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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Operation Little Vittles - Chicopee, Massachusetts

An earlier version of the following essay appeared in “In Chicopee”, a publication of the Holyoke Transcript-Telegram in 1992.

In the spring of 1948 when the brittle division of wartime alliances left a new order, etching the map of with an “Iron Curtain”, the Soviet Union blockaded Berlin in the hope that the Allies would abandon it.

They did not. Within three days the Allies, headed by the United States, responded with Operation Vittles, a project which airlifted food, medicine, and fuel to the two million Berliners in the isolated French, British, and American sectors. It was more than a goodwill mission; it was a symbolic action during a bleak period of history when symbol and cant were weapons of the Cold War.

Chicopee, Massachusetts celebrated its centennial as a town that year, and found itself the center of this world event. Westover Air Force Base in the northwest section of town formed the gateway of the air bridge to Europe.

Westover pilot, 1st Lieutenant Gail S. Halversen of Utah was part of one of many crews which made round the clock flights for the relief of the desperate Berliners. Noticing the forlorn children outside the fence at Templehof Airport, Halvorsen offered them some gum, and came up with the idea that led to an unauthorized mission. He began to drop candy from his C-54 transport plane, and became known as the Candy Bomber.

In Chicopee, Mayor Edward Bourbeau and his secretary, Wilfred V. Thivierge adopted Halvorsen’s mission. Under Operation Little Vittles, Chicopee became a national clearinghouse for donations of candy to the children of Berlin.

The project, unlike Operation Vittles, was unofficial and voluntary. Personal involvement in the rescue of far-away people appealed as the most energetic and practical symbol there could be of a free people empathizing with the hardships of others, with whom they had nothing in common. Candy for the children added another dimension to the event.

The abandoned Company No. 4 firehouse on Grape and Springfield streets was cleaned up by volunteers and became the headquarters of the candy operation. Donations were sent to Chicopee from all over the country. These were gifts of candy from individuals and companies, and especially of men’s handkerchiefs which Halvorsen reported were always running low. The hankies were used as parachutes, and they floated down showers of chocolate and gum, and lollipops and Lifesavers to thousands of German kids.

Mary C. Connors, then a junior at the Our Lady of the Elms College in town, headed the committee of the Chicopee schoolchildren on making the parachutes at the firehouse. Every school in the city sent contributions and manpower, for this was mainly a project about children. There was some chest thumping about outsmarting the Reds, but most of the good will really was just good will.

In January 1949, Halvorsen visited his Candyland. He came in on the 12:30 train at the Union Station in Springfield, and Mayor Bourbeau and his staff welcomed him to Chicopee. A dinner was held for at the old Red Barn restaurant and tavern, and he spoke to the Chicopee High School students at assembly. He told Mayor Bourbeau that Chicopee had fine folks.

Superintendent of Schools John L. Fitzpatrick told Chicopee school kids that they were representatives of our democracy. Their part in representing our democracy to the children in Berlin ended after seven months of Little Vittles. The Soviet blockade of Berlin ended in May 1949.

Yesterday on my Another Old Movie Blog, I featured an essay on “The Big Lift” (1950) with Montgomery Clift and Paul Douglas, which takes us on a mission of intrigue and romantic misadventure in Berlin during the Berlin Airlift.

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