Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot

I've known about the Berlin Airlift since I was a child. How could I not, having lived in Germany and seeing the monument commemorating it outside Flughafen Tempelhof in Berlin?

In college, my German professor had me translate a magazine article about it from German into English.

This past May, I learned there was a children's book written about it. That book arrived in the mail today.

Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot: A True Story of the Berlin Airlift and the Candy That Dropped From the Sky, by Margot Theis Raven (author of America's White Table) and illustrated by Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen, tells of a young girl living in war-ravaged West Berlin and the American "Chocolate Pilot" who dropped candy to the children of the Berlin during the Soviet blockade of 1948-1949.

The book begins with a short history of the Berlin Airlift. It is mind-boggling, thinking of everything that went into keeping the 2.2 million people of West Berlin - the Allied sectors controlled by the United States, Great Britain and France - free from Soviet communist rule when Stalin tried to gain control by blockading all routes - rail, water, road - into and out of the city beginning June 24, 1948.

From June 26th, 1948 to September 30th, 1949, the British and American forces flew more than 277,000 missions, day and night, delivering more than 2.3 million tons of supplies. This is the same distance as going back and forth between the earth and the moon 130 times!

To keep people alive, Berlin needed 4,500 tons of food, coal, and essentials daily! Imagine packing, carrying, and unloading 646 tons of flour and wheat per day; 180 tons of dehydrated potatoes; 19 tons of powdered milk; 5 tons of fresh milk for babies and small children; 109 tons of meat and fat; 125 tons of cereal; and combined, over 5,000 tons of coal and kerosene during the summer and winter. And many other essential items were part of the cargo!

Nothing was easy about this rescue mission and there were many problems; the weather was terrible; the runways short; the skies crowded; the pilots had little sleep; Russian planes harassed the exhausted fliers in the air corridors; coal and flour dust caused mechanical problems.

The greatest cost of the operation was the loss of lives: 31 Americans died, 39 British, and 9 Germans. But they are not forgotten. In Berlin today, the memory of the beautiful "bridge" is cherished by the people who love their freedom, and remember the brave pilots and the countries who did not forsake them in their time of need.

Van Frankenhuyzen does a beautiful job illustrating the story: a depiction of bombed out buildings that was very much a fact of life for the people of Berlin in those first years after the end of World War II; Mercedes feeding her chickens, hoping they will lay eggs soon, so her mother won't decide they would be more useful on the dinner table; Mercedes' mother reading a newspaper story about the Chocolate Pilot, Lt. Gail Halvorsen, dropping candy to waiting children near the runways of Tempelhof; tiny parachutes trailing behind the cargo planes.

Mercedes wants to go to the airport in the hopes of catching a candy-filled parachute. She can't go alone, her mother telling her "the streets are too dangerous with soldiers and rubble everywhere," but Frau Simon promises to take her soon.

The day arrives, and Mercedes joins all the other children hoping for a sweet treat, but a bigger boy catches the parachute Mercedes was going for, and she goes home empty-handed. She remembers from the newspaper story that children send letters to the Chocolate Pilot. Using the moonlight, she carefully writes out a letter:

Dear Chocolate Pilot,

We live near the airfield at Tempelhof, and our chickens think your airplanes are chicken hawks so they become frightened when you fly over to land. They run in shelter and some moult with no more eggs from them. It is a big problem for us. We need the eggs. But when you fly over the garden and see the white chickens, please drop some candy there and all will be ok. I don't care if you scare them.

Your little friend,

Lt. Halvorsen received many letters, translated into English, each week. One boy, Peter Zimmerman, has trouble running fast enough to get any of the candy, so he drew a map to his house, saying he'll be waiting in his yard at 2pm each day. Even with the map, the Chocolate Pilot can't find young Peter's house from the air, so he mails a package of candy bars and gum to his address. Then, he receives the letter from Mercedes. He doesn't think he'll be able to find her garden with the white chicken - he wasn't able to find Peter, even with the map!

