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US 'candy bomber' pilot dead at 101
US 'candy bomber' pilot dead at 101

US 'candy bomber' pilot dead at 101

Gail Halvorsen, the former US pilot who thought up the idea of dropping tiny improvised parachutes loaded with sweets for children into Berlin during the Soviet blockade, has died at the age of 101.

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The Allied Museum dedicated to Cold War history in Berlin's former American sector confirmed media reports of Halvorsen's death on Wednesday.

"Gail Halvorsen died in Utah in a hospital, surrounded by his family," a museum spokeswoman told AFP on Thursday.

A lifelong ambassador for German-American friendship, Halvorsen became famous in the embattled city as the first American pilot to drop bundles of chocolate and chewing gum from his plane to local youngsters waiting below.

Fans nicknamed him "the candy bomber" and "Uncle Wiggly Wings" for the way he manoeuvred his plane so the children, still traumatised by the war, would know to look out for incoming treats.

He inspired many imitators in the ranks of the airforce.

"Even though I flew day and night, ice and snow... I was happy because of the look on the faces of the children when they would see parachutes coming out of the sky," he told AFP in 2009.

"They would just go crazy."

Halvorsen rose to the rank of colonel and eventually ended up commander of the Tempelhof airfield, the staging ground for the 1948-49 Berlin Airlift.

Pilots flew supplies to West Berlin's 2.5 million people, still reeling from the Second World War.

- 'A father-figure' -

Operating almost non-stop and through a harsh German winter, the airlift brought in more than two million tonnes of supplies on more than 277,000 flights, mainly into Tempelhof.

At least 78 US, British and German pilots and ground crew lost their lives in accidents in the air and on the ground, as the Allies delivered fuel and food to prevent Berlin's population from starving.

Officially known as "Operation Vittles", it was the first major salvo of the Cold War.

Mercedes Wild recalled in 2019 how she as a seven-year-old girl had protested that the constant drone of airlift planes disturbed her chickens at a time when eggs were a valuable commodity.

Halvorsen wrote back, enclosing sticks of chewing gum and a lollipop with his letter.

His gesture sparked a long-lasting friendship between Halvorsen, Wild and their families which mirrored the post-war ties between their countries.

"It wasn't the sweets that impressed me, it was the letter," she told AFP.

"I grew up fatherless, like a lot of (German) children at that time, so knowing that someone outside of Berlin was thinking of me gave me hope."

Wild called the tall, lanky pilot with the broad grin "a father-figure" and "the best ambassador we could have for German-American friendship".

Halvorsen said the same year on one of his many visits to the German capital, even well into his 90s, how impressed he was with Berliners' hunger for freedom.

"The heroes were the Germans -- the parents and children on the ground," the airforce veteran said, calling them "the stalwarts of the confrontation with the Soviet Union".