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Sunday Favorites: Operation Little Vittles

German children living near Tempelhof Air Base in Berlin, where the U.S. transports unloaded their airlift supplies, play Luftbrucke (air bridge) using model American planes.

When Walter Nierez was seven years old, he could look up at the sky over his hometown of Berlin and see tiny parachutes dropping from Allied bombers. There were no soldiers, weapons or bombs attached to each parachute, but chocolate candy bars, something German kids hadn't seen in months at the close of WWII.

Walter Nierez was a boy, his hometown of Berlin Germany was bombed with candy. He remembers vividly the day he saw small parachutes falling delicately from one of the C-54E planes that supplied the city with food during a year-long blockade by the Russian military. 

While high winds and bad weather during the 33rd Annual Florida International Airshow, which was held March 23-24 at the Punta Gorda Airport, hindered the performance from the aviation acts and acrobatic pilots from all over the world, the break gave the underdog planes a chance to shine, while their history came alive through people who had experienced them first hand.

Nierez, of Punta Gorda Fla., recognized a C-54E transport aircraft Spirit of Freedom as 'the candy bomber' from his childhood. 

After WWII, Germany was divided into four zones, each governed by an ally that helped defeat Germany during the war. The capital had fallen under Soviet control towards the end of World War II. As tensions rose, the Soviets sought to keep Berlin under Eastern control by trying to force the Western powers out of the city through starvation.

Under orders from Joseph Stalin, ground troops blockaded roads, railroad tracks and rivers accessing the area. The blockade on Berlin wasn't lifted until May 12, 1949.

For 15 months, 330 C-54s flew around the clock delivering essentials like milk and flour to the people of Berlin. About 4,500 tons were needed to be flown into the city every day to sustain the 2.5 million residents. A C-54 plane would land in Berlin every 3 minutes.

First Lieutenant Gail Halvorsen, USAF, became famous for “Operation Little Vittles.” He rigged miniature parachutes with American candy bars and gum and then dropped the parachutes over Berlin for German children to retrieve.

"Most of the people were women and children,' said Nierenz, whose mother was raising him and five siblings while his father served in the war. "Most of the fathers were still missing in action, as the war had not ended. These women were on their own."

The planes, which delivered 1,000 pounds of food per day, essentially saved the city from famine. But the Spirit of Freedom, flown by Gail Havorsen, had an additional purpose that was more memorable than the others. 'Operation Little Vittles' was meant to improve morale by dropping candy bars attached to parachutes to city children.

Halvorsen started by giving a few treats to children watching the planes from outside the Tempelhof base. Wanting to give more, he promised to drop more candy from his plane the next day. Because the planes would arrive nearly every three minutes, the children were unable to distinguish his aircraft from the others. However, Halvorsen promised to wiggle the wings to identify himself, which led to his nickname "Onkel Wackelflügel" or Uncle Wiggly Wings.

The operation was soon noticed by the press and gained widespread attention. A wave of public support led to donations which enabled Halvorsen and his crew to drop 850 pounds of candy. By the end of the airlift, around 25 plane crews had dropped 23 tons of chocolate, chewing gum, and other candies over various places in Berlin.

However, Nierenz said some of the more ambitious kids gathered up all the candy and began selling it on the 'black market.' Nierenz ended up trading his father's Bismark Medal for a candy bar.

"When I die and meet my father, I know I will have to answer for that," he joked.

Flights continued until September 30, 1949 to build up a stock pile of supplies. In the end, T2.3 tons of cargo had been flown to Berlin, two thirds of which was coal. With a total of 93 million miles flown during the Berlin Airlift, which equated to a one way trip to the sun.

Nierenz's face reflected an expression of fondness when he thought about his childhood memories. At the airshow, dozens of children boarded the Spirit of Freedom to see the inside and as they exited Nierenz asked them “do you know who the candy bomber is?”


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