Fifteen years before the grand act of kindness that earned him the nickname the “Berlin Candy Bomber,” Gail Halvorsen was the beneficiary of another act of kindness closer to home.
Only, he didn’t realize it until he saw his mother’s ragged shoes.
The year was 1933, and Halvorsen was a 12-year-old Boy Scout in Rigby, Idaho. He remembers his mother putting away a few cents each day for her “new shoe fund.”
“I remember her keen anticipation as her savings grew to almost three dollars,” Halvorsen said decades later.
As his mother saved for those shoes, Halvorsen lamented his own lack of funds — a gloom that only grew when his Scoutmaster came riding through town on horseback to tell all the Scouts about a big camporee happening that summer in Salt Lake City.
With Halvorsen’s loaded work schedule on the family farm, he didn’t have time to make any money on the side. Halvorsen told his Scoutmaster he wouldn’t be attending the gathering of Scouts.
Halvorsen’s mom, however, had other plans.
“Mom knew how much that Scout trip meant to me and signaled to Dad to reassure the Scoutmaster that I could go,” Halvorsen said. “The next day as I hurried off with the troop, Mom pressed a small manilla envelope into my hand.”
At first, Halvorsen didn’t consider where the money inside that envelope had come from. He just went to Salt Lake City and had a wonderful time.
“I will never forget that trip because when I got back, Mom still had on her old shoes,” Halvorsen said, “but a special light shone in her eyes.”
Fifteen years later
Fifteen years after that grand gesture, Halvorsen was an Air Force pilot in West Berlin during the early Cold War years. One day in July 1948, he saw 30 German children in ragged clothing near a fence.
Halvorsen walked over and handed them the last two sticks of gum he had.
“The look in their eyes, I could see their appreciation for something so small,” he later said. “I wanted to do something more, so I told them to come back later.”
That “something more” became the idea of dropping candies, chocolate and chewing gum — all wrapped in tiny parachutes — for the children of West Berlin. This gesture of goodwill earned Halvorsen his “Berlin Candy Bomber” nickname and cemented his legacy as a purveyor of peace and good feelings.
Halvorsen died Feb. 16, 2022, in Provo, Utah. He was 101. His life of service before self is memorialized wonderfully in his obituary in The New York Times.
We won’t repeat those details here. But after talking to one of his three Eagle Scout sons, Mike Halvorsen, we can provide a bit of the untold story — including how Scouting influenced Halvorsen’s life in the wake of World War II and far beyond.
“All the conflicts in our world today, both domestic and foreign, can weigh us down,” Mike Halvorsen tells Bryan on Scouting. “Having faith and hope, putting others first and making a positive effort to do good, no matter how small, will improve your life and the lives of countless others.”
A Scouting family
Mike Halvorsen says he believes his dad reached First Class before his responsibilities on the family farm became too much for him to continue in Scouting.
But even though his own Scouting experience lasted just a few years, Gail Halvorsen clearly believed in the value of Scouting. So much so that when he had children of his own, he signed them up.
“I believe he wanted us to be part of a program that taught the ideals of Scouting and was a meaningful — and not easy — goal to achieve,” Mike Halvorsen says. “He passed on a love of the outdoors and for the education, training, service to country, love for God and discipline that is taught in Scouting.”
All three of Gail Halvorsen’s sons became Eagle Scouts. And while he isn’t 100% certain, Mike Halvorsen also believes that all 16 of Gail Halvorsen’s grandsons are Eagle Scouts.
“Our family has served in almost every Scouting position — my wife served in Cub Scouts and on many Scout committees, and I’ve been Cubmaster, Webelos den leader, Scoutmaster, Varsity team coach and Explorer Advisor, among many other roles,” Mike Halvorsen says. “Scouts was just one of those things that we did in our families. Some of my best memories are spending time with my boys and seeing them interact and learn with the troop.”
The son of the ‘Candy Bomber’
Mike Halvorsen didn’t hear much about his dad’s headline-making deeds until his family moved to Berlin when he was 8.
“The wall was still up while I lived there, and it was a very visible reminder of the conflict that existed and the isolation of West Berlin, which, at the time, was still surrounded by Russian-occupied East Germany,” Mike Halvorsen says.
As he got older, Mike Halvorsen watched his dad get invited to countless speaking engagements. Somehow his dad never seemed to tire of sharing his story of kindness.
“No matter who asked or how small the group, he always took time to share the story of hope, service and an attitude of gratitude,” Mike Halvorsen says. “Dad’s message he delivered at every opportunity was service before self. I’m sure that teachings like ‘Do a Good Turn Daily’ and ‘help other people at all times’ were an influence throughout his life.”
The legacy of the ‘Candy Bomber’
In 1948, Gail Halvorsen gave a small group of kids his last two sticks of Wrigley’s Doublemint.
In 2022, a woman inspired by that act launched an operation that provided 12,000 pounds of supplies to children in Ukraine.
“This isn’t somethiing she has done in the past,” Mike Halvorsen says. “She felt inspired from the ‘Candy Bomber’ story. That is just one example of the positive results of that one small act.”
And that’s his dad’s legacy, Mike Halvorsen says: a reminder that anyone can make a difference.
“When you put service before self, you can literally change the world,” he says. “In just this one case, those two sticks turned into 12,000 pounds of supplies for the children of Ukraine. Simple acts of kindness can change your life and countless others for the better.”