A True Story of the Berlin Airlift and the Candy that Dropped from the Sky. Life was grim in 1948 West Berlin, Germany. Josef Stalin blockaded all ground routes coming in and out of Berlin to cut off West Berliners from all food and essential supplies. Without outside help, over 2.2 million people would die. Thus began the Berlin Airlift, a humanitarian rescue mission that utilized British and American airplanes and pilots to fly in needed supplies. As one of the American pilots participating in the Airlift mission, Lt. Gail S. Halvorsen helped to provide not only nourishment to the children but also gave them a reason to hope for a better world. From one thoughtful, generous act came a lifelong relationship between Lt. Gail and the children of Berlin. This is the true story of a seven-year-old girl named Mercedes who lived in West Berlin during the Airlift and of the American who came to be known as the Chocolate Pilot. Artist Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen’s evocative paintings illuminate Margot Theis Raven’s powerful story of hope, friendship and remembrance. About the Author: Margot Theis Raven has been a professional writer working in the fields of radio, television, magazines, newspapers, and children’s books for thirty years. She has won five national awards, including an IRA Teacher’s Choice award. Ms. Raven earned her degree in English from Rosemont College and attended Villanova University for theater study, and Kent State University for German language. About the Illustrator: Born in the Netherlands, Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen studied at the Royal Academy of Arts in Holland. He immigrated to the United States in 1976, and years later he became a children’s book illustrator. Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot is Nick’s ninth children’s book with Sleeping Bear Press.
Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen was born in the Netherlands in 1951. With his seven brothers and sisters, he grew up exploring nature and his sketch pads were filled with observations from those family outings. Always drawing as a young boy, his father encouraged Gijsbert to make art his career. After high school, he attended and graduated from the Royal Academy of Arts in Arnhem, Holland.
Gijsbert, or “Mr. Nick” as many children affectionately call him during his school visits, immigrated to the United States in 1976 and worked as Art Director for the Michigan Natural Resources Magazine for 17 years. In 1995, he illustrated his first children’s book, The Legend of Sleeping Bear, finally fullfilling his dream of illustrating children’s books.
Storytelling Award–Stories for Young Listeners Category, Winner, 2007
Bill Martin Jr. Picture Book Award Nominee, Runner-up, 2006
Children’s Crown Honor Book, Winner, 2004
Show Me Award Nominee, Runner-up, 2004
“Living the Dream” Book Award–Manhattan Country School, New York, NY, Winner, 2004
Children’s Choices–IRA, Winner, 2003
Texas Bluebonnet Runner-up, Runner-up, 2003
Beehive Award Nominee, Runner-up, 2003
Midwest Independent Publisher Award, Winner, 2002
Lt. Gail Halvorsen
Thank you so much for the article on Mercedes and Peter in the DODEA publication. I have always said that Peter and Mercedes are the best long term “private” ambassadors for the United States in Germany of anyone since Gen Tunner. It started when Mercedes wrote that letter at age 7 to now, about 60 years and four months ago. Peter picked it up in 1972 when he met me on the ramp at Tempelhof and insisted his wife had a letter that I should see. I didn’t accept private invitations because of day and night official obligations. I couldn’t accept a private one because how could I accept one and not another? Peter convinced me I should make an exception.
We instantly became such good friends that they came to Utah for a month. Peter started, with Brent Chambers, the student exchange program that was such a great success. Mercedes has been a TV star from the start. Peter has given more lectures than I have. It was good to see Peter’s picture in the publication. He is always behind the camera and dodges the the camera pointed at him. Great.
They have been German ambassadors to the United States as well. “Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot” has done more to educate the elementary school kids about the Airlift than all the documentaries, lectures, and my presentations combined. It is in most the of the elementary school libraries. I regularly get packages of letters from students around the United States requesting an air drop or wanting to know more about the Berlin Airlift.
For years the national completion for individuals or a team on important world events has had a successful Berlin Airlift entry. I have supported five projects this year. Berlin Airlift Veterans have been involved in providing information for the contestants. Most of them were introduced to the subject by Margot Raven’s great book. She really deserves more credit than she receives as well as the illustrator, van Frankenhuyzen and the publisher, Sleeping Bear Press.
