This week in the United States we celebrate Independence Day. In honor of what this holiday means to us, we're proud to share Colonel Halvorsen's story of faith with you here, a story that represents true freedom—the freedom to serve, to love, and to forgive.
Colonel Halvorsen grew up during the Great Depression as a member of what we now call “the greatest generation.” He was raised in small farming towns in Utah and Idaho, and eventually earned his private pilot’s license, which led him to joining the United States Army Air Corps in 1942. During World War II he trained with the Royal Air Force, after which he spent the majority of the war years in foreign transport operations in the South Atlantic Theater.
After the war was over the Army was looking for a few pilots to stay on, and Colonel Halvorsen was asked to consider continuing with the Army through the reconstruction efforts. Though he originally resisted, wanting to go home and move on with his life, after the Army offered to pay for his schooling in addition to wages, he agreed. What those in this operation didn't all know was that they would be asked to rebuild and sustain the very nations that had fought against them. It would be a choice that would chart the course of the rest of his life.
Love Your Enemies
After Hitler’s regime had been wiped out of Europe, a new tyrant seized his opportunity to claim the rubble. Stalin and the Soviet Union quickly overtook Czechoslovakia and Hungary, and had West Berlin as their next target. As the world watched on, the Soviets decided the best way to control Berlin was to blockade some 2 million Berliners, cutting off all food, water and supplies to the bombed-out and broken city, hoping that this would lead to Berlin's surrender. In what was quickly escalating to a global crisis, the Allies struggled to know how to retain control of the city while avoiding what many worried would become WWIII.
It was at this time that the army started “Operation Vittles”, in which they dropped in food and supplies by airplane to keep the West Berliners alive despite the Soviet’s blockade. To sustain the 2 million inhabitants required the operation to ship over 1,534 tons daily. Originally thought to be a temporary solution, Operation Vittles, or the Berlin Airlift, ended up being the answer, and it successfully kept the people of Berlin alive for 11 months despite dire shortages of fuel and electricity. Even after the Soviet Union lifted the blockade in May of 1949, the Berlin Airlift continued to drop food and supplies for 3 months to ensure that the people of Berlin were taken care of.
When Colonel Halvorsen volunteered for Operation Vittles, he was 27 years old. The decision to stay on and help what had been a former enemy was a difficult one. As he said “I should have had one or two children by now. Instead I wasn’t even engaged to be married. My close friend, Conrad Stefen from Tremonton, Utah was still missing. We had just left the security and comfort of life in America. We were beginning to get our lives back to normal after the war. Now, here we were flying night and day in all kinds of weather; living in tents and tar paper shacks that had housed Hitler’s Displaced Persons work gangs. When word came that Stalin had cut off all the food and energy supplies to these suffering people this assignment became a worthwhile challenge. But that didn't make this second disruption without some pangs of doubt."
"However these last feelings of doubt left me when I landed that first load of 20,000 pounds of flour at Tempelhof in West Berlin. The German unloading crew poured through the open cargo door in the back of my aircraft. The lead man came toward the cockpit, moist eyes hand out thrust in friendship. Unintelligible words but his expression said it all. He looked at the bags of flour and back to us like we were angels from heaven. People were hungry for food and freedom. We were giving them both and they were most grateful. Gratitude is the magic potion that makes enemies friends and seemingly impossible tasks doable. From then on the pangs of doubt were gone.”
Halvorsen lost 31 Air Force buddies and 39 British crew in the Berlin Airlift. One of Halvorsen’s fellow pilots had bombed Berlin during the war and had lost some of his crew in the process, but still chose to come back to help. According to Halvorsen, “These are the true heroes. These are men who laid down their lives for the former enemy.”
Halvorsen’s Defining Moment: The Making of the Candy Bomber
“One day in July 1948 I met 30 kids at the barbed wire fence at Tempelhof in Berlin. They were excited. They said, ‘When the weather gets so bad you can’t land—don’t worry about us. We can get by on little food, but if we lose our freedom we may never get it back.’ The principle of freedom was more important than the pleasure of enough flour. ‘Just don’t give up on us,’ they asked. The Soviets had offered the Berliners food rations but they would not capitulate. For the hour I was at the fence not one child asked for gum or candy. Children I had met during and after the war like them in other countries had always begged insistently for such treasures. These Berlin children were so grateful for flour and to be free they wouldn’t lower themselves to be beggars for something more."
"When I realized this silent, mature show of gratitude and the strength that it took not to ask, I had to do something. All I had was two sticks of gum, but I clearly felt the Holy Ghost tell me to go back and give them to the kids through the fence. 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. I was so moved by what I saw and their incredible restraint 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. When I got back to Rhein-Main I attached gum and even chocolate bars to three handkerchief parachutes. We wiggled the wings and delivered the goods the next day. What a jubilant celebration. We did the same thing for several weeks before we got caught, threatened with a court martial which was followed immediately by a pardon. General Tunner said, ‘Keep it up.’”
