For 73 years, a wed­ding dress made from hus­band’s para­chute was kept

Now it’s head­ing to a WWII mu­seum

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHICAGOLAN­D - By Donna Vick­roy

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 brideto-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 weight­less 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, North Carolina.

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 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, mir­ror­like 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 lend­ing the dress to the mu­seum, in­stead of do­nat­ing it, be­cause she has sev­eral great­grand­daugh­ters 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.

GARY MIDDENDORF/DAILY SOUTHTOWN

Aida “Edith” Bon­sonto, hold­ing a photo from her wed­ding, sits with her son Ger­ald and her daugh­ter-in-law Caro­line in Or­land Park.

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