Woman loans wedding dress made from husband's WWII parachute to 82nd Airborne Museum
By DONNA VICKROY | Chicago Tribune | Published: July 9, 2019
(Tribune News Service) — It was a beautiful summer day, and a crowd had gathered in front of Aida Bonsonto’s home in the Little Italy neighborhood of Chicago.
Dressed in a gown made of silk and nylon, the bride-to-be walked down the stairs and out the front door as if she was “floating on air.”
In some ways, she was.
It was June 8, 1946, and Aida was wearing a dress made from her future husband’s Army parachute. As the lightweight fabric caught the breeze, she could feel it billow.
“I couldn’t control it because it was so light. You could see it flying,” she said. “It was an honor to have it and to wear it.”
At Chicago’s Holy Family Church, surrounded by family and flanked by her bridesmaids in white chiffon, Aida made good on a promise to wed Pfc. Gerald Bonsonto. It was a promise she’d made back before he left to fight in World War II, a promise that almost died with a sniper’s bullet.
After months of recuperating, Gerald Bonsonto recovered from the harrowing injury he sustained during the Invasion of Normandy and sent back his parachute, in two boxes, so Aida could be wed in a dress that was both practical during a time of national rationing and fashionable for the time.
Aida, who turns 97 on July 10, recalled how she brought the fabric to an Italian immigrant who hand-stitched it into an embellished, almost weightless gown with a sweetheart neckline and a long train.
Fast forward 73 years, to Memorial Day 2019. Aida’s beloved Gerald has been gone 39 years, but the dress, both a work of fine craftsmanship and a time stamp, is still weightless and beautiful.
And Aida is ready to share it with the world.
Memories on display
On May 27, Brig. Gen. Kris A. Belanger, of the Chicago-based 85th U.S. Army Reserve Support Command, met Aida at the Orland Park home of her son Jerry Bonsonto, Jr. and his wife, Caroline, to pick up the dress and transport it to the 82nd Airborne Museum at Fort Bragg, N.C.
It will be exhibited as a testament to a time when love, luck and resourcefulness defined the nation.
“Everybody hears about these dresses made from parachutes,” said Chris Ruff, curator of the 82nd Airborne Museum, “but it seems there are very few that survived to this day, and this one is a gem.”
After the war, Ruff said, there were shortages of materials, so people would make do with what they could get their hands on. Though he’s heard about the dresses, he said, Aida’s is only the second wedding parachute dress that he’s actually seen.
“There are only maybe three or four in the whole Army enterprise collection,” he said.
“It’s dresses like this and the people behind them that started the Baby Boom,” Ruff said. “That’s a big deal, not to mention the military service of these soldiers who brought these back to their wives.
“Now we can enjoy them and tell their story today. That’s what museum artifacts are all about,” he said.
A love story, a war story
Seated in the family room of her son’s southwest suburban home, Aida shared her story, one that is sprinkled with serendipity.
She and Gerald lived across the street from each other but didn’t meet until one summer night in 1938 when she ran into him as she was leaving a neighborhood ice cream shop with her sister.
He was standing on the corner with his cousin and the four got to talking.
“Before you knew it, we were walking and talking,” Aida recalled. “Then he asked me if I’d like to go to a movie.”
The couple dated and spent many evenings chatting on her front porch.
By December 1942, when Gerald was inducted into the Army, the couple was going steady.
“Before he left, he asked if I would accept his ring and if I would wait for him,” Aida said.
She promised she would.
“I wrote to him every day without fail. Every day he had a letter from me. I never stopped writing to him,” she said.
As Gerald, a medic and paratrooper assigned to the 307th medics of the 82nd Airborne Division, saw duty around Europe and Africa, Aida worked in a shoe factory, first piecing together athletic shoes then sewing aviation kit bags for the Army.
One day, while on the job, she received a call from her future mother-in-law, asking her to come quickly. Gerald had been shot in the chest while parachuting over Sainte-Mère-Eglise, which would become the first town liberated after the D-Day invasion.
A German sniper’s bullet grazed Gerald’s heart and lodged in his back, she said.
She believes “my picture saved his life.”
Before he left for duty, she’d given Gerald a photo of herself that was taken at her brother’s wedding. He’d kept the picture, which had a metal, mirror-like backing, in his chest pocket.
The photo was shredded by the bullet, but Aida kept it, and it is now buried with her husband.
For months, Gerald recovered in hospitals in France, England and Capri, Italy.
While in France, he asked a woman to make a nightgown for his bride out of parachute material. The long-sleeved, sashed gown even has her nickname, “Edith,” embroidered across the top left side.
Aida said Gerald told her the cost of the seamstress’ work was two packs of cigarettes.
It was a different time, Aida said, and even though she only wore the nightgown on her wedding day, she machine-sewed the originally hand-stitched seams to add durability. She has also hand-washed the gown over the years.
Back then, the parachutes, said Jerry Bonsonto, Jr., “were thin and lightweight, designed to get the men down fast so they wouldn’t be targets in the air.”
Caroline Bonsonto said the parachute nightgown “looks delicate but is sturdy as steel.”
Aida and Gerald went on to have four sons, one of whom, Vince, died a few years ago.
Gerald worked as a truck driver and wore his Army boots until they disintegrated, Aida said.
“I wanted to have them bronzed,” something she did for her son, Joe, after he returned from serving in Vietnam, she said.
“But he insisted on wearing them every day, as a reminder of all he went through and why he went through it — for freedom.”
It also served as a tribute to his buddies who were killed in action, she said.
Aida said Gerald “never talked about the war” and would get upset when war movies tried to evoke realism.
“He would say, ‘Shut it off. It’s not the real thing. You’ve got to be there to know what it’s really like,’ ” she said.
Aida said she is loaning the dress to the museum, instead of donating it, because she has several great-granddaughters who might decide they’d like to wear it on their wedding day.”
For now, the dress will be displayed as a testament to a time when love and war intersected, creating a fashion statement.
The Daily Southtown is a Chicago Tribune publication.
Edith Bonsonto, holding her wedding photo, with her son Gerald and her daughter-in-law Caroline on Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Orland Park. Her wedding dress was made from her late husband's WWII parachute.
GARY MIDDENDORF/DAILY SOUTHTOWN/TNS