An Outer Banks Holiday Tradition | The Candy Bomber Returns to the Outer Banks
The Candy Bomber was back at the Dare County Regional Airport again—for the 19th time, if we’re counting. The annual visit from Lt. Colonel Gail Halvorsen (USAF, Ret.) and his C54 four-engine prop aircraft has become a cherished part of the holiday traditions of the Outer Banks.
The story behind aircraft’s name tells an extraordinary tale of generosity of spirit and a simple act of kindness in the midst of an international showdown that threatened the lives of millions.
By 1948, the cooperation between what is now Russia and the westerns allies led by the United States had dissolved into a bitter cold war standoff. Europe was divided—Russia controlled all of eastern Europe and a divided Germany, creating the nation of East Germany.
The city of Berlin, the cultural and political heart of Germany, lay in the middle of East Germany, and it too was divided; the western powers of the United States, England, and France, controlled the western portion of the city. The Soviet Union, as Russia was known at that time, controlled the East.
In June of that year, hoping to gain control of Berlin from the western allies, the Soviets cut off all land transportation to the city from West Germany. Russian political theory held that as food and fuel ran out, the citizens would turn to the Soviets as their saviors and control of the Berlin would be theirs.
What the Russians had not taken into their calculations was the determination of the western allies to preserve the freedom of West Berlin. What followed was the largest and most sustained airlift ever mounted—and through their efforts, a city of 2,000,000 was kept alive for over a year.
In 1948, Gail Halvorsen was a 27-year-old 1st Lieutenant flying three round trips a day to Berlin. In an interview he gave a few years ago, he explained that he had only flown over Berlin, but had never seen the city. “My buddy was headed to Berlin with a load of flour,” he said. “So I hitched a ride back to Berlin.”
He and a friend were sitting in a Jeep when he saw the kids. “The kids were friendly,” he recalled. “Why were they friendly? Because their aunts and uncles right across the border (in East Berlin), would come over and tell these kids, ‘Hey you don’t want anything to do with these Russians.’”
“If we lose our freedom we’ll never get it back,” the kids told him.
Although none of the children had asked for anything, Halvorsen has told audiences that at that moment, a presence seemed to guide him into reaching into his pocket to give a simple gift. “A voice came to me. Some people call it conscience. I call it the Holy Ghost. ‘Go back and give them the two sticks of gum,’” he said.
The children took the gum, carefully dividing it among all of them. Halvorsen then told them he would wiggle his wings when he flew over the next day and drop candy for them.
There wasn’t very much candy in that first run, just the chocolate bars the men of Halvorsen’s three-man crew had in their rations. Still, they tied miniature parachutes to the bars, wiggled the wings of the C54, and dropped the candy, and kept dropping the candy…Much to the dismay of his commanding officer.
His CO, it seems, knew who was dropping the candy, because a news article with a photo clearly showed Halvorsen’s aircraft.
That news article, though, showing a small act of kindness, had a remarkable effect on morale, and soon all of the American planes were dropping candy to the children of Berlin.
The Candy Bomber today is a fully restored C54, and as it trundles down the Dare County Airport runway and into the air, it becomes a remarkably beautiful and graceful aircraft. It circles wide, flying over Roanoke Island, seemingly at treetop level. The candy run is from the sound and as the plane comes in low and as slow as possible, little white parachutes fall from the sky.
Since Sunday was a windy day, a precision drop wasn’t possible. Still, most of the candy seemed to fall in the fields next to the airport, if not exactly at the drop zone. As soon as the candy began falling, hordes of children—and some parents—began running to the candy.
Colonel Halvorsen is 98-years-old and is still coming with the Candy Bomber to the Dare County Airport. Even at his age, he remains an energetic man with a wonderfully positive attitude toward life. He no longer flies his Candy Bomber, but some of the pilots who now fly the plane were with the Colonel when he took the controls. According to them, no one knew that plane as well as he did.