The funeral of General Trình Minh Thế and the Cao Đài badge debate

On 3 May 1955, while standing near his military jeep, Vietnamese army Brigadier-General Trình Minh Thế was killed by a sniper’s bullet. Thế was an ultra-nationalist Caodaist commander who had in turn fought the French and the Viet Minh before integrating his Cao Đài Liên Minh militia into the Vietnamese National Army of the Ngô Đình Diệm administration. Diệm, who had been struggling to maintain control against the demands of the three major sects, the Cao Đài, Hòa Hảo and the Bình Xuyên, immediately set out to enshrine General Thế as a national hero who gave his life in defence of the government, rather than be swayed by sectarian interests.

General Thế was buried with full military honours and the ceremonial procession of his casket being solemnly paraded through Saigon was photographed by LIFE photographer Harrison Forman. I believe that Forman’s photographs played a significant part in the ongoing mis-identification of the Vietnamese Army general service hat badge as being a ‘Cao Đài badge’.

Cao Dai The funeral 1955-01

Caodaist soldiers of the Vietnamese National Army accompany the casket of General Trình Minh Thế during his funeral procession in Saigon, May 1955. Note the soldier in the centre of the picture who is wearing the later type Cao Đài breast badge along with the Vietnamese National Army general service beret badge. Photo: Harrison Forman LIFE Magazine.

Vietnam 1955 first pattern general service badge-01

1955  first pattern Vietnamese National Army beret badge for enlisted ranks. Locally made Chromed metal plus pin attachment. The insignia also exists in gold metal for officers and matching bullion variants for both officers and enlisted ranks. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

In June 1954, Ngô Đình Diệm had returned from exile to establish a new government in the South of Vietnam. He faced an uphill battle as he lacked control of the military and police forces and the civil system was still administered by French officials. He also encountered opposition from the French expatriate community who wanted to maintain France’s interests in South Vietnam and, not insignificantly, from the three major sects, the Cao Đài, the Hòa Hảo, who both fielded large sectarian armies, plus the Bình Xuyên an organised crime syndicate that controlled the National Police force. When Diệm returned to Vietnam in 1954 these three groups controlled approximately one third of South Vietnam and it was not until the Battle of Saigon in April 1955 when the Bình Xuyên were crushed that he was able to consolidate his grip on power.

Staunchly Catholic, Ngô Đình Diệm detested these groups. The Cao Đài and Hòa Hảo, he claimed, were born from the Communist Party of Indochina but without a strong reliable military force of his own he initially had to play a pragmatic game of political cat & mouse with them. When, on 20 January 1955 the French agreed to turn over the full control of the Vietnamese armed forces to the Vietnamese government within five months, Diệm was placed in a slightly better position. The transfer would see the end of the regular French pay for the Forces Suppletifs which included the sects private armies and American financial backing of the Diệm gave him the leverage he needed.

Caodaist, Trình Minh Thế was the first to shift allegiance to the new paymaster and after receiving a substantial (American financed) bribe from the government along with the rank of Brigadier-General, he marched his Lien Minh force into Saigon on 13 February 1955 for integration into the Vietnamese National Army.

Later, when the “United Front of Nationalist Forces”, a coalition of the sects sent an ultimatum to Diệm to form a government of national union, Trình Minh Thế threw his support behind the Front, but then, after another substantial bribe, switched back to Diệm. The dispute between the Front and Diệm’s regime finally reached tipping point at the end of March 1955 and resulted in the brief civil war, culminating in the Battle of Saigon that gave Diệm the victory he needed.

General Thế, who was hated by the French, but seen by the Americans as a possible replacement for Diệm due to his recent anti-communist stance was assassinated by a sniper’s bullet to the back of his head on 3 May 1955. The murder was unsolved, with some blaming the French who had vowed to kill Thế due to his implication in a series of bombings between 1951-53. The French also suspected that he was the mastermind behind the Caodaist suicide bomber assassination of French General Chanson, the Commander of the French-Indo-Chinese forces in South Viet Nam in 1951. Others suspected that Thế’s murder was orchestrated by the Diệm administration who saw him as a threat to their power and possible replacement to Diệm.

The truth remains unknown, but Ngô Đình Diệm immediately set out to enshrine Thế as the first national hero of his independent non-communist South Vietnam. He was praised by the press for his ‘genuine patriotism and heroism’ which was juxtaposed with the treachery of the dissident Hòa Hảo and Bình Xuyên leaders. According to author, Jessica Chapman in her book Cauldron of Resistance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and 1950s Southern Vietnam, the Vietnamese newspaper obituary described his support for the Diệm regime was “because he realised the forces of the national army were struggling for the country”. In fact, Trình Minh Thế’s decision was due to the substantial bribes channeled through CIA agent, Edward Lansdale.

This inconvenient truth was ignored by the government, who pushed hard to ensure that he was seen as a hero, giving his life in the defence of Ngô Đình Diệm’s administration. On May 4th and 5th the state gave Thế an official funeral including a military procession from his home to a temporary resting place in front of the Saigon Town Hall where four Vietnamese National Army officers stood watch over his body day and night.

The funeral procession saw his casket, draped with a black banner with silver lettering proclaiming, “State funeral of General Trình Minh Thế, national hero” transferred on an armoured car accompanied by an honour guard of his former Cao Đài Liên Minh troops who were by then, regular soldiers serving in the Vietnamese National Army.

The funeral mourners

Dignitaries and high ranking Vietnamese Army officers including Vietnamese Army General Nguyen Thành Phoung (centre) and Premier Ngô Đình Diệm (behind with sunglasses) at the funeral of Trình Minh Thế. Nguyen Thành Phoung defected with his 20,000 Cao Đài troops to Diệm in March 1955 after receiving a US$3.6 million bribe. Photo: Harrison Forman LIFE

It was during this procession that LIFE photographer Harrison Forman took his famous photographs which show soldiers wearing both the later ‘unification of the sects’ variation Cao Đài pocket insignia AND the general service beret badge of the Vietnamese National Army. I believe that it is largely due to these photographs that the beret badge was erroneously attributed as an exclusively Cao Đài insignia in the reference books that appeared from the 1970’s onward. Some, such as the 1986 French Symboles et Traditions (S&T) reference book Les Insignes de l’Armée Viet Namienne described the badge with some reservation (translated) as “Without any confirmation, this badge could be the beret badge of the Cao Dai army”.

Other insignia references have been less cautious in their descriptions and the ‘Cao Đài badge’ myth has subsequently been repeated in several books but without ever identifying the evidential source. I suspect that many may simply be repeating the information contained in other existing references and have not taken into account the mass of evidence that is now available.

incorrect cao dai badge reference

Two reference sources that incorrectly identify the Vietnamese Army general service badge as a Cao Đài insignia. Both are from Gary D. Murtha’s  books on the subject. The page on the left is from “Republic of Vietnam Insignia & History” whilst the page on the right is from”ARVN – Army of the Republic of Viet Nam”. They are good reference books, however, both simply repeat the same information verbatim.  I suspect that it is the continued replication of the same such information across several reference books, from various authors prior to, or without examining ‘new’ information which has contributed to the badges being misidentified for so long.

