Thursday, December 04, 2014

C-54 Santa: Christmas from Heaven by Tom Brokaw and David T. Warner

On Christmas Eve, 1948, somewhere between Weisbaden and Berlin, Germany, a twenty-seven-year-old pilot gazed into the night sky. The heavens were filled with stars.

His C-54 cargo plane was packed with 20,000 pounds of flour. "This is the true spirit of Christmas," he thought as he guided his plane toward Templehoff Air Base in West Berlin.

Three years after the end of World War II, in 1948, the Iron Curtain came down with a clang heard around the world. At the end of World War II, all of Hitler's Germany had been divided into the Allied zone in West Germany and the Soviet Union zones in East Germany. The capital, Berlin, had been cut into Soviet and Allied sectors, but Stalin, in an attempt to control all of the city, cut off all ground transportation to the Allied zone in an attempt to starve West Berlin into agreeing to be taken over by the Soviet Union. The U.S. and its English allies were determined to help the city hold out, and together began what was called the Berlin Air Lift, transporting food and medicine into West Berlin to help them survive.

Life in post-war Berlin was very hard. The city was still struggling with the aftermath of their terrible war, and people were hungry and fearful that they would be swallowed up by the Soviets, who had already taken over the eastern half of Germany, Poland, Hungary, and other formerly independent countries and made them part of the Soviet Union. West Berlin's fate lay in the dangerous plan to supply them long enough to force Stalin to abandon his takeover.

When Hal Halverson landed his big C-54 transport plan with the USAF insignia, he noticed that children were gathered around the fence surrounding the Templehoff runway. They were thin and hungry and shivering in the December cold.
These children had little to eat, but they were grateful for the airlift and asked for nothing. Their gratitude melted Hal's heart.

Hal thought of the children back home, hanging their stockings that night, sure that they would find candy and homemade goodies on Christmas the next morning. He remembered his own bountiful Christmases, and suddenly he had an idea.
"I could drop candy from the air!" he thought. "I'll wiggle my wings," he said, spreading his long arms and waving them up and down. "But promise you'll share."

The kids nodded.

At first Hal rounded up donations from the other pilots' and crews' rations for his first candy drop. The crewman made little parachutes from handkerchiefs and twine, and the kids kept coming to the airport to wait for the daily candy drop. The story snowballed, and companies back home in America started sending shipments of candy to Hal's base, tons of it, and Hal Halverston became famous as "the Candy Bomber" or "Uncle Wiggly Wings," as the children of Berlin called him, all looking up and hoping to see the little parachutes whenever they heard the roar of the C-54s overhead. Only three years before, Germany and the U.S. had been deadly enemies. But the kindness of the Candy Bomber and the courage of the other pilots who kept the Allied sector alive for almost a year changed everything, and Germany became one of America's strongest allies.

Tom Brokaw's and David T. Warner's Christmas from Heaven: The True Story of the Berlin Candy Bomber (Shadow Mountain, 2013) provides middle readers with a lesson in history and a Christmas story unlike any other, in which one Air Force pilot's empathy mounted a national response. Included in the book is a DVD which documents this event which symbolically brought a close to World War II and historically enabled West Berlin to become the beacon of freedom that it was in the Cold War period. There is even a guide so that kids can make their own candy parachute.  This is a bit of American history that middle school and high school history classes often give scant coverage, but is well worth knowing.

PBS has their own hour-long production of this story, scheduled in my area on Monday, December 8. Check your local television schedule, as times may vary.

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