THE BERLIN CANDY DROP – OVER MANTEO, NC

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Photos and Story by Bill Sarama

I was visiting the Village of Duck, on the Outer Banks (OBX) of North Carolina, about one and a half hours south of Norfolk on December 17th. Being a true Airplane Chaser, I decided to go down to the Manteo Airport, on Roanoke Island (Dare County Regional Airport / KMQI) to see what was going on. Well, there was a lot going on! Manteo was the old Manteo Auxiliary Naval Air Station (NAAS) in WWII and was an OLF Training Facility for the “Jolly Rogers” (VF-17 / VF-84 and currently VFA-103 out of Oceana). To this day it’s Approach and Departure frequencies (124.725) are still controlled by MCAS Cherry Point Tower, seventy-five miles to the south, probably because it is located pretty close to the Navy Dare Bomb Range 30 miles southwest as the Gull flies. NAAS Manteo had F4F Wildcats, F6F Hellcats, SB2C Helldivers, TBM Avengers, PBY’s, and F4U Corsairs, all based here and all using the MOA’s off the coast.

Well, as I did my approach to Manteo, it looked like WWII all over again. It was 1600 on Saturday and a big ‘ol Douglas C-54 Skymaster was on short final in to Runway 23. On touchdown it was the C-54E / R-5D-4 “Spirit of Freedom” owned by the Berlin Airlift Historical Association out of Toms River, NJ. It’s a Warbird quite familiar to many of us from Northeast air shows, most especially the Reading WWII Show. (See Photos). I wandered over to be with the Meeters and Greeters on the ramp and I found out that the “Spirit of Freedom” was in town for three events this weekend: 1) December17th is the anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ First Flight over at the nearby launch point at the big sand dune at Kitty Hawk, about a mile east (and now the site of the Wright Brothers Memorial Museum). Apparently this C-54 has been visiting on this day each year for the last 14 years; 2) They were also going to reenact the famous “Berlin Candy Drop” on Sunday, made famous by Col. Gail “Hal” Halverson in 1948 to 1949. Col. Hal, then First Lieutenant Halverson, would go on to drop tons of candy on his final approach to Tempelhof Airport during the Berlin Airlift during the Soviet Blockade of Berlin in 1948, and 3) and, it turned out, that both Co. Halverson and some guy named “Santa Claus” were going to participate in the Manteo Candy Drop on Sunday!!!!

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Of course I came back to Manteo on Sunday !! The “Manteo Candy Drop”, the Reenactment of the famous Berlin Airlift Candy Drops from 1948 to 1949, was scheduled for wheels up at 1230 today. Col Gail “Hal” Halverson, (USAF Retired), originator of the original Berlin Candy Drop, was there greeting a local crowd of about two thousand families, kids, babies and well-behaved dogs, who all had come for the fourteenth year of this popular local event to try their hand at snagging one of the candy bars attached to the little white parachutes as they would later come floating down. I met Col. Halverson, and he was having a ball signing books, posing for selfies, and greeting all the families as they boarded the C-54 for the tour that the crew was providing for the “Spirit of Freedom”. Hal was full of energy on this day.

The C-54 took off as scheduled at 1230 on Runway 23 into a sharp twenty five knot wind blowing in from the west from the Croatan Sound. He banked to the left low and leveled out at five hundred feet to line up with a grassy area near the cross-wind runway that had been designated as the drop zone for the Candy Drop and where all the kids were positioned to try their luck at grabbing a candy bar. On board were six hundred, yes six hundred large Hershey Candy Bars, that some rich benefactor had bought and donated, and that volunteers had painstakingly attached small parachutes to them that were linen handkerchiefs with heavy cord attached to the four corners at a twelve inch length and then attached to a rubber band that secured to candy bar to the mini-chute. Six hundred of these chutes — quite a novel idea. Well, the C-54 tested the wind a few times and on the third pass the crew unloaded six hundred candy bar chutes from both sides of the plane, and guess what — they all opened!! Pretty neat!! Needless to say, the kids all went crazy, running everywhere for the Hershey Bars, even close to the active Runway 23, which was scary because the -54 was inbound on short final. No worries. Spirit landed just fine and the kids all “Held Short” of 23 and did not encroach. And guess what? When the chocks were set and the props feathered, guess who came out from the aft door? This guy called SANTA CLAUS. Stage left – Kids going crazy again.

A bit about the Famous Guest of Honor – Col. “Hal” Halverson (USAF Ret.), A Real American Hero: Col Gail Seymore “Hal” Halverson, ninety-six, yes ninety-six, is a retired officer and command pilot in the United States Air Force. He is best known as the “Berlin Candy Bomber” who dropped candy bars to children from his C-54 Skymaster, on final approach to Templehof Airport during the Berlin Airlift from 1948 to 1949. He wrote the Best Seller book “The Berlin Candy Bomber” and was in the movie “Meet the Mormons” in 2014. He won the Congressional Gold Medal and the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany as well as many other awards. He participated in WWII and was a command pilot of a Douglas C-54E “Skymaster” cargo aircraft during the entire Soviet Blockade of Berlin from 1948 to 1949. Col. Halverson actually started a movement with the other C-47 and C-54 pilots who also dropped candy on their approaches into Berlin during the Blockade. Hal invented a name for that Candy Drop Mission: “Operation Little Vittles”. The kids would come to the fence at Tempelhof to thank Hal for the Candy Air Drops. One day they asked him: “How will we know it’s your plane next time?” He said he would “wiggle his wings” on the approach and that’s how he got his nickname “Uncle Wiggle Wings” besides other names like “The Chocolate Bomber” and “The Berlin Candy Bomber” (the title of his book). Eventually twenty-one tons of candy for the kids were parachute dropped over the next fourteen months!

At the start of the Candy Drops, a little girl accompanied by her mother, was able to walk over to the ramp at Tempelhof where Hal’s plane was being unloaded. She brought Hal her only surviving possession, a well- worn Teddy Bear. She offered it to Lt. Halverson with deep emotion, saying “This kept me safe during the bombings. I want you to have it to keep you safe on your trips to Berlin.” Col. Hal added it to his flight deck windshield and it kept him safe. And that’s why now, when you see the C-54 “Sprit of Freedom” come in to air shows, it will usually have the Teddy Bear on the windshield. And those Airlift Missions were really dangerous. There were twenty-five major crashes with thirty-one Americans and thirty-nine British air crews losing their lives… as well as thirty civilian deaths… for a total of one hundred Airlift fatalities.

Col. Halverson’s history is unbelievable. He had an illustrious career in both the USAF and later in private life, retiring from the USAF in 1974 as a full Colonel with 8,000 flying hours. He even got in a few more Candy Drops with the “Spirit of Freedom” in 1998 in the left seat flying for the Berlin Airlift Historical Society flying across the Atlantic for sixty-nine days and twenty-seven air shows in four European countries. Again, in 1999 he flew a C-130 supply run into Albania and Kosovo bringing in toys and candy for the kids at Christmas, into a country also ravaged by war at the time. Just this year alone in 2016 he has appeared in five air drops of candy besides the Candy Drop today in Manteo, NC. For more on this amazing Air Force officer, read his book “The Berlin Candy Bomber” or see the website “wigglywings.com” for an excellent synopsis. And boy, I hope I have the energy this guy has at ninety-six… when I’m ninety-six, Happy Flying Hal!!!

Bill Sarama

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