 

There is a lengthy debate surrounding the badge on the WAF forum where the ‘Cao Đài badge’ theory was placed under the spotlight. It is worth reading as it provides insightful discussion and a compelling argument against this being an exclusively Cao Đài insignia. Evidence such as the 1958 insignia reference board compiled and labelled by the US Defense Attache’s office in Saigon (see below) have emerged from collections and been invaluable in helping further knowledge about the subject. The debate about this Vietnamese Army general service badge has been settled,  but I suspect that Harrison Forman’s funeral photographs may have played a large part in the earlier incorrect attribution of the insignia.

AVN cap badges DIA card 1958-01

Insignia collected and labeled by US Defense Attache’s office, Saigon, in 1958. Stamped on the back with notations from the defense attaché office in Saigon. This extraordinary period grouping also identifies the badge as merely a general service beret insignia with no specifically Cao Đài connection. Surely if the badge represented the Cao Đài, the Defense Attache in Saigon which had until recently had worked closely with them  in an attempt to build support for the Diệm regime would know and identify it as Cao Đài? Collection: Ken Conboy.

A Pocket Guide to Vietnam, DOD, 5 April 1966

Page detail from the April 1966 DOD publication “A Pocket Guide to Vietnam”. Note that it makes no reference to the Cao Đài and refers to the badge simply as a ‘Cap Insignia’. Other earlier editions of this publication which feature the badge also do not make any connections to the Cao Đài for this insignia. In a later edition from 1970, this badge design was not included indicating that it was withdrawn in 1967 when some of the older insignia were withdrawn from service following Thieu’s election.

 

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The Cao Dai and its Militia 1926 – 1956

Forces Armees Cao-Daistes (FACD) badge

French made variation of the Forces Armees Cao-Daistes (FACD) badge. This badge is one of the 10,000 ordered by General Nguyễn Văn Thành on 8 December 1951 from the Drago company. An additional 250 silver (officer grade) badges were ordered by Cao Đài chief of staff, Lieutenant Colonel Nguyễn Thai on 24 August 1952. Between May 1952 and January 1953 all the silver badges (plus 4 additional pieces) and 4970 of the standard issue badges were delivered. The remaining 5000 remained in the Drago workshops due to a payment dispute and were never delivered. Collection: Julian Tennant

cao dai illustrated london news 9 june 1951

One of my main areas of collecting interest focuses on the airborne, commando and unconventional auxiliary units relating to French Indochina. This interest grew out of my first visit to Vietnam in the late 1990’s when I bought a xeroxed copy of Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American, from a street vendor in Ho Chi Minh City. Published in 1955, a year after the fall of Dien Bien Phu, the novel explores the breakdown of French colonialism in Vietnam and raises questions about the foundations for the growing American involvement in the country. This is explored through the eyes of a weary British journalist, Thomas Fowler, a naïve young CIA agent named Alden Pyle and Phuong, Fowler’s mistress who becomes the subject of both their attentions.

I think that Greene’s canny observations, based on his experience as a war correspondent in Vietnam, combined with the fact that I was reading the book ‘in-country’ whilst tooling around South Vietnam in a 1964 Ford Galaxy (formerly a USN staff car) with an old army buddy and a couple of Vietnamese friends started to shift my interest away from the ‘American War’ to the French experience in Indochina.  In future posts I will share some of my insignia related to this conflict and detail some of the background to the units represented.

Vietnam, truck passing watchtower on stilts in Tây Ninh

Truck passing an isolated Cao Đài watch tower in Tây Ninh province. It would have been a watch tower similar to this where Fowler, Pyle and two Vietnamese auxiliaries were attacked by the Viet Minh in Graham Greene’s ‘The Quiet American’.  Photo: Harrison Forman LIFE Magazine 1950

 

Whilst a work of fiction, The Quiet American fleshed out the plot with observations that revealed the reality of the situation and weaved between fact and fiction.

            “I began, while he watched me intently like a prize pupil, by explaining the situation in the north, in Tonkin, where the French in those days were hanging on to the delta of the Red River, which contained Hanoi and the only northern port, Haiphong. Here most of the rice was grown, and when harvest was ready the annual battle or the rice always began.

            ‘That’s the north,’ I said. ‘The French may hold, poor devils, if the Chinese don’t come to help the Vietminh. A war of jungles and mountains and marsh, paddy-fields where you wade shoulder-high and the enemy simply disappear, bury their arms, put on peasant dress. But you can rot comfortably in the damp in Hanoi. The don’t throw bombs there. God knows why. You could call it a regular war.’

            ‘And here in the south?’

           ‘The French control the main roads until seven in the evening: they control the watch towers after that, and the towns – part of them. That doesn’t mean you are safe, or there wouldn’t be iron grilles in front of the restaurants.’

           How often I had explained all this before. I was a record always turned on for the benefit of newcomers … Sometimes I would wake up in the night saying, ‘Take the case of the Caodaists.’ Or the Hoa-Haos or the Bình Xuyên, all the private armies who sold their services for money or revenge. Strangers found them picturesque, but there is nothing picturesque in treachery and distrust.

           ‘And now,’ I said, ‘There’s General Thé. He was Caodaist Chief of Staff, but he’s taken to the hills to fight both sides, the French, the Communists…’ (Part 1, Chapter 2, Section 1)

Greene’s description of the situation in Indochina at the time is an accurate summation of how the conflict was fought. In the north, in Tonkin where the Viet Minh were strongest, French forces pursued a fairly conventional military strategy, whilst in the south they adopted a pacification campaign that relied on auxiliaries and ‘private armies’ to help free up much needed man-power for operations elsewhere. This led the French to form uneasy alliances with some interesting bed-fellows, primarily, the ‘Three Sects’, the Cao Đài, Hòa Hảo and Bình Xuyên, none of whose loyalty could never be guaranteed and who exploited the situation to best suit their own interests.

The Cao Đài, a militant politico-religious sect, was the most powerful of these groups which at the time claimed more than two million adherents. Originally a purely religious organisation it evolved as a response to strong Vietnamese nationalism, quickly developing a political orientation and at its peak, before Premier Ngô Đình Diệm brought it to heel in 1955, the Cao Đài boasted an army of more than 20,000 men.

The Cao Đài sect was officially established in Tây Ninh, approximately 90 kilometres northwest of Saigon in 1926. Caodaism is a monotheistic syncretic religion which synthesises Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity and spirit worship. Caodaists believe that these religions, which were established in different parts of the world, previously failed to converge due to a lack of communication but does so under Cao Đài (which literally translates as the “Highest Lord” or “Highest Power”) who is the supreme deity.

