Turk Hatch from Detroit signed it. Roy Slover III from Phoenix left his mark. Gene Riley from Atlanta can be found right under the parachute company’s stamp, dated June 1942.
Martin Haumesser, of Amherst, treasures an autographed parachute that was given to his father-in-law.
Those are just a few of more than 80 soldiers from the 457th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion of the 11th Airborne who autographed the small silk parachute that hangs in my office.
The chute is small, a pilot chute about the size of an umbrella that was deployed to help pull out the main parachute used by U.S. Army paratroopers. The men had signed the chute for my father-in-law, Otto Strobel, a fellow sky soldier who was among those injured in a plane crash during action in the Philippine Islands in World War II. Otto wrote to his mom and dad back home in Cohocton, N.Y., and told them he had a little run-in with a gasoline can on the base.
Truth was, he was burned in the crash. While in New Guinea, the C-47 transport plane in which Otto was riding hit a crater in the runway on takeoff, snapping off the landing gear and causing the plane to cartwheel. Fuel tanks ruptured, creating a deadly inferno. Fellow paratroopers shoveled sand upon Otto to douse the flames swarming all over his jumpsuit.
While his burns were not severe, Otto had inhaled a mix of aviation fuel and smoke that left him unable to speak. He spent three weeks in a New Guinea hospital where the autographed chute was presented to him with wishes for a fast recovery.
Each day in the hospital, an attending nurse would say good morning. Pfc. Strobel was unable to answer her. One day, after weeks of silence, he croaked a raspy good morning in return. He was able to speak again. The nurse looked at him and said, “You’re gonna be sorry you started yapping. Now they are going to send you back up.”
He did go back up, but I don’t think my father-in-law was sorry. He was a trained soldier who surely wanted to be with his brothers in arms. Guys like Ben Zook from Memphis. Wayne Skeeters from a small town in Colorado. Bill Cushing from Rochester. And Ed Courtney from Kenmore, not far from where Otto would settle in Buffalo after the war.
Soldiers such as Richard and Martin Stiglitz from Boston, brothers I assume, signed the chute. Joseph Rizzi from New York City drew a couple of parachutes along with his signature. The name-filled gift was certainly an inspiration for the recovering soldier.
After fighting in major battles on Leyte, Luzon and other islands – and earning a Purple Heart after being hit by shrapnel – Otto made it home to Cohocton, eventually moving to the suburbs of Buffalo, raising his family and running a business there. The chute made its way to my family among some photos after my in-laws had passed. I’m guessing most of the men who signed it have passed on as well. Otto would have been 97 at this writing. He died at the age of 62, his battle scars causing health problems throughout his life.