Mercedes is returning home with her mother on a foggy November day. She prays for the pilots' safety, and that the fog would go away and the Chocolate Pilot would be able to find her yard with the chickens. When they get home, Frau Simon has a surprise for Mercedes: there is a package sent from Tempelhof Air Field!

As she opened the box, the sweet smell of candy spread thick as jam through the room.

Chocolate bars! Packs of white and green mint gum! Pink bubble gum too! And Life Saver rolls, colored like the rainbow! Her Chocolate Pilot had found her at last!

Mercedes saw Mama blinking back happy tears. She gave her a thick chocolate bar to eat, and chose a creamy bar with nuts and caramel nougat for herself.

There was also a letter inside:

Meine liebe Mercedes (My dear Mercedes),
Frankfurt, den 4 Nov. 48

Thank you for your small letter. Not every day I fly over your home, but surely often. I didn't know that in Hahnelstrasse there lived such a nice little girl. If I could fly a few rounds over Friedenau, I surely would find the garden with the white chickens, but for this there is not enough time. I hope that through what is with this letter, I give you a little joy.

Dein Shokoladenonkel,
(You Chocolate Uncle)
Gail Halvorsen

Lt. Halvorsen had a seven-month-long tour of duty for the Berlin Airlift, but that isn't the end of the story. In the Epilogue, we learn Lt. Halvorsen returned to Berlin twenty-two years later as Colonel Halvorsen, this time as the USAF representative to Berlin, and as commander at Tempelhof. Two years later, he is invited to dinner to the home of a German couple he's never met. The young wife took out a letter from her china cabinet and asked the Colonel to read it. "The letter began: 'Meine liebe Mercedes.'"

The letter "is now kept in a bank vault, and is only brought out when her beloved Chocolate Pilot comes to visit once more. But every day when Mercedes walks under the skies of a free Berlin, the sweet memory of his gift still soars in her heart like the great silver planes of hope."

The book concludes with a blurb about Gail Halvorsen and his involvement in the Berlin Airlift and Operation Little Vittles, how people in the US heard about what he was doing and decided to help out, and what he has done since retiring from the Air Force in 1974.

Barnes & Noble recommends the book for children 4 to 10 years old. Honestly, a child of four probably isn't going to be grasping the concept of post-WWII Germany and the evilness of Stalin and the Soviet Union, but they will "get" the story of the children of Berlin just wanting a little bit of candy, and one American pilot doing his best to deliver that little bit of hope. This book is excellent for older children, especially as a way to give history a little perspective they could relate to: the children of post-war Berlin didn't have much, and something as simple as a candy bar or a stick of gum brought much happiness. And, it could be used as an introduction to the Cold War and the kind of tyranny we were fighting against. Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot would be a wonderful addition to your children's library.


joyce said...

wow. Thanks for this. I want to find it for my niece. And someday, my granddaughter.

Miss Ladybug said...

I found out about it from a teacher at a school where I was subbing. I never found it in a store - I ordered it online. You might be interested in checking out my other children's book "reviews", if you click on the "Children's books" label...

Cecilia said...

I met Colonel Halvorsen today at the annual reunion of the Berlin Airlift Veterans Association in Rapid City, SD. It has been 60 years since the candy pilot dropped his Hershey bombs. During a brief visit, he presented himself as a true gentleman and told my five children and nephew this bit of wisdom - fulfillment comes from service..., service first, then self. This sums up the chocolate uncle, who will be remembered forever for his act of kindness and his belief that loving your enemies isn't just another nice ideal. May this book inspire another generation to think creatively about what they can do for their fellow human beings....anywhere and everywhere at anytime.

Iris said...

my teacher has this book i want to read it soon!!!!!!
i got a topic the Berlin airlift my teacher lent it to me for a refference and i haven't read it yet I love history especially WW1 & WW2

Skylar said...

my teacher has this book i want to read it soon!!!!!!
i got a topic the Berlin airlift my teacher lent it to me for a refference and i haven't read it yet I love history especially WW1 & WW2