The spirit of Cao Đài first revealed itself to Ngô Văn Chiêu, the colonial government district administrator of Phú Quốc Island off the coast of Cambodia, during a séance in 1919. Chiêu continued to communicate with Cao Đài in seances held with other civil servants and also a wealthy businessman named Lê Văn Trung, who was directed by the spirit to join Chiêu in leading the Cao Đài movement. Chiêu opted to abstain from proselytism and relinquished his leadership to Trung in April 1926. On October 7, 28 Cao Đài leaders and 247 adherents sought official recognition of Cao Đàism as a religion, which was granted in November and by that stage had already attracted over 20,000 followers. In March 1927, the Holy See or Holy Seat of the faith was established in the village of Long Thành near the town of Tây Ninh in Tây Ninh Province. Whilst the political and military activities of the Cao Đài have been suppressed, Tây Ninh is still the centre of its religious practices which are tolerated by the current government.

In 1934 at the time of Lê Văn Trung’s death, the Cao Đài numbered over 300 000 adherents, controlled over 128 chapels and were particularly strong in Mỹ Tho, Chợ Lớn, Gia Định and Bến Tre. Its growth can be attributed to two factors, the form of the cult was not contrary to the main religions already practiced by the Vietnamese and its spiritualistic nature held great appeal for a peasant population with a proclivity for the supernatural.

Cao Dai Nguyen Van Thanh and Pham Cong Tac at the Holy See 1948

Cao Đài Hộ Pháp (Pope) Phạm Công Tắc reviewing troops at the Holy See. Cao Đài ‘Army’ deputy commander Nguyễn Văn Thành (wearing spectacles) is standing to the left. Photo: Jack Birns LIFE Magazine July 1948

 

Trung’s successor as Hộ Pháp (“Defender of Doctrine” or commonly referred to as the ‘Pope’) was Phạm Công Tắc. He was aware of the increasing discontent with the French and joining the growing number of clandestine nationalist groups began to steer the Cao Đài away from its primarily religious nature, towards more political aims. Under Tắc’s leadership the sect entered into secret negotiations regarding the liberation of Vietnam with the Japanese and at the outbreak of World War Two, became more overt in its anti-French stance. This eventually resulted in the French governor of Cochin China, exiling Tắc and his lieutenants to Madagascar (where they remained until the end of the war), closing most of the chapels and in September 1941, having French troops occupy Tây Ninh.

In 1943, with the help of the Kempeitai (Japanese secret police), the Cao Đài under the leadership of Trần Quang Vinh prepared for direct action against the French. Armed by the Japanese, Vinh formed clandestine paramilitary groups estimated at around 3000 men. With Japanese support they fought the French and helped the Japanese take over Indochina in March 1945. They openly supported the Japanese regime, assisting with policing the countryside until the Japanese capitulated in August 1945. The Cao Đài then joined forces with other nationalist groups to form the United National Front to take over administrative control of the region. Plagued with factionalism, the United National Front was unable to exercise effective control. Taking advantage of the situation, the communist Viet Minh were able to convince the front to gather in an alliance under their leadership, but once again internal rivalries and at times, open warfare, undermined the nationalist aspirations and the French, with British support, were able to reoccupy Saigon.

Meanwhile, the Viet Minh attempted to wrest control of the Cao Đài militia which created further problems for the Cao Đài, with Trần Quang Vinh being detained and conflict between the two parties ensuing. In Vinh’s absence, the militia was reorganised and eventually agreed to fight alongside the Viet Minh against the French Far East Expeditionary Corps (Corps Expéditionnaire Français en Extrême-Orient – CEFEO).

In November 1945, French military forces marched on Tây Ninh and accepted the surrender of the Cao Đài followers there. Trần Quang Vinh, who had managed to escape from the Viet Minh negotiated a truce with the French in June 1946 As a result, Nguyen Thành Phương, who led one of the Cao Đài militia’s in Vinh’s absence, brought his 1000 strong force of troops to Tây Ninh to be reviewed by Vinh and the French High Command. However, two other Cao Đài militias, under the leadership of Duong Van Dang and Nguyễn Văn Thành, refused to participate, opting instead to seek refuge in the Ba Den Mountain. The deal between the Cao Đài and the French permitted them to maintain a militia, now officially part of the French Forces Supplétifs. of 1470 partisans including 12 Brigades of 60 men each and garrison troops in 16 posts around Tây Ninh province. It should be noted that the Cao Đài ignored the agreement and soon created new formations such as a ‘Papal Guard’, ‘Shock Battalion’ and other unofficial units, supposedly, for the defence of the scattered Cao Đài communities in the region.

With the Cao Đài, nominally, back on side with the French, the authorities allowed Phạm Công Tắc to return from exile and a peace deal was agreed to in August, with Tắc proclaiming the need for a French presence and the reestablishment of public order. But when fighting broke out between the Viet Minh and the French in December 1946, Tắc remained neutral, until the Viet Minh attacked Tây Ninh and in January 1947, he sought French protection.

cao dai tay ninh

Cao Đài Hộ Pháp (Pope) Phạm Công Tắc with the ‘Papal Guard’ in front of the Holy See at Tây Ninh. Whilst this photograph was published in 1948, I suspect that the occasion was the official inauguration of the Cao Dai army on 7 February 1947. Photo: Jack Birns LIFE Magazine

 

French military aid was conditional upon the Cao Đài pacifying the countryside. With the exception of members loyal to Trinh Minh Thé, a fanatical nationalist (who, later, in 1951 would organise his own guerrilla unit, the Liên Minh, to fight both the French and Viet Minh), the sect’s militia inflicted heavy casualties on the Viet Minh for the next twelve months. This led the French High Command to send Cao Đài troops throughout Cochinchina, a move encouraged by the Cao Đài leadership as it allowed them to spread their influence and gain converts. The population was presented with a simple ultimatum, the protection of the Cao Đài militias would only be given to members of the Cao Đài sect.

1950-view-of-watchtower-behind-bamboo-barricade-in-ty-ninh_12469862555_o

Cao Đài guard post watch tower in Tây Ninh province. Note the bamboo staked fence to provide an additional measure of protection. Photo: Harrison Forman LIFE Magazine 1950

 

In March 1949 Vietnam, under the leadership of Emporer Bảo Đại, was granted self-government within the French Union. On 6 May 1950, the Cao Đài formally pledged allegiance to the government and as a sign of good will allowed a Cao Đài battalion to be integrated into the Vietnamese National Army. But at the same time, they resumed their private territorial war with another sect, the Hòa Hảo, an action that greatly weakened the nationalist movement. The allegiance of all three sects, the Cao Đài, Hòa Hảo and Bình Xuyên, to Bảo Đại and the French was always opportunistic, with self-interest overriding any loyalty that they professed.

However, despite exercising an almost feudal control over most of Cochin China, none of the sects were totally unsupervised. The French Inspectorat General des Forces Suppletives, co-ordinated the military activities of all three sects, garrisoning French liaison officers and training staff with all the sect units, operating in much the same way as American, Kiwi and Australian Army Training Team (AATTV) advisors did in the 1960’s and 70’s.

