As bombs rain down from the skies over central Japan, an American pilot watches in horror when his engine bursts into flames. Quickly running out of options, he abandons his plane and hurtles towards the ground below. But is this the end for Major Claude Hensinger, or does fate have something else in store?
Fast forward three years, and Claude is watching his bride Ruth walk down the aisle on their wedding day. But there’s something about her eye-catching dress that’s truly unique. In the past, it played an important role in saving Claude’s life – part of an incredible story that will melt even the hardest of hearts.
Claude and Ruth had first met as children in Neffs, Pennsylvania, where they had both been in the congregation of a local church. And when Claude returned to the area after fighting in World War Two, the pair began to date. Finally, after a year together, he proposed.
On July 19, 1947, Claude and Ruth were married in the same church that they had attended as children. And as Ruth arrived in all her wedding finery, she looked as beautiful as any bride. But her dress concealed an amazing secret – that without it, she and Claude might never have been reunited at all.
During the war, Claude had flown B-29 bombers with the 20th Army Air Force’s 444th Bombardment Group. And as a squadron leader, he had played a vital role carrying out air strikes. From their station in India, Claude and his crew would often fly over the eastern tip of the Himalayas en route to Japan.
In August 1944 the Japanese were retreating from Indian territory, and Claude was embarking on another bombing mission. But as he was flying over China – parts of which were occupied by Japanese forces – something went wrong. Terrifyingly, the plane’s engine erupted into flames.
Trapped in an inferno mid-air, Claude and his crew had little choice but to bail out of the ailing aircraft. But as they plummeted to Earth, they risked a number of dangers. Even if they survived the fall, any of them who ended up in occupied China would surely be captured and held prisoner by the Japanese.
Sadly, that was the fate that befell a number of Claude’s crewmates. Landing behind enemy lines, they soon found themselves prisoners of war. However, luck was on Claude’s side that day. After opening his parachute, he was able to make it safely to unoccupied territory.
In fact, Claude managed to escape with only minor injuries, sustained when he bashed against some rocks during his landing. Relieved, he later sent the parachute that had saved his life to his mother for safekeeping. She subsequently washed her son’s bloodstains from the mass of nylon material and waited for Claude to return home.
Later that year, with the war almost over, Claude finally made it back to Pennsylvania. There, he saw Ruth again, and the two became an item. But when he decided to propose, he eschewed a traditional ring in favor of something altogether more personal – the parachute that had brought him safely home.
Offering Ruth the lifesaving item in lieu of an engagement ring, Claude asked his sweetheart to fashion her wedding dress from the fabric. And although she was delighted to accept his proposal, Ruth questioned whether she could make his idea work. “How am I going to make a gown out of 16 gores of nylon and all that bias?” she recalled wondering in a 2011 interview with local news website Patch.
However, inspiration came in the unlikely form of Scarlett O’Hara, the southern heroine played by Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind. In the movie, Leigh wears a stunning dress crafted from the curtains of her plantation home. So, could Ruth create something just as beautiful from Claude’s old parachute?
While passing the window of a local department store, Ruth spotted a dress identical to the one worn by Leigh. And taking that gown as her inspiration, she created a pattern for her own piece of bridal DIY. Then, she commissioned Hilda Buck, a talented seamstress, to sew a bodice and veil to her specifications.
The skirt of her wedding dress, though, was all Ruth’s own work. Tightening the strings on the parachute, she created a gown that was shorter at the front and featured a flowing train behind. Then, finally, she walked down the aisle in her creation – looking every inch the elegant bride.
Thankfully, although Claude had been kept in dark about the project, he was delighted with the results. “He didn’t see it until I walked down the aisle,” Ruth recalled. “He was happy with it.” And amazingly, it wasn’t the only time that Claude’s old parachute would take center stage at Neffs’ Union Church.
In 1972 the Hensingers’ daughter Susan was married at the same church where her parents had celebrated their nuptials a quarter of a century before. And in keeping with family tradition, she donned Ruth’s old dress for the occasion. Then, 17 years later, her brother David waited for his bride Kim at the end of the same aisle.
Amazingly, Kim also chose to wear Ruth’s dress – meaning that Claude’s lifesaving parachute made a total of three appearances at Union Church. And clearly, it was a symbol of good luck. For 49 years, Ruth and Claude enjoyed a happy life together before Claude passed away in 1996.
Moreover, that still wasn’t the end of the parachute’s astonishing story. Prior to her husband’s death, Ruth heard some news from the Smithsonian Institution, a nationwide network of research centers and museums dedicated to preserving and spreading knowledge. Apparently, they were on the hunt for some very specific artefacts.
To demonstrate the ingenuity of the era, the Smithsonian was searching for objects that had been made from parachutes during World War Two. Ruth duly contacted a curator and handed over her precious gown and veil. Now, her creation is part of the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., where millions of visitors can admire her handiwork.
As of 2012 Ruth was still living in Pennsylvania, treasuring fond memories of her long life with Claude. And hearteningly, she never grew to regret his proposal – unusual though it was. Now, thanks to Ruth’s generosity, generations to come can continue to be inspired by the Hensingers’ epic story of survival and love.