Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution
To many, the bloodstained parachute that saved the life of Major Claude Hensinger was merely a dirty piece of fabric. But to Hensinger's future wife, the parachute marked a beautiful beginning to the couple's married life.
Hensinger, who was a squadron leader in the Air Force during WWII, was returning from a bombing mission in Japan in August 1944 when the engine of his B-29 plane ignited. He and his crew were able to safely eject over unoccupied territory in China and survived. Hensinger then sent his dirty parachute to his mother, who quickly dry-cleaned the fabric to remove patches of blood from an injury Hensinger sustained after landing on rocks.
Hensinger returned to Pennsylvania after the war ended and reconnected with Ruth, a childhood friend. The pair dated for about a year before Hensinger proposed in 1947. "I'd like to have you make a wedding dress out of my parachute," Hensinger told his girlfriend. "It saved my life."
Ruth was more than happy to accept, though she couldn't help but worry about what her future husband had tasked her with. "How am I going to make a gown out of 16 gores of nylon, and all that bias?" she wondered.
Fortunately, Ruth was soon inspired by a dress she saw in a store window that was modeled after a frock from the 1939 film Gone With the Wind. A seamstress made the bodice and veil for Ruth's antebellum-inspired gown, but she sewed the skirt herself, using the parachute's strings to pull the front of the skirt higher than the back.
Hensinger didn't see his wife's homemade dress until Ruth walked down the aisle on July 19, 1947. "He was happy with it," she said. Claude and Ruth were married for 49 years before Claude passed away in 1996.
The dress made two more appearances during its lifetime. Twenty-five years after her nuptials, Ruth witnessed her daughter, Nancy, exchange vows in her the old wedding gown. Kim Shollenberger, Ruth's daughter-in-law, also wore the dress when she married Hensinger's son, David, in 1989.
In the early '90s, Ruth heard that the Smithsonian Institution was collecting items made from WWII parachutes, so she offered up her wedding gown. The dress then went on display at the museum where it could be enjoyed by not only the Hensinger family but millions of others. There's even supposed to be small traces of Hensinger's blood left on the dress from his fall.
Many brides-to-be dream of picking out their wedding dresses, and input from the fiancé isn't always welcome. However, Ruth doesn't regret accepting Claude's idea — not even for a minute.