For the Cao Đài this training included developing their own officer’s school which ran a five-month long course training promising candidates the rudiments of modern warfare. However, the tactical value of the Cao Đài troops was limited as the sect was more concerned with increasing its own power base and considered its troops too valuable to lose in military operations against the Viet Minh. For the French advisor and liaison officers attached to the Cao Đài units, their job was just as hazardous as their successors in the Second Indochina War, particularly with some of the smaller and less well organised groups whose ‘war effort’ was little more than banditry. In many cases the units massacred their French cadres, fought over supplies or with other groups for control of territory.

cao dai badge symbolism

Forces Armees Cao-Daistes (FACD) badge. Local made.

Forces Armees Cao-Daistes (FACD) badge. Locally made.

Forces Armees Cao-Daistes (FACD) Signals unit badge. Local made.

Unconfirmed Forces Armees Cao-Daistes (FACD) unit badge. The text “QUÂN ĐỘI CAO ĐÀI VÔ TUYẾN ĐIỆN CƠ XƯỞNG 3” loosely translates to Cao Dai Army Radio (or Electrical) Workshop 3 and it is believed that this may be a signals unit badge Locally made.

1950-group-portrait-of-cao-dai-army-soldiers-in-ty-ninh_12476225105_o

Group portrait of Cao Đài soldiers at Tây Ninh in 1950. Photo: Harrison Forman

 

These factors may have influenced the French decision to refuse a request to arm and train three full Cao Đài divisions, numbering some 45,000 men, plus grant the Cao Đài three cabinet seats. This prompted Cao Đài general Nguyễn Văn Thành to issue a secret order cease all offensive action other than self-defence against the Viet Minh. Taking advantage of the situation, the Viet Minh attacked Tây Ninh causing Thành to reverse his decision. Eventually the French and Vietnamese Government, in view of the deteriorating situation, also acquiesced to the Cao Đài, arming additional troops and granting cabinet positions to some of the sect’s leaders.

In 1953, Tắc, sensing the changing winds begins to distance the Cao Đài from the French and Premier Nguyễn Văn Tâm’s government. Hedging their bets, they push for both independence and a close association with the France, throwing their support behind Bảo Đại at the Nationalist Congress of October 1953.

On April 9th, 1954, Phạm Công Tắc declared his unquestioning support for Bảo Đại and “for liberation of the Vietnamese people from the communist yoke…” But when this promise was tested three days later after the government decided to integrate the sects into the Vietnamese National Army. Cao Đài commander, Nguyễn Thẩm Phương, resisted, resulting in the order not being complied with until the following year.

The signing of the Geneva Accords in July 1954 and the French withdrawal of financial support for the sects in January 1955 signalled the end of Cao Đài influence during this period. The new regime under Ngô Đình Diệm, a staunch Catholic who perceived the sects as a threat, now controlled the US subsidies that financed them. The Cao Đài, along with the Bình Xuyên and Hòa Hảo now faced a loss of their autonomy, privileges plus incorporation of their forces into the National Army. On February 13, 1955, Cao Đài commander Trình Minh Thế, newly promoted to the rank of General in the Vietnamese Army, marched into Saigon at the head of his 5,000 black uniformed, Liên Minh troops. Later on 31 March, 15,000 Cao Đài troops under the command of Nguyen Thành Phoung were integrated into the Vietnamese National Army.

Cao Dai troops integrate 13 Feb 1955

Newly promoted to General, Cao Đài commander, Trình Minh Thế leads his Liên Minh troops into Saigon after United States military advisor Edward Lansdale convinced Thế to throw his support behind Premier Ngô Đình Diệm. 13 February 1955

 

Meanwhile the countryside in the southwest was drifting into anarchy as bands of Hòa Hảo and Cao Đài fought for control of territories that were largely devoid of any administrative authority. In an attempt to regain control of the situation, Bảo Đại sent his cousin, Prince Vĩnh Cảnh to urge the sects to unify. This resulted in a non-aggression pact between the two and along with the Bình Xuyên, the formation of a “United Front of National Forces” designed to “protect the country and serve the people.”

On 21 March, 1955, the Front sent an ultimatum to Diệm, giving him five days to form a government of national union. General Thé changed his position from supporting Diệm to the Front, but then, after a substantial bribe, back to Diệm who had refused the Fronts demands. Factional disputes were also undermining the Front and sensing the changing political atmosphere, the Cao Đài commanders plus some of the Hòa Hảo sects retired from the impending conflict. Cao Đài General Nguyen Thành Phoung then defected to Diệm with his 20,000 troops after receiving a US$3.6 million bribe and monthly payments for his soldiers. It should be noted though that the Cao Đài leader,  Phạm Công Tắc, did not support Phương’s defection and remained part of the Front. But the defections left the Bình Xuyên mostly alone to confront the National Army when fighting broke out on the night of 29/30 March.

In the turmoil that followed, Diệm was able to use the National Army to bring the Bình Xuyên and the few remaining Hòa Hảo into line. On 3 May 1955, while standing near his military jeep, General Trình Minh Thế was shot in the back of the head by a sniper. The murder was unsolved, with some blaming the French who had vowed to kill Thế due to his implication in a series of bombings between 1951-53 and alleged involvement in the assassination of French General Chanson, the Commander of the French-Indo-Chinese forces in South Viet Nam, who was killed by a Caodaist suicide bomber in 1951. Others blamed the South Vietnamese government who saw him as a threat and possible replacement for Diệm.

Cao Dai The funeral 1955-01

Cao Đài troops integrated into the Vietnamese National Army accompany the casket of General Trình Minh Thế during his funeral procession in Saigon, May 1955. Note the soldier in the centre of the picture who is wearing the newer type Cao Đài unit breast badge (see below). Photo: Harrison Forman LIFE Magazine.

Cao Dai 1955 local made badge-01

Caodaist unit badge worn by the Cao Đài troops of General Trình Minh Thế which had been incorporated into the Vietnamese National Army. The badge features a six-pointed star superimposed onto diagonal yellow and red bands representing the Vietnamese national colours plus a yellow map of Vietnam on a silver shield. The six-pointed star represents the unification of the six main Cao Đài sects. Locally made.

 

In October 1955 the Cao Đài autonomy and political influence were further suppressed when General Phương disarmed the 300 strong ‘Papal Guard’ and deposed Tắc as Hộ Pháp. In February 1956, as government troops were preparing to occupy the Holy See in Tây Ninh, Tắc fled to Cambodia where he died in exile in 1959. As Cao Đài influence declined, so did their military capacity. In 1954 the Caodaists in Tây Ninh had up to 25,000 troops, but by early 1956 only 1000 remained. In June 1956 the remaining Liên Minh who were not integrated into the army and numbering around 700 men, fled to Cambodia. By 1958 only minor clandestine operations were being carried out against the Diem regime by a small number of fighters. For now, the power of the Cao Đài had been broken.

