"Chocolate Pilot" Story Comes to Life for Students

November 09, 2021 | Education | Heidi Baumgartner

Finding a new book is a treasure. Finding deeper connections within the story makes it even more meaningful.

Sandy Hawkins introduced her third-grade students at Northwest Christian School in Puyallup, Washington, to a story titled Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot. This book was a new title in the Pathways reading curriculum and a new story for the teacher, too.

In the book, the third-graders met 7-year-old Mercedes who lived in Berlin just after World War II. The Russian blockade had prevented delivery of food, coal and clothing, so British and American pilots embarked on the Berlin Airlift, a humanitarian rescue mission also known as Operation Vittles. Planes regularly dropped supplies for 15-months.

On a day off, Lt. Gail S. Halvorsen, an American pilot, encountered 30 children hanging around the Tempelhof Airport. They had nothing. He only had two sticks of gum on him, which the children willingly divided among each other as far as possible. Even the wrappers were sniffed with appreciation.

The book then describes how Halvorsen and a few of his buddies pooled their candy rations and created parachutes out of handkerchiefs for the packages so the children wouldn’t be hurt when the candy dropped. It was an unauthorized mission but, with a signaling wiggle of the wings, it soon gathered recognition, wide-spread national support and the beginning of a legacy of humanitarian kindness that extended into different war-torn countries for generations.

Operation Little Vittles ended up dropping over 23 tons of candy from 250,000 parachutes offering sweet morsels of hope and humanity.

In the book, the third grade class read that little Mercedes couldn't get to the candy fast enough. When Halvorsen learned of this, he sent a package directly to her. The two continued to communicate by mail over the years. Decades later, Mercedes and Halvorsen reunited when he returned to Berlin as Commander of the 7350th Air Base Group in 1970.

“I was so enamored with this story,” Hawkins said. “My class looked up Halvorsen online to learn more and found out he was still alive and living in Utah. We sent him a package with notes and artwork in May 2021." Later, in the summer, a letter arrived in Hawkins' school mailbox. It was from Halvorsen and his daughter.

“I love to receive letters and drawings from children,” Halvorsen wrote to Northwest Christian students. “Mercedes and I are still friends, although I have not been able to see her lately since she lives in Berlin, Germany.”

“I wrote back right away and included my phone number,” Hawkins recounted. “As soon as Colonel Halvorsen received my letter, he called me and I learned more about his family and life. I told him that when the new school year started my students would be writing to him again. We now have a letter campaign from multiple schools all because of reading a special story.”

Colonel Halversen, also known as the "Candy Bomber," "Wiggly Wings" and the "Chocolate Pilot," turned 101 years old in October. His story has been shared far and wide through short documentaries with original footage, interviews, books and more. You can find many of these books online, including the Pathways book Hawkin's read with her students. The story is also told through an inspiring holiday dramatization, Christmas From Heaven: The Candy Bomber Story, narrated by Tom Brokaw, award-winning journalist.