“Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected.”
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
War does have a way of changing the ordinary meaning of words and the content of men’s character — transforming what was once regarded as unspeakable vice into hallowed virtue. Just as fallen angels may crash to roam the earth as devils, the fall of man’s high ideals into the maelstrom of war can forever disfigure the greatest causes of the greatest nations, even on their day of victory.
But must this always be? Or can a nation save its soul — and a people maintain their decency — even in the midst of the fallen fog of war? Must heroism always be stained by the blood of the enemy and generational enmity? Or can heroism also be found in mercy, love and reconciliation?
One day eight years ago, while producing an afternoon drive talk radio show in Montgomery, I was given an answer to this question.
That day, I was listening to my good friend and the show’s host, Greg Budell, talk for the first time with one of his life-long heroes, Gail.
I remember thinking Greg, a radio veteran in his 60s at that point, seemed to be transformed into a giddy and bright-eyed child as Gail joined him in the studio.
There was Gail — or “Hal” as many also knew him — a man of the greatest generation, graceful and generous in his advanced age, there to tell a tale he had told many times across America.
You see, when he was 27 years old, Gail had been commissioned as a pilot to break the blockade the Soviets had imposed on West Berlin. He was one of many who would fly the perilous skies, brave the blockade and get supplies to the desperate people of Berlin.
As historian Arthur Herman recounts of the Berlin Airlift:
“Taken together, the U.S. Air Force and the Royal Air Force pulled off nearly 300,000 flights into Berlin over 11 months, from June 24, 1948, to May 11, 1949, bringing 2.3 million tons of food, coal, and other supplies: a material stockpile equaling one half of the Great Pyramid.”
One day after Gail had landed and off-loaded the supplies, he saw a crowd of children on the other side of the airport’s barbed-wire fence. Children who had seen too many horrors in their young lives. Children who too early had to come to grips with how fallen our world can be.
At first, Gail thought to himself, “I should give them a stick of gum. That’s all I have on me. No, they’ll fight over it. I’ll walk away.”
Then, something stopped him. A voice in his head. Maybe it was God. Gail didn’t know, but the voice said, “Turn around.”
He walked over to the fence. There was this little blonde girl with the brightest blue eyes. Such a little beauty. The very embodiment of innocence lost in the storm of that “post-war” era.
As Gail told it to us, he handed the little girl a stick of gum. The little girl unwrapped it. She took the gum for herself, but then she tore the wrapper into tiny pieces and handed them out to the other kids. Just so they could smell it. Just so they could smell the sweetness of the bubble gum.
That struck Gail to his core. He had to do something more.
So he went back to his bunk and ripped up his bed sheets to make little parachutes. He filled up the little parachutes with candy, chocolates and other little vittles. And he would airdrop them behind the fence to the kids who knew his plane by its “wiggly” wings.
There I sat in the radio studio, gripped by this story being told by the “Candy Bomber,” Gail “Hal” Halvorsen himself. Yet, even though the tale touched me, it still seemed so far, far away — stuck in a black-and-white era to which I couldn’t fully relate. I wasn't born until 1988, you see, and as much as I was moved by Mr. Halvorsen's words, those long ago days of 1948 still seemed lost on me.
Being the producer of the show, part of my job was to field phone calls to the studio, and as Col. Halvorsen was finishing up his story, I saw a call come in. Line 1 was flashing. I made sure my microphone was muted and quietly picked up the phone.
The voice on the other end of the line was that of an older gentleman.
“Hi, Joey, my name’s Pete McCoy,” the voice said, “but I grew up Dieter Hesse, and I remember seeing those parachutes fall on me. I was a little German boy, and the actions of that man, Mr. Halvorsen, gave me so much hope.”
Suddenly, Gail Halvorsen’s story came into full color, met by tears of wonder and awe falling from my eyes. The image of those bombs of hope falling in the midst of a fallen world on little Dieter, now grown up to be Peter, will never leave my mind.
Even in times of great evil, surrounded by corrupt systems full of men who lust for power and domination, we can still do beautiful things. We can still do good things. We can still be true to our virtues without transforming them into vices. We can be good to our words without changing them to meet the whim of the bloody moment.
I tend to think a worldwide storm is on our doorstep again. It’s a feeling I cannot shake. I hope I am wrong, delusional even, but if this storm does come, don’t forget the good inside you. Don’t become too bitter and resentful. Have hope. Give hope.
A hero is not always somebody who vanquishes the enemy. Some of the greatest heroes are those like Gail Halvorsen — those who listen to the little voice in their head and do a beautiful thing in a good and true way for the innocent and lost of the world.
Such things are the stuff of the divine that resonate for the ages.
Peter McCoy of Wetumpka passed away in November 2021 at the age of 81.
Gail “Hal” Halvorsen passed away in February 2022 at the age of 101.
I will never forget the lesson those men taught me that day eight years ago.
God bless you, Col. Halvorsen.
God bless you, Mr. McCoy.
God bless you both in your well-earned rest.
Joey Clark is a native Alabamian and currently, the host of the radio program News and Views on News Talk 93.1 FM WACV out of Montgomery, AL M-F 9 am-12 noon. His column appears every Tuesday in 1819 News. To contact Joey for media or speaking appearances as well as any feedback please email email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819news.com.
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