Son sees mom’s wedding dress made from parachute
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) – Italian-made, hand-stitched, replete with bishop sleeves, collar neck and sheer bodice transitioned by a cummerbund into a drop-waist ballerina hem and made of 100 percent parachute silk; it’s obvious why Hilda Franklin “Frankie” Bell said yes to this dress.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen it,” said Frankie’s son, Dick Bell, 67, as he stood admiring the matrimonial garb his mother wore in a mulberry grove outside of Verona, Italy, about two weeks after the end of World War II. “I’ve seen pictures of it, but it’s the first time I’ve actually seen it.”
Bell and his brother Frazier, 63, met earlier this month at the University of Virginia’s Claude Moore Medical Library Historical Collections and Services to view the dress. They also proffered mementos from their parents’ service as part of a mobile army surgical hospital during the Second World War.
“Mom was a great seamstress, but I don’t think she would have made this,” said W. Frazier Bell, as he and his brother examined the stitching in the flowing silk dress.
Hilda Franklin, a 1938 UVa School of Nursing graduate, worked in the U.S. Army’s Eighth Evacuation Hospital unit, organized and staffed by UVa physicians and nurses. She worked beside UVa-trained surgeon Richard P. Bell Jr., who graduated in 1938 from UVa’s medical school.
From Monte Cassino and Sicily to Salerno, the pair followed the Fifth Army’s march through Italy, treating tens of thousands of sick and wounded troops through the Italian campaign.
War and deprivation, especially among comrades, create strong bonds. On May 26, 1945, about two and half weeks after Victory in Europe Day, Bell and Franklin were married.
After the war, the couple moved to Staunton, where he worked as a general surgeon and she as a nurse. There, they raised four boys. Brothers Jim and David are deceased.
In honor of the Eighth Evacuation Hospital, UVa has collected a variety of personal items from scrapbooks and helmets to Mrs. Bell’s wedding dress. There are stories, recollections and letters safely gathered for posterity.
“It’s neat to look at this stuff and to think they participated in something this big,” Frazier said, thumbing through a scrapbook with wartime photos. “They weren’t on the front lines and didn’t see a lot of action, although a bomb did go through Mom’s tent, but they saw and treated a lot of casualties from the front.”
When the Bell boys were growing up, World War II was less history and more recent past. Like most children, they didn’t ask their parents probing questions about their youth or what they did during the war.
“We were typical kids and quite frankly most of our friends’ parents were veterans of the war. It wasn’t something out of the ordinary,” Dick Bell recalled. “My father died (in 1969) when I was 22 so I didn’t get much of a chance to ask questions. After he died, Mom went back to the operating room at Kings Daughters Hospital.”
Frankie Bell died in 1994.
“It’s funny because things that are important now were just part of life back then. We had Mom’s gas mask and we played with that until it pretty much fell apart and was trashed and we threw it away,” remembered Frazier. “We heard some stories, but we didn’t think to ask questions. We were young and we didn’t really know what questions to ask.”
“I used to wear Mom’s billed cap to school,” Dick laughed. “The hat was shaped differently than the officers’ caps and the principal once said to me, ‘isn’t that a woman’s hat?’ and I said, ‘no, it’s a pilot’s hat.’ That’s what I pretended it was.”
Both Bell brothers brought memorabilia to add to the collection, including letters between their parents and close family friends who served with them at the evacuation hospital. The items will remain with the historical collection along with the dress.
“I don’t know if maybe Mother donated it or a brother. I didn’t know where the dress was,” Dick Bell said. “I’m just glad it’s here where it will be taken care of rather than being stuck in a box in the back of a closet.”