From war to wedding — chronicling the incredible journey of one woman’s wedding dress

PHOTO COURTESY OF TERRY GRAY The wedding dress worn by Elaine Severeid made from a nylon parachute, which saved the life of her husband Calvin Floren over Europe in WWII and now hangs in the Air Zoo Aerospace and Science Museum in Portage, Mich.

Each year, more and more members of what has become known as the “Greatest Generation” of Americans are lost in the annals of history.

Yet, for one Marshalltown family, the memory of their father Calvin Floren, who passed away in early March, will not be lost anytime soon thanks in part to the unique memento he brought back from his World War II service.

Floren was a pilot as part of the 9th Air Force in Europe, which provided close air support to ground forces during campaigns in Normandy and the subsequent Allied advance across France and into Germany.

He flew over 40 different missions in and around Europe during the war, but it was one in particular which holds tremendous significance for his family.

In February of 1945, Floren was acting as copilot in a B-26 bomber flying a regular mission over the northern part of Germany targeting essential infrastructure in the embattled country.

While his team of pilots bombed their assigned targets, the plane came under heavy anti-aircraft fire, and as a result, all of the pilots had to bail out of the damaged aircraft.

At the bright-eyed age of 21, Floren hurdled out of the B-26 bomber and quickly pulled the ripcord of his parachute, giving the Minnesota native his only war scar from his time in the military, a cut on his upper lip where the ripcord slashed through the skin.

After safely landing, he was shortly rescued by another group of U.S. Army personnel, but not before having the presence of mind to bundle up his lifesaving parachute as a poignant souvenir of his services.

“I suppose instead of just leaving it there, they gathered up,” said Floren’s daughter Terry Gray. “I don’t know when he came up with that idea.”

Soon after, he sent the parachute to his then-fiance and high school sweetheart Elaine Severeid, enclosed with a note saying, “This chute is no longer of use to the U.S. Army.”

“He was smitten from the get go,” Gray said about her father’s relationship with her mother. “He said, ‘I thought she was cute as the dickens.'”

Elaine’s mother, Stella, used the parachute to make Elaine’s wedding dress, and following the end of the war in 1946, the two were married with Elaine wearing the nylon fabric that helped save her husband’s life.

The pair then moved to Marshalltown, where Floren served as head of advertising for Lennox and raised five children. Floren remained in the Air Force Reserve and retired as a Lt. Colonel.

As Gray says, her father did not always delve too deeply into his years in the Air Force with their family, but the story of her mother’s wedding dress has become something of a family legend.

“His service was not much that was ever talked about when he was younger, never much other than we knew the story of the dress,” she said. “Other than that, [we] never heard much.”

Still, a glimpse into the perspective the war provided to Floren can be seen in his memoir he wrote and released to his family in the waning years of his life.

“The rat race was not a pressure cooker,” Floren wrote in his memoir, referencing his time at Lennox. “Most of the time it was fun. But in every corporation there is elbowing for position, prestige, promotions and just some plain old contentiousness. But whenever things got sticky, I would remind myself that I wasn’t 10,000 feet above the ground with someone shooting real bullets at me.”

Though the parachute dress has since been preserved and now hangs in the Air Zoo Aerospace and Science Museum in Portage, Mich., Gray says it helps their family remember not only the novel and incredible story behind the dress but also their late father.

“He was a very intelligent, wise, witty man,” Gray said. “Everybody always laughed at his jokes, and he was good with words.”


Contact Nick Baur at 641-753-6611 or nbaur@timesrepublican.com.


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