As part of the unofficial side of the U.S. “hearts and minds” campaign in Iraq, helicopter pilots are flying a new kind of mission: candy bomb drops. Blackhawk helicopter pilots are launching the candy bombs as they fly over small Iraqi villages. The “explosions” distribute sweets as well as shoes and soccer balls to the local children. The shoes and soccer balls are donated by stateside charities for distribution to the kids. And the candy? It comes from the leftovers from all those candy care packages that arrive in U.S. military camps.
Chase Rutledge, a Blackhawk helicopter pilot stationed in Iraq, described his missions:
They used to be scared when we would drop them because there was a lot of fighting going on, and they don’t know about helicopters and what’s coming out of them. But now, it’s like a little treat. They’ll start cheering when they see us flying over, hoping something will come out.
Rutledge and his buddies are doing everything they can to make a positive difference in the lives of these kids. I’m happy to know that the military forces are seeing their mission as helping and boosting up the local people.
But I have to confess, even when the candy that falls from the sky is a welcome treat, there is something a little unsettling about the idea of “candy bombs.”
And then there is always the possibility that the candy will be harmful instead of pleasurable. This was the claim back in the first World War, when reports started surfacing that German aviators were dropping poison candy on French and English villages. A New York Times correspondent reported on notices posted in French villages by the Mayor and Prefect, detailing the dropping of poison candy and cautioning citizens to turn all found candies over to the authorities. The correspondent adds:
[This poison candy drop] strikes us as the last refinement of Prussian barbarism in its death throes. … Tell the readers of The Times, as best you can, what brand of enemies they have at last chosen to fight.
It is difficult to know what really happened. This report, and other similar stories about the German poison candy drops, tended to be second hand, based on what the reporter had heard others witness or describe. No actual candy was produced to buttress the stories. In part, the appeal of these alarming tales might have had something to do with holding an image of your enemy as one so vile as to poison children with candy. And there is also a long tradition, going back to the 1890s, of bringing up the specter of poison candy whenever something bad happens (more on poison candy stories here).
Candy poisoning stories in the U.S. tended, on closer scrutiny, to be more rumor and assumption than fact. So it’s also possible that the stories of war-time candy poisoning as part of the enemy’s attack might also have arisen out of popular ideas about candy. It is also possible, of course, that the Germans really were dropping poison candy out of airplanes.
It was Otto Schnering, the founder of Curtiss Candy Company, who transformed the idea of candy bombs into a public relations stunt. In 1923, he dropped his first load of Baby Ruth candy bars over the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Curiously, the candy bars pelting down from the sky did not lead to mayhem and destruction. In fact, the spectacle of candy rain was so successful that Schnering did it again, expanding his airplane candy drop program to 40 states.
But it wasn’t until World War II that candy bombing really took off. One WWII hero, Gail Halvorsen, became famous as the “candy bomber” for his role in the 1948-49 Berlin Airlift. As Halvorsen would guide his plane into the Templehof airfield in the American sector of Berlin, he would drop candy attached to parachutes to the children watching the planes land. Soon, other pilots got in on the candy action. By the end of the campaign, some 25 tons of candy has fallen from the skies and into the tummies of the grateful Berlin children.
Sources: Nanette Light, “Helicopters Drop Candy, Shoes for Iraqi Kids,” The Norman (OK) Transcipt 29 April 2010; “German Aviators Drop Poisoned Candy,” New York Times 27 May 1917; Ray Broekel, “Otto Schnering Is My Name, Advertising is My Game,” The Great American Candy Bar Book (Houghton Mifflin, 1982), p. 22; Andrei Cherny, The Candy Bombers (Penguin 2008).