"Candy bomber" Col. Gail S. Halvorsen, now 89, kept the audience spellbound Sunday evening as he recalled the Berlin Airlift of 1948-49 and his part in it.
Not only was he one of the pilots who defied freezing weather and a rickety landing strip to deliver 2 million tons of supplies to Berliners in the Western sector, he also started on his own to airdrop candy to the city's war-weary children.
One night instead of resting at Rhein-Main Air Base in West Germany between flights, Halvorsen hopped aboard a buddy's flight so he could see the devastated city from the ground. Once at Templehof Airport, he walked to the end of the runway to take photos.
"All of a sudden outside the barbed wire appeared about 30 kids, 8 to 14 years of age. They were cleaned, but patched," he recalled. "They came right to the barbed wire, looking at the uniform that was killing them a couple years before. And they were friendly."
He was most impressed because, unlike children in other places around the world, these did not ask for candy. They were just grateful that the pilots were bringing in food so they didn't have to cross to the Russian sector to keep from starvation.
Halvorsen immediately gave them the two sticks of gum that were all he had on him. Then he realized he was flying back the next day to deliver another load of necessities.
"I did what I thought I'd never do," he said, after a quick search of his conscience. "I said, 'You kids come here tomorrow, stand in the open place between the bombed out ruins and the barbed wire fence, and when I'm at about 100 feet I'm going to drop enough chocolate and gum for all of you, if you give the magic word -- share -- you have to share it.'"
They asked how they would recognize his flight out of the continual arrivals, and he told them he would wiggle the airplane's wings.
That night he gathered ration coupons from everyone he saw and went to the base exchange and loaded up on candy. He spent the night attaching it to handkerchiefs, which made handy little parachutes.
The next day, during the approach to the air strip, he spotted the waiting children.
"There were still only 30 kids -- they hadn't told another soul," he reported.
He wiggled his wings and the crew made the drop. As rations were handed out back at Rhein-Main, Halvorsen continued to buy candy, making three drops in the next three weeks.
Word quickly spread and soon all the children in Berlin were searching the skies for the distinctive flight. The commanding officer called Halvorsen into his office and showed him a stack of mail on his desk addressed to "Uncle Wiggly Wings." The young lieutenant feared a quick reassignment, but instead he received official approval for his candy airdrop.
Halvorsen, who grew up on a farm in Utah, regaled the crowd of about 400 at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Danville, and there were few dry eyes as he introduced the seven "Berlin children" in attendance as well as a handful of pilots from the Airlift.
Danville's Mayor Mike Doyle was a chaplain's assistant assigned to Rhein-Main Air Base in 1948, and he introduced his old friend Halvorsen and talked about Operation Little Vittles.
"My mother sent me a thousand handkerchiefs," Doyle remembered. "He even gave candy to the children in the Soviet zone. This changed their attitude, showed America cared."
On Saturday, Halvorsen was able to meet and spend some time with Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, a Danville resident; the two are mutual admirers.
"When he was leaving, Sully said to me, 'I have to tell you something. This man single-handedly changed the way Germans saw Americans,'" Chris Saunders, organizer of the event, told the audience.
When Halvorsen returned to Berlin in 1970 as the Air Force representative, he became acquainted with former recipients of his largess. In 1998 he returned for the 50th anniversary of the airlift, and thousands of Berliners lined up to thank him for their freedom.
One man overcame his emotions to tell his thoughts: "The candy wasn't important, it was knowing someone cares. We could live without rations -- but not without hope."