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Lifesaving parachute stitched into wedding gown

Damaged by flak over its Yawata, Japan target, with an engine fire raging, the B-29 bomber wasn’t going to make it back to base.

Maj. Claude Hensinger, the pilot squadron commander, ordered his crew to bail out over China on this night in August 1944.

After spending an uneasy night wrapped in their nylon parachutes for warmth, the squadron leader and his entire crew were rescued by Chinese allies.

Although the major suffered cuts and scratches from landing on the rocky terrain, he and the Americans were fortunate enough to have avoided Japanese-occupied areas of the war-torn country.

The doomed B-29’s crew was part of the 444th Bombardment Group of the 20th Army Air Corps stationed in India.

The mission had taken them over the Himalayas, where they would “fly the hump” on their bombing runs to Japan.

The bloodstained parachute was shipped to the states and the major mustered out of the service.

The nylon was salvaged from its lifesaving purpose for a more elegant role.

Born Nov. 14, 1924 to Irvin Lengel and Florence (Smith) Lengel, Ruth Lengel grew up in Neffs.

Her father was president of The Neffs National Bank.

Ruth was the oldest of their four children.

She still keeps in contact with her surviving sister, Kathryn, a South Carolina resident.

She met her future husband, Claude Hensinger, while attending Union Church in Neffs.

They began dating after he returned home from World War II.

He was six years older than she was.

They were married at Union Church, now Union Evangelical Lutheran Church, on July 19, 1947.

According to Ruth, Claude brought over his old parachute one night and handed it to her saying, “Here, make a wedding gown.”

“He never asked me to marry him,” she remarked at recalling the memory.

There were challenges working with the big ball of fabric with its wedge-shaped “gores” that formed the petals which were stitched together into a canopy for catching air.

“My sisters and I worked on it,” Hensinger recalled.

Her gown was patterned after one she saw in a Hess’s storefront window. They didn’t soak the bloodstained fabric in cold water.

“His mother sent it to a dry cleaner,” Hensinger said, explaining the process turned the stains black.

The initials “AN” for “Army Navy” and numbers in sequential order are printed in blue ink along the skirt of the parachute.

Hensinger mentioned the letters “AN” and some of the bloodstained fabric were incorporated into her gown.

A graduate of South Whitehall High School, she studied nursing in Allentown.

As did many in her generation, Hensinger quit her job as a nurse to raise a son and daughter while her husband, a 1941 Lehigh University graduate, worked as a mechanical engineer for New Jersey Zinc in Palmerton.

“We built a home on the sunny side of the mountain,” Hensinger said.

Her husband could have remained in the service as a test pilot, but decided against it.

“All of the test pilots he read in the papers were killed,” Hensinger said.

When her husband applied for a civilian pilot’s license in Allentown, he was turned down.

“You had too many accidents,” was their reasoning in the denial.

The unique wedding gown served two more brides before being packed away.

Hensinger’s daughter, Susan, wore it 25 years later for her nuptials, and Kim Sholtenberger donned the gown when she married the Hensingers’ son, David, in 1989.

The venerable wedding gown came back out of storage when Hensinger heard the Smithsonian Institution was seeking items made from World War II parachutes.

Her gown is on display in Washington, D.C.

Now a resident at Luther Crest Senior Living Community, South Whitehall, Hensinger proudly displays a fifth grade class project her great-granddaughter created honoring her family history in the hallway outside her apartment door.

Below it is a 3-D framed Christmas tree Hensinger created with her departed daughter’s jewelry.

Her friend and fellow Luther Crest independent living resident Jane Ann Spohn, read “Unspun: Stories of Silk,” an article in the Lehigh Valley Press Focus section about two parachute wedding gowns on display as part of an exhibit at the Kemerer Museum of Decorative Arts.

Knowing Hensinger’s story, Spohn, a retired nurse who once lived in East Texas, suggested her friend share it with folks outside their retirement community.

The Hensingers were married for 49 years when Claude died in 1996.

Their son lives in California and their daughter, Susan Thomas, predeceased her father.

Ruth Hensinger shows her wedding picture while being interviewed Jan. 12.
PRESS PHOTOS BY ED COURRIER Ruth Hensinger and her friend Jane Ann Spohn hold up the remnants of the World War II-era nylon parachute Hensinger cut fabric from for her wedding gown.
At left, in the back, Maj. Claude Hensinger and his crew stand in front of their World War II bomber.
A class project created by Ruth Hensinger's great-granddaughter documents her great-grandparent's history. It is proudly displayed in the hallway outside Hensinger's apartment door at Luther Crest. Below it is a framed Christmas tree Hensinger created with her late daughter's jewelry.