All are responsible for its overall excellence, appeal, interest, message and its effectiveness in the classroom. Margot gave it birth. She is such a great talent. The book is just one of many outstanding publications by which she has blessed the young.
Warmest personal regards and congratulations for what you also have made to the memory of those who gave their lives for a former enemy, Gail
Lieutenant Halvorsen answering letters from thankful German Children and supporters – 1948-49
Lieutenant Halvorsen reading letters from German Children and thankful supporterrs – 1948-49
Colonel Halvorsen at Templehof Airport in Berlin, Germany – 1977
From Publishers Weekly:
Van Frankenbuyzen’s (L Is for Lincoln) opening spread of a bombed-out West Berlin speaks volumes about the necessity of the 1948-1949 Berlin Airlift, the setting for this somewhat overwritten tale. During this time, the British and American forces flew food and basic supplies into the city after the Russian blockade cut off all access to it. After a historical note, Raven (Angels in the Dust) introduces Mercedes, a likable young West Berliner who tends the white chickens in her yard.
One morning, her mother reads her a newspaper article about an American pilot, Lt. Gail Halvorsen, who, when delivering supplies to the city, “rained down sweets” on children waiting by the runway (“They carried flour and clothing and coal too. And something else!” reads the narrative). At the airfield, an older, taller boy snags the chocolate bar headed her way, and Mercedes sends Halvorsen a letter (“When you fly over the garden and see the white chickens, please drop some candy there and all will be ok”). He then mails her a package of treats (“The memory of this day would stay with her for the rest of her life”).
Unfortunately, the epilogue is more compelling than the narrative: readers learn that Mercedes met Halvorsen in 1972, and the two remain friends. The close-up portraits may be static, but the artist’s lifelike depictions of the devastated city are chilling; bullet and shrapnel holes mar even the girl’s garden walls. A sketch of an uncommonly giving man and a rare friendship emerges.
In 1948, Stalin blockaded Berlin, so for more than a year, British and American planes airlifted tons of food and supplies to the city. An American pilot named Halvorsen also dropped candy and gum in little parachutes to the children of Berlin. They wrote letters to the “Chocolate Pilot.” Young Mercedes longs for chocolate, too, but she’s worried that the planes overhead are keeping their chickens from laying precious eggs.
She gets a reply from the pilot with a package of candy for her very own. A note sets the historical context for this story based on a real-life incident, and an epilogue tells how Mercedes and Halvorsen met many years later. The pictures are handsome and naturalistically rendered; the prose is a bit overwrought, but the story comes through. Although the book is designed as a picture book for older readers, good beginning readers may be able to handle this on their own. GraceAnne DeCandido
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
“First graders voted 100% to recommend ‘Mercedes’ to friends. I add my enthusiastic endorsement to the children’s two thumbs up.” — The Post & Courier Charleston, SC (Fran Hawk) – May 2, 2oo2
“It’s more about hope than chocolate… an inspiration in every childs’ and every person’s search for a source of hope.” — The Utah County Journal, May 15, 2002`
…”Beautifully written and illustrated, this remarkable true story will linger with readers on many accounts.”
— “Courier-Express (DuBois, PA)” (December 19, 2002)
“…Beautifully written and illustrated, this remarkable true story will linger with readers on many accounts.”
— Courier-Express (DuBois, PA) (December 19, 2002) (Courier-Express (DuBois, PA) )
“…All in all, a fine, deeply touching tale to read on a cold winter’s night…”
— Community News (Browns Mills, NJ) (December 12, 2002) (Community News (Browns Mills, NJ) )
From School Library Journal:
This outstanding picture book depicts one of the lesser-known aspects of the Berlin Airlift following World War II as seen through the eyes of a seven-year-old girl. Operation Little Vittles was run by Lt. Gail Halvorsen who, out of the goodness of his heart, began dropping candy in parachutes made from handkerchiefs to the children of West Berlin.
This heartwarming story provides not only the historical context, but an epilogue as well. Although the text is slightly wordy at times, it shows, in part, how the Cold War impacted children, and how one child struggled to find hope amid the ruins of postwar Germany.
