The Covid pandemic may be over, but the disruptions of public and private services continue. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is driving energy and food prices ever higher, and Western policies, from healthcare to energy, are increasingly exposed as weak and feckless. In Europe, problems are exacerbated by the needs of millions of Ukrainians escaping Putin’s brutality.
Finding practical solutions is essential. But we don’t have to address this or any crisis with a one-size-fits-all approach. Successful interventions can come in small, inexpensive, incremental packages rather than as massive government programs.
Legendary U.S. Air Force Colonel Gail Seymour Halvorsen understood that. He was part of the Allied Berlin airlift of 1948-49, which broke Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin’s blockade of West Berlin. The airlift delivered nearly 2.5 million tons of supplies, averting a humanitarian disaster, keeping West Berlin alive and free.
At its peak, planes landed every 90 seconds. Col. Halvorsen flew some of those C-47s and C-54s. He became known as “the Berlin Candy Bomber” when he launched “Operation Little Vittles” – dropping candy bars and chewing gum attached to tiny make-shift parachutes from his plane to lift the spirits of Berlin’s children.
This history is real and inspirational for me. I spent time in Berlin in 1969, where I saw the stark contrasts between the two sectors in levels of recovery, prosperity, and freedoms. By then, West Berlin was dynamic and prosperous. East Berlin was personified by spies and repression, Soviet-style tenement houses, and “restored historic buildings” that were just facades screening acres of rubble. East Berliners were to endure Soviet repression until 1989, when the Berlin Wall finally fell.
Halverson had ingenuity, empathy, and common sense in abundance. He didn’t have modern research to support his Little Vittles concept. He just knew instinctively that the candy drops would bring smiles to the children. With his commander’s support – and thanks to the generosity of American families and companies that donated gum, chocolate, and handkerchiefs – little Berliners shared 23 tons of candy dropped on 250,000 tiny homemade parachutes.
Halverson even asked his fellow pilots to give up gum from their K-rations to organize his drops – a big ask. The rations were flavorless and borderline inedible, except for the two pieces of Wrigley’s, Beeman’s, or Dentyne gum, which were included to keep soldiers’ mouths relatively clean and help them stay calm under pressure.
Recent scientific studies confirm that chewing gum can help reduce stress and keep anxiety at bay, for kids and adults alike. Some therapists even recommend that parents help anxious children assemble little “coping tool boxes” stocked with sugar free gum and other items that engage the senses to help them calm down and keep panic attacks at bay.
Gum is not the answer to every stressful situation, but it may help in many. In a recent study, researchers at the Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine set out to assess the effectiveness of xylitol-sweetened chewing gum in preventing preterm birth among pregnant rural East African women facing risk of premature birth.
Faced with skepticism from colleagues, they pressed ahead, believing that accessible and affordable healthcare possibilities should not be rejected out of hand. They knew of the well-documented benefits of sugar-free gum, the impact of good oral health on human biological systems, and the correlation between periodontitis and preterm birth.
They discovered that the gum cut preterm births nearly by a quarter. Far fewer babies were born too early or too small. “There is some real science behind the choice of xylitol chewing gum to improve oral health,” said lead author of the study Dr. Kjersti Aagaard, “and our novel application to improving birth outcomes is exciting.”
It certainly is. As William Easterly, famous economist and author of The White Man’s Burden, observed, the West spent $2.3 trillion in foreign aid over five decades but was unable to distribute simple $4 mosquito nets to help prevent malaria in Africa.
At $41 per pregnancy, Dr. Aagaard’s chewing gum is a humble yet ingenious and effective intervention, akin to Easterly’s mosquito nets. It’s clearly a product of the Chocolate Pilot School of Problem Solving.
Col. Halvorsen was right to think that simple solutions may offer real answers. Let’s keep that in mind as we ponder the war and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. Not every remedy has to be national or global in scope; not every program has to be expensive or complicated to be effective.
Following his Berlin exploits, the “Candy Bomber” spent 25 years advocating for children in conflict zones and performing candy drops in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, Iraq, and elsewhere. After logging over 8,000 flying hours, he retired and went on to help develop reusable manned spacecraft, become a college dean, and serve as a Mormon missionary in London and St. Petersburg, Russia. Among his many awards was the US Congressional Gold Medal and the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, where he remained a hero until his passing.
When he died this year at age 101, a week before Russia invaded Ukraine, Berlin mayor Francisca Giffey said Col. Halvorsen’s “deeply human act has never been forgotten.” The Allied Museum in Berlin called him “an immensely charismatic and lovable person.”
We salute him, his legacy, ingenuity, and the concept of simple yet effective solutions.