A yellow toddler’s dress might be the last thing you’d expect to find showcased at a veterans home.
Photographs, medals, battlefield souvenirs, or old newspaper clippings? Sure. But a little yellow silk dress?
Yet, there is displayed in the Hall of Honor deep inside the Veterans Homes of California-Redding, on loan from the family of Army veteran and Home resident Harold Carlon. Consider it a poignant repurposing of a parachute into a family legacy and fabric of Americana.
The dress represents the very moment – August 15, 1945, or 77 years ago this month – when two brothers from the Northern San Valley town of Los Banos realized World War II finally had ended and that their liberation from a Japanese POW camp was imminent.
It carries a reminder of the brothers’ ordeals. Every young girl in their family who wears it will know the story behind it, said Sharlet Smalls of Firebaugh, Carlon’s ex-wife and the first girl in the family to wear the dress. In fact, it was custom made for her shortly after her uncles returned from captivity in late 1945.
“It is an honor and a privilege to be entrusted with such a precious family heirloom,” Redding Home Administrator Jessica Koppes said.
The story began in 1941, when Jim and Viola Trotter moved their family that included daughter Flarence (Small’s mother) and three sons from Oklahoma to Los Banos. A few months later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States formally entered the war.
All three sons – Loice Avin Trotter, Germe Wardell Trotter, and Lee Trotter – joined the Army Air Corps. Lee, the youngest, went to Europe. L.A. and G.W (known by their initials) both served in the Philippines.
Lee and his bazooka outfit harassed German troops. But after five Sullivan brothers all died when their ship sank in 1942, the U.S. military changed its policy to keep the youngest son of a family out of action. They sent Lee back stateside. Shortly thereafter, the Germans wiped out his former unit, including the priest with whom he’d conversed with daily, Small said. The survivor’s guilt, she said, haunted him until his death in 2000.
Older brothers L.A. and G.W. were attached to a Filipino-American force that surrendered to the Japanese in May 1942. As POWs, they managed to hide from the Japanese the fact that they were brothers, avoiding separation while they worked in a salt plant on Mindanao. They were treated relatively well there, until they were sent to a camp in Davao City, where they experienced first-hand the atrocities for which their Japanese captors were notorious. Then they were moved to camps in Japan, where the treatment was equally horrible. Wormy food, bad water, and beatings by the guards were commonplace.
The brothers were at the Nagoya camp when the war ended on August 15, 1945. Planes from the British carrier HMS Indefatigable began dropping in supplies in 50-gallon drums using silk parachutes. The Trotter brothers cut three pieces from one of the ‘chutes and brought them back home. They gave one swatch to Flarence Odle, their married sister, who fashioned it into the dress for her young daughter, Sharlet.
“My mother made the dress for me,” Smalls said. “I was maybe 15 to 18 months old. She sewed every stitch of it. But there are no pictures of me in it.”
Another piece became a shirt for a boy cousin who wore it out over time, and the third remnant – a sash – still exists.
Flarence kept the dress hanging in her closet until 1992. By the time she passed it down to Sharlet, her daughter Donna was too old to wear it. They’ve made sure to get photos of all six of the girls – granddaughters and great grandnieces born into the family since – modeling the dress. G.W. died in 1998, Lee two years later, and L.A. in 2018.
The yellow parachute dress remains in magnificent condition. The family allowed Sharlet’s son, Dallas, to display it at the Redding Veterans Home along with a copy of the book she assembled titled “The Story of the Yellow Parachute Dress” that tells its story.
All that explained, the Redding Veterans Home might be the landing spot for the refashioned relic of war, perseverance, and survival.
“This parachute has been handed down for generations,” Home Administrator Koppes said. “We will proudly share it with our fellow veterans, staff, family, and friends.”
The Veterans Home of California-Redding is closed for visitation to the general public. Photographs of the yellow parachute dress will be posted on the Redding Veterans Home’s Facebook page upon completion of the display.