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'Candy Bomber' carries message of freedom, hope

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Kathleen Ferrero
  • Headquarters AMC Public Affairs
A German man stepped forward to meet the Berlin Airlift "Candy Bomber" and share his story during an event commemorating the operation's 50-year anniversary.

"Fifty years ago, I was a boy going to school," he said. "The clouds were hanging low. It was raining. You could hear the airplanes landing and taking off.

"Out of the clouds came a parachute with a fresh Hershey candy bar, and it landed at my feet," the German man said.

He was astounded. It took him a week to eat it, he said.

"It wasn't the chocolate that was important," the man said. "What was important was that somebody in America cared for me ... I can live on thin rations, but not without hope."

"Without hope, the soul dies," said the Candy Bomber, Col. Gail Halvorsen, as he finished recounting the man's story during an Air Force Ball speech at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, Oct. 16.

"That's so true today," Colonel Halvorsen said. "There are those in the world without hope ... and so often the symbol of hope comes on the tail of an Air Mobility Command aircraft."

Clapping burst throughout the hangar as approximately 1,000 guests stood to their feet, including 15 NATO air chiefs; and the airlift veteran walked back to his table.

His legacy began when he and fellow crew members air-dropped candy via hand-kerchief parachutes to children in West Berlin. It evolved into the delivery of more than 20 tons of candy during the humanitarian operation and common memories that continue to strengthen U.S.-German ties.

In Germany, Colonel Halvorsen visited wounded warriors at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, as well as Airmen at Ramstein's aeromedical evacuation squadron and contingency response unit.

The Air Force contingency response unit is an expeditionary group with a small number of people from a broad spectrum of specialties designed to land in austere locations within 12 hours and set up airfield operations.

Air Mobility Command has two contingency response wings in the United States: one assigned to each coast. These Airmen were critical to getting relief into Haiti during the aftermath of the earthquake, for example.

From the Berlin Airlift to ongoing efforts to help Pakistanis devastated by the floods, "the thing that's remained constant is that concept of hope," said Col. Scott Erickson, commander of the 435th Contingency Response Group.

Contingency response Airmen bring hope through rapid response for humanitarian relief and building partnership capacities; "because we know in this fight, that's the only way we're going to win," he said.

More than 30 members of the 435th CRG are airborne qualified, including a civil engineer and airfield manager, the commander said.

The Airmen's attitudes impressed Colonel Halvorsen. "You can see that spark in their eyes. It makes you feel good about the future of our Air Force."

The living legend also visited warriors at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. He wrote down the names of patients' loved ones so he could call them later to offer encouragement and comfort.

"It used to take a couple of weeks to get people out of theater. Now we can get them out in as little as eight hours and get them here to this hospital; and we have about a 99.5 percent survival rate if they can get here," said Army Maj. Kurt Martin as he briefed Colonel Halvorsen during the LRMC tour.

"Boy, it really brings you back to reality," Colonel Halvorsen said after visiting patients. "But it makes you feel good to know that such an excellent system's in place."

He also ate lunch with several Soldiers in the hospital dining facility. After lunch, they bumped into a fellow Soldier and described their experience.

"Yah! He's over there (at the USO Warrior Center). You cannot believe this guy!"

"They were really proud that they met him," said the Soldier whom they bumped into, Staff Sgt. Rafael Hernandez-Ortiz, a 10th Mountain Division medial liaison. "It is history. ... You don't expect to meet people like him anymore."

"Like one of the patients had said, he puts a face on the Berlin Airlift," said Mrs. Juanita Harvin, a U.S. Africa Command translator who accompanied the tour.

"Gratitude is why we're here tonight after all these years," Colonel Halvorsen said in his speech at the Air Force Ball later that evening. "The gratitude of the children (in West Berlin), 8-14 years of age, who didn't have all they wanted to eat.

"They gave me a lesson about the importance of freedom. 'Someday we'll have enough to eat,' they said. 'But if we loose our freedom, we'll never get it back.'"