Handmade wedding gown considered U.S. Government property

By Willa Wick in People

Phyllis Rodd was a gal who knew what she wanted and was not afraid to make it happen.
Most of the war stories we hear/read are male oriented, so to get a female version of warfare, a love story, and a comedy all rolled into one makes a delightful description,
Miss Rodd enlisted in 1943 (girls had to be 21) and had her basic training at Fort Des Moines, Iowa. When Basic was finished she was assigned to OCS (Officer Candidate School). Every other WAC (Women’s Army Corps) was sent elsewhere in the country but Phyllis Rodd was determined to go overseas.
It took her five months of waiting to receive her orders for the Far East. The first order indicated Europe, but that was cancelled because while waiting, she had become a rail transportation expert. A week later her second set of orders came through – a posting to the Southwest Pacific (the place she had hoped for).
In preparation she had six weeks intensive overseas training in Georgia, a five day cross-country trip by troop train to San Francisco, and then a 15-day steamer voyage criss-crossing the seas towards Australia. Of the 630 enlisted women on board, 63 were taken off the ship at Bouna, British New Guinea, put on a C47 and flown north over Japanese held territory to Hollandia, New Guinea.
The girls lived in tents. There were supposed to be six but they only had five and then one had to go home on a Section 8 (mental breakdown). The remaining four stayed together till they returned home, and kept in contact through the years. The girls were allocated regular jobs – Rodd was assigned to the Air Surgeon (Head Medic) Far East Air Forces.
After the invasion of Leyte Island (Philippines) the office was moved, but the Air Surgeon would not allow Rodd to go until it was deemed safe.
The “office” had a flat tin roof, a few supporting uprights, and a four foot wide swath of burlap wrapped around the outside. The burlap was about 18 inches down from the roof and 18 inches up from the ground. There was no floor, no windows and no door – the burlap just stopped for a few feet for an entranceway. It was a little uncomfortable during wet weather. The girls learned many office survival tricks like separating envelopes with paper clips so the dampness wouldn’t seal them.
Somehow a parachute made its way into their tent and was suspended below the top. The nylon made a buffer of dead air which lessened the noise as well as the heat.
About a week following the relocation of the Air Surgeon’s Office it was deemed safe so Rodd was flown in a C47 from Hollandia to Leyte. In mid flight “Tokyo Rose” broadcast that there was a C47 in the air that was going to be shot down. Not daring to take any chances the plane made an unscheduled landing on a small service island. That was Christmas day 1944. Everyone else had already eaten so their holiday dinner was canned salmon.
The following morning they finished the trip. At the airport in Leyte they were met by a girl friend plus two G.I.s. Rodd left the craft tired and grumpy, in field boots, pigtails, her steel helmet, and the clothes she had slept in. Mary Lee was there with a male orderly and Bill Mason. WACs were not allowed to go out unless it was a double date – both men had to be armed and the women were required to wear their steel helmets.
That night, while they were out, there was an air raid. Bill stopped the vehicle and Phyllis said, “Isn’t this exciting”! Mason retorted, “Get your damned fool self under the jeep”. In Phyllis’s words, “I got even – six months later I married him”.
They were married at the 5th Air Force Chapel just outside Manila. Previously Rodd had met Frank Filon the chief war correspondent photographer. No war pictures of any sort were to leave the South West Pacific unless they were first censored through him. Filon came to the wedding, took photographs, and sent one out by wire so that the wedding picture was published in the Boston Herald.
The wedding was a group affair. The cooks went down into the village to collect eggs. They didn’t know the source (pigeon, goose, chicken) nor the taste, so they made a chocolate wedding cake figuring that would hide any discrepancy in flavor.
One of the Philippine ladies lent her veil. Her six year old daughter was the flower girl.
The reception was held in the enclosed yard of one of their friends. While Mr. and Mrs. Mason were having the first dance, Phyllis, who was in clogs, found it impossible to dance in them so she stopped and threw the shoes to the side. All the female guests, assuming this was an American tradition, did the same.
The trees on the outside of the wall were filled with children watching the fun.