It is also a tribute to the thousands of people involved in the effort. With views of devastated buildings and shrapnel holes in concrete, the full-color paintings elicit a real sense of the war’s devastation. Robyn Ryan Vandenbroek, Elgin Court Public School, St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada
Child of Berlin Airlift Tells Her Story
June 10, 2008
The U.S. Army issued the following news release….
A storybook came alive for German and American youth here when the tale’s lead character appeared in person. After having collaborated on a video project for the children’s story, “Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot,” in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, students from Aukamm and Hainerberg elementary schools on U.S. Army Garrison Wiesbaden and the nearby Nauheim Grundschule were treated to a visit by the book’s real-life title character.
“I’m of course much older than years ago,” said Mercedes Wild with a smile as she described what it was like to be a 7-year-old child in post-war Berlin during the Soviet blockade from June 1948 to May 1949.
“We had little to eat,” Wild told her young audience, explaining that the western section of Berlin had very little farmland. And though the Soviets tried to entice Berliners over to the eastern side with promises of food, those in the west knew better than to sacrifice their freedom.
When Allied airplanes began delivering coal, food and other supplies, Wild said she was terrified bombs would once again fall on her city. “I asked my grandmother if we should go downstairs in the cellar once more, but she told me this time the planes were bringing food and coal.”
Wild and her husband, Peter, described the brutal winter of 1948/49.
“We had no good clothes, no shoes,” she remembers. “But we didn’t fear the cold; we feared the Russians.”
When a plane crashed barely 200 meters from her house, killing the two pilots, Wild recalled everything in sight being coated in white flour, adding that as a child her thoughts were: “It might have been our house … that the plane hit.”
And she thinks back to “being very sleepy in the mornings because of the noise of the airplanes in the night.”
Peter told the German and American students that the flights between Berlin and other cities in Germany were only the tip of the iceberg. “The real airlift stretched all across the United States and the Atlantic Ocean, using airplanes, trains, trucks and ships,” he said, describing the incredible logistical effort involved in moving massive quantities of supplies to Berlin.
He also described the phenomenal achievement of building Berlin’s Tegel Airport from scratch as the airlift was in progress. “Ten-thousand women built a new airport in three months.”
As recounted in the story by author Margot Theis Raven, a young Mercedes watched as planes flew overhead, wishing that one day the tiny parachutes bearing chocolate would find their way into her hands. After completing a suggestion by her grandmother to write the “candy bomber,” Lt. Gail Halvorsen, Wild eventually received a response explaining the pilot was unable to spot her house and her white chicken from the air. Tucked in the envelope was peppermint gum. Although she gave away the treat, having never before tasted anything like it, “The most important thing for me was this letter. … Chocolate and chewing gum were unknown to us.”
Having lost her father during World War II, Wild said she looked to Halvorsen as a surrogate dad.
“My father was also a pilot in World War II and he (went missing) early in the war. My mother and I didn’t know what happened to him. … The chocolate uncle became a symbol of my father.”
In the early 1970s, when Halvorsen was visiting Berlin, Peter approached the American with the treasured letter he had written to Wild more than two decades earlier. The meeting evolved into a long-term friendship with the Halvorsen and Wild families that continues today.
And it grew into a partnership program between the Gottfried Keller Gymnasium, where Peter taught in Berlin, and Provo High School, near Halvorsen’s home in Utah.
“You see what a letter, what a trail it has – 60 years later – that is friendship,” said Peter.
The Wilds also explained to the children how they learned “American, not English” after the war by listening to American Forces Network Radio. “The best teacher for German kids to learn (the vernacular) was AFN,” recalled Peter.
In 1997, during the 50th anniversary of the airlift at Temploehof Airport in Berlin, Wild was invited on stage alongside Halvorsen and President Bill Clinton, where she had “the honor to say thank you on behalf of the people of Berlin.”
“Without the help of the Americans (and the Allies), I wouldn’t be here,” Wild said. “I wouldn’t be alive to enjoy the freedom you brought to us Germans.”
Copyright © HT Media Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
By Karl Weisel USAG Wiesbaden Public Affairs