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Note that this site has NEW content posted every Sunday! If you like what you see here, please follow this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right. Knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to go through my archives and collection to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

The Pioneer Parachute Co. pin. Not a Caterpillar!

The Caterpillar Club, started in 1922 by Leslie Irvin’s Irving Air Chute Company, as a way of recording the names of individuals whose lives had been saved by using a parachute to make an emergency descent. Stanley Switlik, owner of the Switlik Parachute Co. saw the potential of the Caterpillar Club as a means to promote its parachutes and soon instituted their own, Switlik Caterpillar Club.

Other companies also adopted the idea, awarding their own ‘Caterpillar Club’ awards to people who had saved their lives using the manufacturer’s parachutes. This included the Pioneer Parachute Co., Inc. which was established in 1938 in Manchester, Connecticut as a subsidiary of the Cheney Brothers Mills, the world’s largest silk factory complex. Pioneer Parachute Co. was the result of a partnership with DuPont and the Army Air Force to develop a new parachutes and on June 6, 1942, parachute packer, Adeline Gray made the first jump by a human with a nylon parachute at Brainard Field in Hartford. Like the other manufacturers of the time, Pioneer had its own Caterpillar Club pin for emergency descents, which featured a gold caterpillar on a rectangle box filled with red, white and blue enamel.

Pioneer Parachute Co. Inc. Caterpillar Club membership badge. Collection: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Pioneer Parachute Co. Inc. Caterpillar Club membership badge. Collection: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

The Pioneer Parachute Co. Inc. which has evolved into the Pioneer Aerospace Corporation and is now a subsidiary of Safran Electronics and Defense no longer issues it’s own Caterpillar Awards and membership is now administered by the Switlik Caterpillar Club. However, for several years there has been a badge made for Pioneer and bearing its name on the reverse which is often described as being a Pioneer Caterpillar Club award with collectors sometimes paying sizeable sums of money in order to add it to their collection.

The pin, which is made from nickel plated brass, shows a parachutist with a deployed parachute. It measures approximately 25mm (1”) in height and 18mm (11/16”) in width. The reverse features the words PIONEER PARACHUTE CO. and a single clutch pin grip attachment mechanism.

The Pioneer Parachute Co. Promotional pin for their revolutionary Para-Commander and Para-Sail canopy design. This was a promotional piece and should not be confused with the Caterpillar award badges. Collection: Julian Tennant

The Pioneer Parachute Co. Promotional pin for their revolutionary Para-Commander and Para-Sail canopy design. This was a promotional piece and should not be confused with the Caterpillar award badges. Collection: Julian Tennant

This Pioneer pin is not a Caterpillar Club award but is actually just a promotional pin made for another of Pioneer’s innovations developed in collaboration Parachutes Incorporated (PI), namely the Para-Commander (PC) and Para-Sail parachute. The design of the pin’s parachute reflected this new PC canopy, which was a modification to an ascending, 24-gore (segment) parachute designed by the Frenchman Pierre M. Lemoigne and sold to Pioneer in 1962.

The multiple segments used to construct the canopy was revolutionary for parachutes of the time. Increased manoeuvrability and glide were provided by a vented rear and turn slots supported by stabilising segments on the sides. The skirt of the leading edge of the canopy was also positioned slightly higher thereby decreasing the drag and allowing air to be directed rearward towards the slots.  The rate of descent was slowed further because a lower porosity nylon taffeta used which added to the lifting characteristics of the canopy design.

Diagram plan views of the Pioneer Para-Commander rig showing feature details. Several of these, then, revolutionary design features can be seen in the PIONEER PARACHUTE CO. pin.

Diagram plan views of the Pioneer Para-Commander rig showing feature details. Several of these, then, revolutionary design features can be seen in the PIONEER PARACHUTE CO. pin.

The PC was first demonstrated at the Orange Sport Parachute Centre in Massachusetts on the 4th of December 1962 and a patent (SN 159,606) filed on the 21st of December 1962. This new ‘high performance’ parachute quickly became popular and by 1966 they were being used by all the competitors in the US National Parachuting championships, with trials also underway for its adoption by the US military.

Page details from the June 1966 USAF "Performance Evaluation of Para-Commander Mark I Personal Parachute" report of 1st Lieutenant Charles W. Nichols of the Air Force Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Page details from the June 1966 USAF “Performance Evaluation of Para-Commander Mark I Personal Parachute” report of 1st Lieutenant Charles W. Nichols of the Air Force Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

By the 1970’s rectangular canopied Ram-air parachutes, such as the Paraflite Para-Plane were starting to take over the sport parachuting market, although PC rigs were still used for trainee and military parachuting applications into the 1980’s.

I am not sure if the Pioneer PC pin was given to new buyers of the parachute or whether there was some other distribution strategy, but whilst it is a memento reflecting an important development in the history of parachuting, collectors should not confuse the badge with the pins associated with membership of the Caterpillar Club.

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The Southern Rhodesia Commando ‘Cobra’ Qualification badge – 1941 – 45

In 1941, fearing that the Japanese may launch an invasion of southern Africa from Vichy French controlled Madagascar, the OC of B Coy Rhodesian African Rifles, Captain Alan Gardiner Redfern was tasked with training a commando force of Rhodesians that could undertake guerrilla operations should an invasion occur.

Redfern was a good choice, a competent bushman who as a young school-boy had spent his weekends and school holidays camping out in the veldt with a native companion and carrying very little apart from a rifle, blanket some mealie meal (maize flour) and condensed milk. He was proficient in both the main African languages, Chishona and Sindebele and prior to the war worked in the Native Department (later renamed Internal Affairs) of the Southern Rhodesia Civil Service.

lrdg-southern-rhodesia-commando-redfern.jpg

Captain (T/Maj) Alan Gardiner Redfern MBE, founder of the Southern Rhodesia Commando. Redfern was KIA in November 1943 whilst commanding B Squadron of the Long Range Desert Group on operations in the Aegean.

Recruits for the Southern Rhodesia Commando were a mix of volunteers and conscripts, many of whom were drawn from the farming community and as such already well versed with living in the bush. The unit was conceived as a part-time cadre, not as a regular unit, able to work behind enemy lines should the need arise. Training occurred over an initial period of six weeks with an emphasis on bushcraft, small unit guerrilla operations and a demolitions course which was conducted near Gwelo. After the initial training, the soldiers returned to their usual occupations although regular on-going training took place.

