In 1949, during the Berlin Airlifts following World War II, a German teenager on her way to work found a dirty, ragged, trampled-on parachute on a street near her home in West Berlin.
Attached to the parachute was a tiny piece of chocolate – the first this girl had ever tasted – a gift from the heavens and from an American pilot named Col. Gail Halvorsen.
On Thursday at a Goddard middle school, 67 years after that first taste of chocolate, the girl met the pilot and thanked him in person.
“You’re a blessing,” Dagmar “Dagie” Snodgrass told Halvorsen. “Not just to me, but to millions of Berliners and all Germany. So God bless you.”
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“Well, my word,” said Halvorsen, 94, dressed in his khaki flight suit and wearing a Congressional Gold Medal he received last year.
“I do thank you with all of my heart,” she said, hugging him. “Germany needed to be rescued, and you really were the rescuers.”
Snodgrass, 81, who lives in east Wichita, wrote a letter to The Eagle more than a year ago, saying she had seen Halvorsen featured on a television program and still thought about the piece of chocolate she had found.
“I was 15 then and not too proud to pick it up and eat it,” wrote Snodgrass, who moved to the United States in 1954 after marrying an American soldier. “It was nice for me to meet the candy bomber, even if it was only by seeing him on TV. I cried as I looked at his smiling face.”
Julie Campa, an eighth-grade teacher at Eisenhower Middle School in Goddard, read the letter and thought Halvorsen’s story would be a good lesson for her students. Last year, as part of a lesson on World War II, they read “Candy Bomber: The Story of the Berlin Airlift’s ‘Chocolate Pilot,’” a biography of Halvorsen.
Meanwhile, Campa worked to arrange a meeting between Halvorsen and Snodgrass. She collected donations from area businesses, and after a few failed attempts because of Halvorsen’s health, finally watched the meeting happen Thursday.
Halvorsen, who lives in Arizona, flew with his wife, Lorraine, to Wichita and met Snodgrass in a room near the principal’s office at Eisenhower Middle School. Afterward, the former pilot shared his story and some historical footage of the Berlin Airlifts with Eisenhower students.
In June 1948, Russia laid siege to Berlin, cutting off the flow of food and supplies over highways into the city, Halvorsen explained. More than 2 million people faced economic collapse and starvation until the Americans, English and French began a massive airlift to bring food and other supplies to the city.
“I’ll never forget my first flight to Berlin,” he said. “From the air, the city looked like a moonscape. How could 2 million people live in a place like this? I couldn’t wait to deliver the 20,000 pounds of flour we had onboard.
“Berlin needed food and freedom. We had both,” he said. “The wounds of war started to heal.”
Halvorsen said his candy deliveries started with two sticks of gum he gave to a group of about 30 German children standing near the airport in Berlin. The children, who hadn’t had gum, candy or much food at all for years, shared the treat generously with one another, Halvorsen said. When the gum was gone, other children held the wrappers to their noses and inhaled the sweet smell.
“Their eyes got big, because they hadn’t had any for two years,” Halvorsen said. “When I saw that, how they were so grateful for anything, I wanted to do something.”
The next day as he flew over Berlin, he dropped several handkerchief parachutes tied to packages of chocolate bars. He wiggled the wings of his plane to identify himself before dropping the candy. Before long, letters addressed to “Uncle Wiggly Wings” began to arrive as kids requested candy drops in other parts of the city.
Halvorsen thought the German people would hate him and other American soldiers because they had fought against them in the war. But that wasn’t the case, he said.
“They were hungry for food and hungry for freedom,” he said. As word of his efforts spread to the United States, contributions started. Chocolate manufacturers and others donated candy, much of it wrapped up, ready to drop.
“Two sticks of gum, after about nine months, turned into 23 tons” of candy, Halvorsen said.
Snodgrass said the candy – and Halvorsen – were what Germany needed at one of the lowest points in the nation’s history.
“He knew, instinctively, I believe, that us younger people needed something. And he became that person that gave it to us,” she said.
“He instilled in us to again believe in the goodness of people. We were not enemies anymore. To him we were just people that needed help. He reached out to the young, and through the young he reached their moms and dads and everyone. He became that hero that Germany so much needed and looked up to.
“For me to be able to say that to him and to thank him for it is very, very special.”