American Air Force pilot who delivered candy to hungry children in West Berlin after World War II.

At that time, Berlin was divided, with the Allied Forces controlling West Berlin and the Soviets controlling East Berlin. Because Berlin was located within the Soviet territory of East Germany, the Soviets tried to force the Allies out of Berlin by blocking ground and water transportation. The only way to get food and supplies into West Berlin was by air, so the Allies manned hundreds of flights to bring in the necessary staples.

One day when Lt. Halvorsen was touring the city, he came across a group of kids watching the planes, hungry for any information about the outside world. Halvorsen gave them two sticks of gum he had in his pocket and he had an idea - he would start dropping sweets for the children of Berlin. Many pilots were willing to give up their candy rations for the kids and the project snowballed into "Operation Little Vittles", with candy companies and people all over the United States donating candy and homemade parachutes.

To me, this is a great example of the best kind of children's nonfiction - an interesting story, possibly unknown by many kids today, brought to life with readable text and archival photos and other visuals. Author Michael Tunnell includes a great many photos, along with scanned-in letters and drawings from the kids who received the candy (and some who didn't!).

This is a story with great kid appeal. Not only is it about candy (who doesn't love candy?), but the fact that the story is about children will allow today's kids to put themselves in that place. The book's short enough that it's not overwhelming and the narrative moves along at a clip. It'll appeal to kids interested in World War II, but I think it'll have great general appeal, too.

What can I say? I just loved it!


ISBN: 978-1-58089-337-4

ISBN: 978-1-60734-505-3 EPUB
ISBN: 978-1-60734-248-9PDF
For information about purchasing E-books, click here.

Ages: 9-12
Page count: 120
7 3/8 x 9

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