Southern Rhodesia Commando

Sheet brass Southern Rhodesia Commando ‘Cobra’ badge awarded to successful participants of Redfern’s commando course. This badge was intended to be worn on the right shoulder sleeve, although photographs of Rhodesian LRDG members who completed the course show it being worn on the left shoulder sleeve. This badge is stamped with the serial number 229, but I do not know the identity of the original owner. Collection: Julian Tennant

The men who finally completed the course were awarded the ‘Cobra’ badge as recognition of their qualification. The badge depicts a cobra poised to strike within a circlet containing the words “Southern Rhodesia Commando”.  Each badge was individually numbered and were made from sheet brass by Keays Gold and Silversmiths in Salisbury.  The award was made in two sizes, the larger version, shown above, and worn on the uniform, plus a miniature silver lapel badge (also numbered) for wear on civilian attire. In an unpublished manuscript shown to me by fellow collector, Eric Crépin-Leblond, the uniform of the Southern Rhodesia Commando is described as follows,
The No. 1 Dress uniform for part-timers who successfully completed the course was: Bush hat, turned up on the left side, pinned with the Lion and tusk badge. Khaki bush shirt, with curved brass ‘Rhodesia’ shoulder titles; ‘cobra’ badge in brass worn on the right sleeve below the shoulder. ’04 web belt. Trousers. Veldschoen.

Rhodesia SRC mini

Miniature version of the Southern Rhodesia Commando qualification for wear on civilian shirt lapels. These badges were made from silver sheet and also individually numbered. This particular badge, number 120, was sold via auction in 2010 to an unidentified collector in Canada.

Little more is known about the Commando cadre and it is thought to have numbered less than 500 qualified members before it was disbanded in 1945. Many of the men from the Southern Rhodesia Commando subsequently volunteered to serve with the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), forming S1 Patrol. On the nominal roll/database page of the the Long Range Desert Group Preservation Society  there is a small photo of Sergeant Hubert ‘Hughie’ Hein where he can be seen wearing the ‘Cobra’ badge on his left shoulder. I believe that this photo is also shown on page 110 in Craig Fourie and Jonathan Pittaway’s book LRDG Rhodesia but unfortunately I don’t have a copy to confirm if it is the same picture. Training with the Southern Rhodesia Commando is mentioned by some of the Rhodesian members of the LRDG in Pittaway’s subsequent book Long Range Desert Group Rhodesia: The Men Speak which also includes a picture of Signalman John “Fossie” Kevan who, once again is wearing his ‘Cobra’ on the left sleeve.  I can only surmise that the reason for the LRDG members wearing the badge on the left shoulder rather than the right as outlined in the original dress instruction, is because the same position on the right sleeve would have been reserved for their parachutist qualification wing. In both photographs it also appears that there was some kind of dark cloth used as a backing for badge but I have not yet identified the colour used.

LRDG Rhodesia Signalman John Kevan-Recovered

Rhodesian member of the Long Range Desert Group, Signalman John “Fossie” Kevan shown wearing the Southern Rhodesia Commando ‘Cobra’ badge on his left sleeve. Note the dark backing material used behind the badge. Source: Long Range Desert Group Rhodesia: The Men Speak. by Jonathan Pittaway.

For his role in forming the Southern Rhodesia Commando, Redfern was awarded the M.B.E., which he accepted with the understanding that he could join the men that he had trained who had subsequently joined the LRDG. On 22 April 1943, Captain Redfern transferred from the KRRC, reverting to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant before taking over command of S1 Patrol (LRDG) once again as a Captain in May 1943.  On October 15 he was made OC of B Squadron, but was killed in action on the 12th of November 1943 during LRDG operations in the Aegean.

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BOOKS: British Airborne Insignia & Airborne Insignia Volume 2 by Oliver Lock

A handful of the World War 2 British Airborne wings and insignia in my collection. Photo: Julian Tennant

Airborne insignia provides a popular collecting focus for many collectors and as a result has become a lucrative market for dealers and opportunists who have seized on the opportunity to peddle faked badges for handsome profits. Faked insignia have been around for decades and whilst some are easily recognised as copies, a series of extremely well-made reproductions of British and commonwealth airborne and special forces badges that were being sold by the likes of Nicholas Morigi and Andrew Butler in the early 90’s really upped the ante. Whilst both dealers sold these detailed and artificially aged copies as reproductions, they could be extremely difficult to tell apart from the original insignia, as in the days before the internet became widespread, many collectors did not have access to originals for comparison and there was no solid reference books that dealt in sufficient depth with these insignia.  Many of these badges continue to pop up on eBay or dealers lists, but as ‘original’ insignia, commanding very high prices.

As a result, collecting WW2 period British Airborne and Special Forces insignia can be a minefield for even experienced collectors and money spent on good reference books is a sound investment that can help collectors prevent costly mistakes. However, for a long time most of the references that were available on the subject did little more than survey the insignia, identifying types and units but not providing the essential details that allowed collectors to determine originals from reproductions.

Oliver Lock Airborne Insignia books 1and2-01
Oliver Lock’s two books help to bridge that gap.  Both volumes were produced in conjunction with the Airborne Assault Museum, drawing extensively on their collection and archives. Both volumes are filled with close up detailed pictures of the insignia, front and back, plus important descriptive information regarding who made the badges and also how they were constructed, invaluable information when trying to ascertain whether a badge is an original ‘period’ piece.

The first volume, British Airborne Insignia deals specifically with the British Airborne forces, including the British Indian Army. Whilst the bulk of the book concentrates on the Second World War period it does also include a significant amount of information on the insignia that was used by the Airborne Forces post WW2. This is extremely useful as it allows comparisons to be made between contemporary and earlier war period insignia.

The follow up book, Airborne Insignia Vol. 2: Britain and her Allies in Exile, which was published in 2017 expands the focus to include the Australian and Canadian airborne units as well as the insignia used by the French, Belgian, Dutch, Norwegian, Polish and Italians (post armistice). It also includes several more chapters on British insignia variations that were not included in the first volume.

The pictures that are shown below are samples of some of the pages that are contained in each book. As can be seen, the information contained is detailed and comprehensive. Oliver’s two books provide invaluable reference material and should be on the bookshelf of every airborne insignia collector. Highly recommended.

British Airborne Insignia
Hardcover: 350 pages
Publisher: Military Mode Publishing (2015)
Language: English                                                                                                                                  ISBN-10: 1634524047
ISBN-13: 978-1634524049

British Airborne Insignia by Oliver Lock

British Airborne Insignia by Oliver Lock

Insignia 20_Part2 (1).pdf

Insignia 20_Part2 (1).pdf

Insignia 20_Part2 (1).pdf

Sample pages from British Airborne Insignia

 

Airborne Insignia Vol. 2: Britain and her Allies in Exile                                                          Hardcover: 245 pages                                                                                                                           Publisher: Military Mode Publishing (2017)                                                                                    Language: English                                                                                                                                  ISBN-10: 1513622498                                                                                                                              ISBN-13: 978-1513622491

Airborne Insignia Volume 2: Britain and her Allies in Exile by Oliver Lock

Airborne Insignia Volume 2: Britain and her Allies in Exile by Oliver Lock

AirborneVol2v10_Part1.pdf

AirborneVol2v10_Part1.pdf

AirborneVol2v10_Part1.pdf

Sample pages from Airborne Insignia Volume 2

Both books can be found on Amazon or you can contact the publisher, Military Mode Publishing here, http://www.militarymodepublishing.com/

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Note that this site has NEW content posted every Sunday! If you like what you see here, please follow this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right. Knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to go through my archives and collection to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

A 1992 issue Switlik Caterpillar Club badge for a WW2 Soviet pilot.

