PITTSBURG — The chasm between past and present was bridged on Thursday for students in Debbie Restivo’s elementary social studies class at Pittsburg State University’s College of Education.
Dagmar “Dagie” Snodgrass, now 85, was six years old in Berlin when World War II broke out across Europe. She spoke to students Friday about her experiences following the war, specifically with the well-loved American Air Force pilot, Col. Gail Halvorsen, known more affectionately as the “Candy Bomber” or “Uncle Wiggly Wings” among German children of the era.
Snodgrass was a captivating presence as she recounted the first Christmas Eve in Berlin after the war. She was 11.
“It was a silent night. A holy night,” she said. “Because not any bombs went off.”
Snodgrass said she was cast as an angel in a Christmas pageant at one of the local churches, but that when she stepped on stage she was stricken with fear by what she saw.
“I saw soldiers all around the sanctuary,” she said. “They weren’t smiling but standing with their hands behind their backs. There were Germans, Russians, Americans, the French.”
She said she remembered thinking that soldiers brought death not life. But after the pageant, she said that something remarkable happened. One of the American soldiers had her choose a gift from a bag: a gift-wrapped chocolate bar.
“I didn’t know what chocolate was,” she said. “Only that it was supposed to be wonderful.”
Snodgrass, who said her family was cripplingly poor, called the chocolate the best, sweetest thing she’d ever tasted.
“When I had my first bite of chocolate, it was delicious. I wanted more,” she said. “Freedom is like that.”
Restivo said she asked Snodgrass to speak to the class in the hope of helping her students become better teachers of history.
“I compare chocolate to freedom so young ones like my great-grandson will understand what it means,” Snodgrass, the great-grandmother of 17, said. “If you don’t have it, you don’t miss it. But if you have it, hang onto it. Don’t turn it loose.”
Christmas Eve, 1945, would not be the last time Dagmar would receive candy from an American serviceman. During the Berlin Airlift in 1948 and 1949, then-Lieutenant Gail Halvorsen, now 98, would tie candy to handkerchief parachutes and drop them from his plane to children in East Berlin. He would wiggle his wings to signal his arrival.
Snodgrass found one of these parachutes near where she lived in West Berlin. She said she thought it must have blown over from the east.
“It was an act of god,” she said. “That’s what I believe.”
It was then, she said, she tasted chocolate for a second time.
“He gave us hope for better days,” she said. “All I wanted was to meet him.”
Snodgrass married an American soldier and came to America in 1954 when she was 20 years old. She became a naturalized citizen in 1958.
It wasn’t until 2015 that her dream of meeting Col. Halvorsen came true. She said she learned he would be singing in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for a televised Christmas Eve special in 2014. She wrote an article for her local paper about what it meant to see him on-screen. Not long after, a teacher from Goddard Middle School contacted her. Col. Halvorsen would be speaking to her class. She asked if Snodgrass would attend.
“I saw him there in his flight uniform,” she said. “I just walked in there and grabbed him and said, Uncle Wiggly Wings, I’m Dagie. I’ve waited all my life to meet you.”
Snodgrass said her friendship with Col. Halvorsen took off, so to speak, and that the two keep in touch regularly.
Students in Restivo’s class watched on, seemingly mesmerized by Snodgrass and her stories. After her speech, students flocked to Snodgrass to thank her. Not every eye was dry.
“Imagine how this story would affect kids,” one student said.
“We’re just so lucky,” Restivo said. “Kids don’t understand what a gift it is to have been born here. And neither do a lot of us.”
Restivo brings in guest speakers nearly every other month. She said she hopes to equip her students with the tools to illustrate big concepts in ways that resonate with children.
“Freedom is everything,” Snodgrass concluded. “To do what you want, to speak your mind, to believe what you want to believe; we didn’t have that in Germany.”
Snodgrass has written a book about the Candy Bomber and is currently at work on a more comprehensive memoir about her life during World War II.