Colonel Halvorsen’s act inspired others. At times he would come back from flights and find that his fellow squadron members had left boxes of chocolate on his bed for delivery. In those days a few candy bars could buy a used camera on the black market, so they gave up a lot by giving him their candy. US candy makers sent 23 tons of chocolate. A school in Massachusetts sent prepared parachutes.
Again in Halvorsen’s words, “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 from other aircraft and crews in addition to myself.”
His act has continued to touch others, even generations later. Since Operation Vittles, Colonel Halvorsen has become something of a superhero. He has been invited to visit and speak in Europe numerous times, participated in candy drops over Kosovo, marched with the Germans for the Olympics, had two schools named after him, and he has sat with presidents and dignitaries. Most importantly he has left a legacy of service and faith, and taught us that we can all love our enemies, and do something to bring hope to the hopeless.
We asked Colonel Halvorsen what advice he would give to the future generations, and what lessons he has learned throughout his life of service. Here were his answers.
Colonel Halvorsen’s Advice To Future Generations:
The Power of Service
“I grew up on a family farm during the Depression. There was no money to pay help on the farm, so we would trade off in helping each other. My dad used to tell me that if you wanted to be happy you had to serve others. I enjoy thinking of the military service as truly ‘in the service.’ I wanted to serve others, especially those that were denied freedom.”
“I know no additional happiness in life comes from more money, a bigger house, or nicer car, than comes with service.”
“The Savior said, ‘Greater love than this hath no man than this, than he lay down his life for a friend,’ 31 of my AF buddies and 39 British aviators gave their lives for a former enemy who had become a friend. The Berlin Airlift was the healing balm on the wounds of war.”
“Give service to others if you seek genuine fulfillment. A happy person has goals which include others. Souls devoid of service are wandering Dead Sea souls.”
Gratitude & Attitude
“We must be more sensitive and grateful for what we have. I never tired of the looks in their Germans eyes as they observed the 20,000 pounds of food we had in the plane for them and their loved ones. It was their ticket to freedom! The children would come out to our planes when they were being unloaded and gave us gifts of handmade objects and flowers.”
“Seek a positive outlook on life and the world will be manageable, even if difficult. Attitude is not everything but it does affect everything. Your attitude determines your success or failure. It is more important than your GPA. It is never so good or never so bad that the existing situation cannot be improved with patience, determination, love and hard work.”
“As you travel the road of life look in the rear view mirror to learn but do not look too long for what if or for what might have been, or how great or bad you were, or how bad someone else was. If you dwell too long you will miss the road to what you can become. Look forward through the windshield for the good in the world and how you can make it better.”
The Power of Hope
“In 1998 on a visit to Berlin flying an old Airlift C-54, The Spirit of Freedom, a 60 year old man told me he had caught a parachute in 1948 with a fresh Hershey candy bar. ‘It took me a week to eat it. I hid it day and night. But the chocolate was not the most important thing. The most important thing was that someone in America knew I was in trouble and someone cared. That meant hope.’ With moist eyes he said, ‘Without hope the soul dies. I can live on thin rations, but not without hope.’ Everyone needs hope today as much as the West Berliners needed it then."
Focus on the Little Decisions
“My parents were my heroes. They taught me principles that would hold true throughout my life. I remember when I was 12, and my dad taught me how a small bit in a horse’s mouth could control the entire horse’s body. I try to always teach about how the small things are the most important, and put your feet on a pathway to where you will eventually end up.”
“If you want to make the right small decisions, you have to have the spirit with you.”
Principles before Pleasure
“The West Berliners taught me to always put principle before pleasure. To them freedom was more important than food, and so they resisted the Soviets rations even when it meant they could starve and freeze. The Berliners knew that they would have food again someday, but if they lost their freedom they may never get it back.”
“Keep your word. Integrity begets hope, faith, trust, piece of mind, and confidence, for yourself and others. When there is a conflict when you make a decision-put principle before pleasure. The Berlin kids did. Freedom, sometime in the dim future, was more important than the pleasure of enough food now.”
Importance of Freedom
“The desire for freedom is inborn in every human soul no matter on which side of the border he or she is born. When helped too much, ‘I do it myself!’ comes in every language from the lips of most children, even at two or three years old. Free agency is already at work, but not all are free to choose.”
Colonel Halvorsen’s Legacy
Colonel Halvorsen life has inspired many. But for him the greatest good he can do is teach the upcoming generation, and even today Colonel Halvorsen continues to tour and speak where possible. He believes that, “kids are the future of our country, and they are worth whatever we can do to help.”
From Colonel Halvorsen, “God is alive and well. We are all on a path to somewhere on our space ship ‘Earth’. He has given us a GPS (the scriptures and the spirit) that will direct us around the mud holes of life that we may not ice our wings, or hit rocks in that which clouds our vision. If we keep our batteries properly charged we will make the journey safely back to Him.”