Last week’s post featured the Caterpillar Club badge of RAAF pilot Patrick Heffernan who became member number 16000 of Irvin’s European Division of the Caterpillar Club when he was forced to bail out from his Wellington bomber in November 1943.

Back in the 1920’s, along with Irvin, another manufacturer of parachutes, the Switlik Parachute Co of Trenton, New Jersey also thought that the caterpillar was a good idea to promote sales of its parachutes. Members of the Switlik Caterpillar Club, mostly Americans, receive a large certificate and a metal badge bearing the word ‘CATERPILLAR’ along the length of the badge. Like Irvin, Switlik continues to issue Caterpillar Club membership today and has also taken on the role for issuing membership to individuals whose lives had been saved using a Pioneer parachute for their emergency descent.

Switlik Caterpillar Club pin awarded in 1991 to a Soviet bomber pilot named AЕВИНСОН who was shot down by the Germans in June 1941. Collection: Julian Tennant

Switlik Caterpillar Club pin awarded in 1992 to a Soviet bomber pilot named AЕВИНСОН who was shot down by the Germans in June 1941. Collection: Julian Tennant

The Switlik Caterpillar Club badge that I feature here is one that was issued in 1992 to an old Russian airman who made an emergency descent in June 1943. I bought this pin back in 2005 from well-known para insignia collector, Don Strobaugh. He provided the following background to this particular pin.

For more than 50 years, I used to do a lot traveling throughout the world. Several times during those years, I visited an older Soviet friend of mine in Leningrad. I spoke no Russian and he didn’t speak English, so we had a mutual friend who translated for us. I knew that he had been a Soviet paratrooper in 1936, because I had done some wonderful trading with him for 1930’s era Soviet parachutist badges that he had. Kept. During one of my visits in 1990, I also learned that he had become a Soviet Naval Air Force bomber pilot prior to WWII and had made an emergency parachute jump after having been shot down by the Germans on 23 June 1941. I mentioned that there was an organization that recognized emergency parachute jumps and asked if he would like to be a member of the Caterpillar Club. He said yes, so when I returned to the States, I submitted al of the information that he had given me that the Switlik Parachute Company needed to confirm his eligibility for the award. In 1992, when my wife and I went to visit him again, I hand carried the Caterpillar Club certificate and pin with me and presented it to him 51 years after his emergency jump. Last year the pin was returned to me by an anonymous sender from St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad). He had no living relatives that I knew of, so this was probably telling me that he had passed away and someone had found my name associated with this pin. I received only the pin, not the certificate.”

When Don sent me the pin he also included a note which was returned with the pin which had the Pilot’s name, AЕВИНСОН, typed on a small piece of paper, which I think translates to Aevinson, but I have been unable to find out any more about this individual.

As can be seen from the picture, my 1992 period pin, does differ from the type made by the Metal Arts Co. of Rochester, New York (below) which Switlik issued during WW2 and are more often associated with the Switlik Caterpillar Club. I am not sure when Switlik changed the design and manufacture of their pin to the style that I have.

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Caterpillar Club pin issued by Switlik during WW2. This pin was made by the Metal Arts Co. of Rochester New York. The pin was made in two sizes with a smaller version using a single screw post for attaching the badge to the shirt.

The two different sized Switlik Caterpillar Club badges made by the Metal Arts Co. during WW2.

The two different sized Switlik Caterpillar Club badges made by the Metal Arts Co. during WW2.

Cindy Farrar Bryan shows some good pictures of the Caterpillar Club pins, membership cards and documentation in this post which recounts the story behind how her father, S/Sgt. George Farrar, a waist gunner on a B-17 in the 384th Bomb Group, earned his membership after an emergency jump in September 1944. The US Militaria Forum also has a great thread about the Caterpillar, Goldfish and Sea Squatters Club badges which includes lots of detailed pictures featuring both the front and backs of the various pin types and is an invaluable resource for collectors. And finally, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum recently published a great article on the ‘first’ members of the Caterpillar Club and also holds the Lt. Col. Falk Harmel Caterpillar Club Collection (1922-1940) which includes photographs and detailed reports of each of the first 700 documented emergency parachute jumps.

Flatbed scan of my two Caterpillar Club pins. The top example is Soviet bomber pilot, AЕВИНСОН's Switlik badge awarded in 1991 in recognition of a jump made in 1941 and the lower pin is the Irvin Caterpillar Club badge awarded to RAAF pilot, Patrick Heffernan for his emergency descent in November 1943. Collection: Julian Tennant

Flatbed scan of my two Caterpillar Club pins. The top example is Soviet bomber pilot, AЕВИНСОН’s Switlik badge awarded in 1992 in recognition of a jump made in 1941 and the lower pin is the Irvin Caterpillar Club badge awarded to RAAF pilot, Patrick Heffernan after bailing out from his Wellington bomber in November 1943. Collection: Julian Tennant

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Two more variations of Caterpillar Club pins held by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The top is the type awarded by Pioneer Parachute Co. Inc.  I am not sure which company the bottom badge represents. Collection: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

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Note that this site has NEW content posted every Sunday! If you like what you see here, please follow this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right. Knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to go through my archives and collection to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

 

WW2 Caterpillar Club pin to RAAF pilot, Group Captain P.G. Heffernan

The Caterpillar Club began in 1922 shortly after an American aviator, LT H.R. Harris, made an emergency descent using an Irvin parachute over McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio, USA. The lucky escape captured the attention of two visiting newspaper journalists, Maurice Hutton and Vern Timmerman. After discussions between Hutton, Timmerman, parachute manufacturer Leslie Irvin, Harris and another airman, Lt. Frank B. Tyndal, it was decided to form a club that recorded the names of individuals whose lives had been saved making an emergency descent using a parachute.

NASM-9A16107

Milton H. St. Clair, parachute engineer and co-founder of the Caterpillar Club, points to a sign for Caterpillar farm tractors. Photograph – Smithsonian Collection NASM-9A16107

Parachute engineer and founding club member, Milton H St. Clair, came up with the idea of using the caterpillar as the club’s symbol after a discussion as how to best represent membership. He recalls,
“Not long after our conversation I received literature about the Caterpillar Tractor Company from a relative, showing the design of their advertisements that is a wavy streak with ‘Caterpillar’ written across its face. I immediately got in touch with Timmerman and Hutton, and suggested to them that the organisation be called ‘Caterpillar Club’ for several reasons, namely; the parachute mainsail and lines were woven from the finest silk. The lowly worm spins a cocoon, crawls out and flies away from certain death if it remains in sight of the cocoon. A better example of what a pilot or passenger should do in the case of an uncontrollable plane could not have better figurative depiction. Hutton and Timmerman gave enthusiastic support to this name.”