Bill was in the Army and Phyllis the Air Force. They were staging to go to Japan and of course once there they didn’t know when they would see each other again. As it turned out, a month after they were married Bill was sent back to the United States for reassignment. Eventually, after a lot of red tape, Phyllis got permission to go home as well.
But the wedding dress caused a slight problem.
Not wanting to get married in her kahki uniform, boots and helmet, Phyllis was determined to have a gown. The parachute suspended from the top of the tent was made of nylon. Friendly Phyllis had made several good friends with women of the town. Two of them were not only close but excellent seamstresses.
They took the parachute and made the bride’s slip and sleeveless gown. Because they weren’t sure of protocol – whether the arms should be bare or not, they fashioned a long sleeved outer coat. From that ivory nylon parachute the seamstresses also made the dress for bridesmaid.
The most incredible thing was that these women had taken all the measurements, done their own designing, and Rodd didn’t see the dress (which fit perfectly) till everything was completed.
It is exquisite!
The long slip has straps of braided cord which were originally the drawstrings of the parachute. The sleeveless gown has a bodice insert of undulating cording which zig-zags up the v-neckline and over the shoulders. The skirt was to be slightly flared so they used the rounded piecing of the parachute to the best advantage.
The long sleeved over-dress sported cuffs with more swirled cording, as did the front bodice insert and edges of the top. Covered buttons and loops fastened the coat at the waist. From shoulders to neck edge is a band of smocking.
All the Philippine women requested in payment for their services was a couple of sheets – which were happily supplied. Those sheets would be made into many items of clothing and underwear for their families.
In anticipation of returning to America the wedding gown was mailed home. Common procedure was that all mail was inspected. The package was returned from the censor saying it could not be forwarded because it contained government property!
While packing her duffle bag for her departing trip Mrs. Mason put several clothing articles in the bottom, and then her folded wedding dress. Next were a few more clothes, several layers of Kotex pads, and topped off with the rest of her clothing.
As predicted, at the airport it was a very young, newly arrived G.I. who was searching duffle bags and questioning if there was anything to declare such as pictures or souvenirs. Pictures had to have been previously censored and stamped. As the young man was pulling out each article of clothing he asked several times if she had anything to declare. When he came to the mound of Kotex he turned a bright pink, threw the clothes back into the bag and said, “Go ahead”.
The first atom bomb had already been dropped on Nagasaki just before Mason left Manila. While she was on flight home the second fell on Hiroshima. They landed in San Francisco and eventually Phyllis, who had a 30-day leave, met up with Bill in Arkansas and went to meet his parents. Two weeks later the couple travelled to Boston so Phyllis could introduce her new husband to her own family.
Recently at a Harbor Club Ladies Luncheon there was a fashion show. Phyllis Mason, now widowed and living in a subdivision in Bonita Springs, Florida, was happy to provide the grand finale to the runway. The gown was modeled by another club member. As Phyllis puts it, “Six kids and nearly seventy years later it doesn’t fit quite the same”.
Phyllis has remained active and gives credit to volunteer work. It was a pleasure talking with this 91 year old lady who has a quick wit, cute smile, and a mind containing so many stories of her life.
Just recently, after a two-year term as secretary to the community organization, she called it quits. Surely there’s someone younger than 90 who can take over.
Among other things over the years she is once again Secretary to our organization in this southern town. When she accepted the nomination it was with the stipulation that when the two-year term was up she would be over 90 and she would call it quits. That will be happening very soon.

 

91-year old Phyllis Mason displaying her parachute wedding dress and army portrait of her husband.

91-year old Phyllis Mason displaying her parachute wedding dress and army portrait of her husband.

The three piece wedding ensemble made from a nylon parachute.

The three piece wedding ensemble made from a nylon parachute.

Top of wedding Gown showing cording pattern.

Top of wedding Gown showing cording pattern.

Top of slip, parachute cording has been braided for the straps.

Top of slip, parachute cording has been braided for the straps.

Substitute model for the gown at the Fashion Show

Substitute model for the gown at the Fashion Show