ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. –
In 1937 a young Chicago woman named Aida Garaffa lived across the street from a young man named Gerald “Jerry” Bonsonto.
A trip to a local shop would join the two hearts together in love.
“My sister and I were walking to the corner of Throop Street. There was a grocery store where we bought ice cream. When we came out of the store we saw Jerry,” explained Aida Bonsonto who recalled that first meeting with her future husband.
“He asked me if I wanted to go to the movies with him. He wasn’t a big fellow. He was about five-feet four-inches but he was handsome,” she said.
But world events, specifically World War II, would interrupt their courtship.
“The war was going on. He was drafted,” explained the youthful 97-year-old. “He was inducted on December 12, 1942. We were engaged and then he left for training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.”
Bonsonto trained as a medic and paratrooper and was assigned to the 307th medics of the 82nd Airborne Division.
“He landed in Africa first,” explained Bonsonto. “And he also served in Sicily, Italy, Ireland, England, France, Holland and Germany. He was in the Battle of the Bulge.”
It was there where bullets fired by a German sniper found their mark hitting Pfc. Bonsonto. When she found out, she went to Holy Family Church in Chicago. The same church where the couple would be married later on June 8, 1946.
“When we found out he was wounded I crawled from the door to the altar of Holy Family Church. I asked God to spare his life,” she said.
“They didn’t know if he was going to live,” she said. “He was badly wounded.”
But Jerry lived.
He was evacuated and sent to hospitals in England and Capri, Italy before he was discharged and sent home to the United States.
“He was never the same after that. He had a lot of pain,” she said.
Before he came home he sent the woman who would become his wife two boxes containing a parachute. Rationing was in effect, even after the war ended, and fabric was expensive. But a parachute made of silk and nylon provided Bonsonto with the material she needed for her wedding dress.
“I told the seamstress I wanted a sweetheart neckline with long sleeves,” said she said. “And the bridesmaids dresses were all made in Chiffon.”
“An Italian woman made the wedding dress and the bridesmaid gowns out of the parachute,” explained Bonsonto.
It turned out the wedding dress was not the only thing she owned that was made from a parachute.
“While he (Jerry) was in Normandy, he had a French lady make me a nightgown out of a parachute. It was all made by hand,” she said.
And the cost was not what one might expect.
“It cost him two packages of cigarettes. That’s all she asked for it”, said Bonsonto.
Bonsonto shared that she still keeps the nightgown.
“I only wore it when I got married,” said Bonsonto. “I kept it as a souvenir with the wedding dress. She also stitched my name on the nightgown. It’s very pretty.”
While she waited for Jerry to return home, life went on in her neighborhood in Chicago.
“We used to sit outside at night and have coffee and pastries. We slept near the fire hydrant when it was hot at night,” explained Bonsonto. “My brother put a loudspeaker on our parlor window and we would have a street dance.”
But the party to end all parties was when World War II ended September 2, 1945.
“It was remarkable how people celebrated. I think people celebrated at least three days on this block. People danced in the streets. It was like a festival,” she said.
When Jerry returned home he started working for his dad driving a truck and never talked about his wartime experiences, according to Bonsonto.
“He wore his combat boots every day working on the truck to remind him of what he went through,” said Bonsonto. “He wore them until he couldn’t wear them anymore when they fell apart.”
Her beloved Jerry passed away in 1980.
“Everybody liked him. He was funny. He minded his business, he worked and came home,” recalled Bonsonto.
Now Bonsonto has stated that she will loan the parachute wedding dress she wore on her wedding day to the 82nd Airborne Division War Memorial Museum at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Her next concern was how to get the wedding dress to the museum.
On Memorial Day of 2019, Brig. Gen. Kris A. Belanger, South Carolina native and commanding general of the Chicago-based 85th U.S. Army Reserve Support Command, traveled to suburban Orland Park to meet with Bonsonto and her family and pick up the dress.
“My mom has wanted to (loan) this parachute wedding dress for years,” explained her daughter-in-law, Caroline Bonsonto. “She has been contacting different museums for years. This is something she has been pursuing.”
“There’s lots of stories about these parachute wedding dresses but not a lot of actual dresses in museums,” explained John Aarsen, museum director for the 82nd Airborne Division War Memorial Museum. “We love them. It helps tell the stories about the families.”
The museum currently has one parachute wedding dress on display.
“By having this parachute wedding dress we can rotate them for display,” according to Aarsen who also serves as a U.S. Army Reserve brigadier general at the 451st Expeditionary Sustainment Command in Wichita, Kansas.
At the end of the evening, completed by a hearty meal and good fellowship, Bonsonto turned the dress over to Belanger.
Belanger is scheduled to bring it to the 82nd Airborne Division War Museum where a wedding dress made from a parachute will help tell future generations about the love story of a Soldier named Jerry and his bride Aida.
“I thought it was quite an honor to be a part of taking a piece of history and making it public,” said Belanger. “Making history in such a way that it means so much to a family. It was an honor they trusted me to take a historic family heirloom and then display it for all to see. It is really incredible.”