Two companies are usually associated with Caterpillar Club awards, Irvin and Switlik, although other parachute companies also used the symbol for brief periods of time. The pin featured here is an example awarded by the Irving Air Chute Company during WW2 for members of its Caterpillar Club European Division  and I will feature my Switlik pin in a future post.

The Irving Air Chute Company was formed by Leslie Irvin in Lexington Kentucky. A clerical error had resulted in the addition of a ‘G’ to Irvin’s name when the company was registered and this was amended to the Irvin Air Chute Company post WW2. In 1926 Leslie Irvin went to Great Britain where he established the Irving Air Chute of Great Britain Ltd at Letchworth, Garden City, Hertfordshire and as a result the European Division of the Caterpillar Club was formed.

Irvin’s Caterpillar Club European Division badge was originally made in 9ct gold (and later in gilt brass), is 20mm long and 4mm wide with ruby eyes. They were made by the jewellers, Mappin & Webb London. The badges produced in America were originally 10ct gold. The badge has a blank reverse upon which the recipient’s name is engraved behind the gold attachment pin. Many of the British made awards also feature a ‘9ct’ gold mark at the base. The pin was presented in a blue velvet lined presentation box, accompanied by a membership certificate and card.

Irvin Caterpillar Club pin presented to RAAF pilot Patrick George Heffernan O.B.E, A.F.C after he made an emergency descent on the 6th of November 1943. The pin measures 20mm long, 4mm wide, has ruby eyes and is engraved "G.C. P.G. HEFFERNAN" on the rear. Collection: Julian Tennant

WW2 period Irvin Caterpillar Club European Division pin presented to RAAF pilot Group Captain (later Air Commodore) Patrick George Heffernan O.B.E, A.F.C after he made an emergency descent on the 6th of November 1943. The pin measures 20mm long, 4mm wide, has ruby eyes and is engraved “G.C. P.G. HEFFERNAN” on the rear. Collection: Julian Tennant

The pin that I have in my collection was presented to Royal Australian Air Force pilot, Group Captain (later Air Commodore) Patrick George Heffernan O.B.E, A.F.C., who entered the Royal Military College, Duntroon in 1925 and in June 1929 went to the Air Force as a Pilot Officer. Heffernan had a long career which included qualifying as a RAAF parachutist in October 1930 and being awarded the Air Force Cross for his part in the rescue of RAF personnel from a Wellesley Bomber which had crashed in Western Australia in 1938. He was formally awarded his membership as no. 16000 of the Caterpillar Club European Division in February 1945 as the result of a training accident that occurred in November 1943.  He gives the following account of the jump that earned him membership of the Caterpillar Club in Bill Johnson’s book, Ripcord Australia.

“I joined the RAAF in 1929 and along with six other RAAF pilots we were sent to the UK in in 1943 to command various RAF squadrons, whose aircrew were predominantly Australian. Air Commodore DEL Wilson was to command RAF station Wyton, but after some operational flights he was shot down and became a POW. I was to command the Wellington OTU [27 Operational Training Unit RAF] where most of the Australians were crewed up. Wing Commander Balmer, Forsyth and McCormack were to command various squadrons.

I was taking part in a “Bullseye” which was a miniature bomber raid in which OTU crews took part before going on real ops. There were about 70 Wellingtons in this stream and were at 17000. Just as I was about to alter course over the last turning point, I looked down to reset the compass and as I looked up another Wellington appeared right in front of me and I skewered my aircraft on his port wing. I was knocked out and when I came too I found the aircraft in a steep dive as the controls had been jammed forward in the impact. Half the nose was ripped away and my bomb aimer had disappeared. I tried to contact the rest of the crew but the intercom was out and yelling down through the cabin door did not get any results, so I assumed that they, on possibly seeing me unconscious, had bailed out. I opened the top escape hatch and when I went to stand up, found that my right leg was broken. So, I hooked my finger in the loop of my flying boot and managed to kick my way out. I hit the mainplane and missed the tail. The chute opened OK and within a few seconds I hit the ground with a wallop.

It was a very dark night and after my eyes became used to the darkness I could see a white gate some 150 yards away, so thought I could crawl to it, but as soon as I put weight on my leg I passed out again. When I came to, I realised the futility of my attempts, so wrapped myself in the chute and tried to settle in for the night. It was now 22:30 on 6.11.1943. When it became daylight, I sat up and watched for any movement and about 08:00 I saw a chap riding a bike so yelled out and he came over. I told him my story and he went off to get an ambulance. He came back with a thermos of hot tea and a bottle of Red Label. I can assure you that a mix of 4 parts Red Label to 1 of tea was very welcome. The ambulance arrived and I went to Ely hospital where I remained for the next 14 months. It was found that I had broken my leg in 3 places, also had 3 broken ribs and a broken radius in my right arm. All these injuries were caused when the other chap’s wing came into the cockpit.

NOW, here’s the amazing part of the story. Usually in a Wellington the pilot wore a chute harness and the pack was stowed in the nose so when an emergency arose the bomb aimer passed the pack up. That night BOTH the other pilot and myself went to collect our chutes and were told they were being folded so BOTH of us asked for a seat type which we wore. In my case I would have had no chance of getting the pack because of my injuries and when the other aircraft broke away it went into an inverted spin, so that the moment the pilot released his aircraft harness, he was thrown out of the aircraft. Had he been wearing only a chute harness (no pack) he would have been a dead duck, but only damaged his knee on landing. So BOTH of us were very lucky, as we were the only survivors of both aircraft. Being in an inverted spin, his crew would have had little chance of getting out; I cannot understand why my crew failed to get out and can only assume that they were knocked out by the impact of the collision. The other pilot was Canadian and was not in the “Bullseye” but was doing a night cross country flight and his track crossed the “Bullseye” stream and that is why we almost hit at right angles.”

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England circa February 1945. Air Vice Marshal Wrigley at a luncheon at the Irvin Air Chute factory pinning a caterpillar pin on Group Captain P. G. Heffernan AFC, Royal Australian Air Force, as member number 16000 of the European Division of the Caterpillar Club. The delay between the date of the incident and presentation of the award is most likely because of Heffernan’s lengthy 14 month recovery in Ely hospital and helps to explain the presence of the walking stick. Australian War Memorial Image Accession Number: SUK13845

Patrick Heffernan, O.B.E., A.F.C continued to serve at various RAAF Headquarter establishments after the war and in 1953 was awarded an O.B.E. for his service. He retired as an Air Commodore on the 15th of September 1956 and died in 1994.

heffernan group-01

WW2 and 1950’s era RAAF pilot’s wings, Caterpillar Club badge and Returned From Active Service badge numbered AF 113893 belonging to 0318 Air Commodore Patrick George Heffernan O.B.E., A.F.C. Collection: Julian Tennant

Related: The Winged Boot

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Note that this site has NEW content posted every Sunday! If you like what you see here, please follow this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right. Knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to go through my archives and collection to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages