At a recent concert held in the Mormon Tabernacle, a strange thing occurred. Small parachutes made from handkerchiefs began to fall from the ceiling, drifting down on an appreciative audience who looked up with tear-streaked faces. It was a moment of commemoration honoring a little-known event that had transpired many decades before, when a world war had recently ended, and a terrifyingly uncertain Cold War had begun.
It was 1948, a mere three years since the guns had fallen silent in the city of Berlin. Citizens of that once-proud and now devastated world capital had suffered greatly, enduring a massive Anglo-American bombing campaign and a brutal invasion by the Red Army. In the aftermath of World War II, West Berlin had become an island of freedom in a great sea of communist misery and oppression that had flooded Eastern Europe.
As the latest tactic in a strategy that aimed for a world conquered by communism, the Soviet Union had closed off all ground access to West Berlin. In a bold and risk-laden move, the Western Allies had begun flying supplies into West Berlin to keep the city alive and out of the clutches of communism. These same citizens of Berlin who had once seen Allied aircraft as harbingers of death and destruction, now looked up to see the skies filled with hundreds of aircraft from those same nations bringing life instead of death.
In a great feat of courage and endurance, Air Force and naval air crews flew around the clock in all kinds of weather to bring food, clothing, medicine, and coal to the beleaguered city. "Operation Vittles" continued for just under a year and accomplished its humanitarian and strategic mission, eventually convincing the Soviet Union to end its ground blockade.
In the midst of these great events when a clash of ideologies had led to such a bizarre operation, a smaller—but in some ways no less important—sub-operation evolved. During a rest period between flights, Gail "Hal" Halvorsen, a U.S. Air Force pilot, wandered down to the end of the runway at Templehof Airport and encountered a cluster of children peering through the fence. When he passed two sticks of gum through the wire and watched the children eagerly divide and devour the meager offering, he promised to drop candy from his aircraft on his next flight. So that the children would know which aircraft was his, he told them he would wiggle his wings during his approach.
Halvorsen carried out his mission as promised. Making a very different kind of bombing run, his crew dropped three parcels of candy, each suspended from a tiny parachute made from a handkerchief. When later taking off from the airfield, Halvorsen and his crew looked down to see many children waving enthusiastically. Among the waving arms, they could make out three white handkerchiefs fluttering like flags of victory.
Halvorsen began receiving letters of thanks from children who addressed him as "Uncle Wiggly Wings." Other pilots began donating their rationed candy and their handkerchiefs, and soon many miniature parachutes fluttered down from incoming flights. As word spread, donations from people back home and from candy companies amounted to tons of sweets for countless children who looked to the skies with happy anticipation.
At that concert many years later, "Uncle Wiggly Wings"—now in his 90s and wearing the same flight suit he had worn all those years ago—stood on the stage before a standing ovation as little parachutes drifted down to commemorate a time when little hearts were warmed in the midst of a very Cold War.