An Australian souvenir from Operation CRIMP, South Vietnam, January 1966.

A selection of items related to the initial deployment of 1RAR to South Vietnam from May 1965 until April 1966 when they were attached to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate). The WW2 era Australian Military Forces lighter which has been modified with the addition of the enameled 173 Abn and Viet Cong badges was issued to Corporal Lex McAulay, who was with 1RAR during this time. Collection: Julian Tennant

A selection of items related to the initial deployment of 1RAR to South Vietnam during the period from May 1965 until April 1966 when they were attached to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate). The WW2 era Australian Military Forces lighter which has been modified with the addition of the enameled 17rd Airborne and Viet Cong badges was issued to Corporal Lex McAulay, who was serving as a linguist with 1RAR during this time. Collection: Julian Tennant

One of my collecting interests is Australian cigarette lighters from the Vietnam War. In recent years I have tended to reduce my focus to (predominantly) Zippo lighters related to the Australian Special Forces units and the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV). However, I do still collect some that are from other units or have interesting provenance. This Australian Army issue lighter, which I obtained from noted military author and historian, Lex McAulay OAM, is one of those unique objects that makes collecting interesting.

Personalised WW2 period Australian Military Forces issue lighter carried Corporal Lex McAulay during his first tour of Vietnam with 1RAR in 1965. Collection: Julian Tennant

Personalised WW2 period Department of Defence issue Mark III  lighter carried by Corporal Lex McAulay during his first tour of Vietnam with the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment in 1965-66. Collection: Julian Tennant

The marking’s on the lighter’s base indicate that it is the Department of Defence issue Mark III, which was one of the 96,000 made by the munitions factory in Footscray, Victoria, just before the end of WW2, in July 1945. These lighters continued to be issued to Australian servicemen for several years, including during the war in Vietnam. This personalised example is one of two lighters that I acquired from Lex, the other being a Korean copy of a Zippo (also shown below) which he picked up in Saigon during one of his later tours.

Bien Hoa, Vietnam. 1965-09. Two bare-chested Australians Corporal Lex McAulay (left) of Innisfail, Qld, and Corporal John Henderson of Macquarie Fields, NSW, inspect an Armalite rifle at the headquarters of the 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR). Photograph: Bryan Dunne. Australian War Memorial Accession Number DNE/65/0335A/VN

Bien Hoa, Vietnam. 1965-09. Two bare-chested Australians Corporal Lex McAulay (left) of Innisfail, Qld, and Corporal John Henderson of Macquarie Fields, NSW, inspect an Armalite rifle at the headquarters of the 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR). Photograph: Bryan Dunne. Australian War Memorial Accession Number DNE/65/0335A/VN

Lex McAulay joined the Australian Regular Army in June 1960 and trained as an infantryman. In 1962 he volunteered for language aptitude testing and was subsequently accepted to the RAAF School of Languages, where after completing a year-long Vietnamese language course, qualified as a Vietnamese linguist. Lex was subsequently posted to the 4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment but when Australia committed ground combat troops to South Vietnam in April 1965, he was immediately transferred to the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR).

The battalion departed Australia in May 1965 and upon arrival in Vietnam was attached (as a third battalion) to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) which was based at the Bien Hoa Airbase 25km North East of Saigon. 1RAR was initially restricted to operations protecting the airbase until, in September 1965, the Australian Government lifted these restrictions and the battalion was expanded to a battalion-group, with the addition of supporting artillery, engineers, aviation, medical and logistic elements. The battalion-group now began to undertake operations in the Viet Cong dominated areas of War Zones C, D and the Iron Triangle.

The battalion performed extremely well on operations with the American Brigade, most notably during Operation CRIMP in January 1966, when the Australians breached the extensive Cu Chi tunnel network. This operation is described in detail in the book, First to Fight, by Bob Breen and is also the main theme of Lex McAulay’s book, Blue Lanyard Red Banner. The US military policy of the time was to destroy tunnels and bunkers, but the Australian engineers of 3 Field Troop RAE began searching them, capturing large stocks of food, weapons, equipment and documents. It was during one of the tunnel clearances that the Viet Cong lapel badge that is attached to the lighter was discovered and in a note that Lex sent to me with the lighter, outlining its provenance, he writes,

During the operation, a small box, about the size of an old matchbox, was found in one of the tunnels being investigated by 1RAR soldiers. The matchbox was filled with these Vietcong badges. Corporal McAulay was the only linguist available to 1RAR for this operation and was responsible for sorting and sending back all captured items. His unofficial but personal policy was to send items of intelligence value back to higher headquarters but return everything else to the capturing sub-unit for use as souvenirs and keep the soldiers motivated to send captured items to him or other members of the battalion intelligence section.

McAulay goes on to note that he kept one badge and returned the rest to the platoon. The text on the Vietcong badge is: Mặt trận Dân tộc Giải phóng miền Nam Việt Nam which translates as South Vietnam People’s Liberation Front. The 173rd Airborne Brigade badge was acquired and attached by Lex sometime after the operation.

Viet Cong badge held in the Australian War Memorial collection of the same type to that affixed to Lex McAulay's lighter. The badge consists of a white enamel oval shape with 'MAI DAN TOC GIAI PHONG' written in raised brass lettering. In the top right of the badge is the Viet Cong flag, red over blue with a central yellow star in enamel. At the bottom of the badge is a red enamelled scroll with 'MIEN NAM VIET NAM' written in raised brass lettering. On the reverse of the badge is a pin and catch threaded into a small brass tube which has then been soldered onto the badge. This particular example was given to 213419 Lieutenant Alan George Hutchinson, a Royal Australian Artillery Forward Observer attached to the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1 RAR) during Operation Crimp in January 1965. Is it possible that this badge came from the same matchbox of badges given to Lex McCaulay during the operation? Australian War Memorial Accession Number REL38058

Viet Cong badge held in the Australian War Memorial collection of the same type to that is affixed to Lex McAulay’s lighter. The badge consists of a white enamel oval shape with ‘MAI DAN TOC GIAI PHONG’ written in raised brass lettering. In the top right of the badge is the Viet Cong flag, red over blue with a central yellow star in enamel. At the bottom of the badge is a red enamelled scroll with ‘MIEN NAM VIET NAM’ written in raised brass lettering. On the reverse of the badge is a pin and catch threaded into a small brass tube which has then been soldered onto the badge. This particular example was given to 213419 Lieutenant Alan George Hutchinson, a Royal Australian Artillery Forward Observer attached to the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1 RAR) during Operation CRIMP in January 1965. Is it possible that this badge came from the same box of badges given to Corporal Lex McAulay during the same operation? Australian War Memorial Accession Number REL38058

Corporal Lex McAulay, of 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR), holds the hand of an old man as he leads him to safety after a village had been cleared of the Viet Cong. Photograph: Michael Shannon. Australian War Memorial Accession Number SHA/65/0220/VN

Corporal Lex McAulay, of 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR), holds the hand of an old man as he leads him to safety after a village had been cleared of the Viet Cong. Photograph: Michael Shannon. Australian War Memorial Accession Number SHA/65/0220/VN

Whilst Operation CRIMP failed to achieve its objective of destroying the Communist Committee Headquarters that controlled all Viet Cong activity in the Capital Military District, the performance of the Australians in entering the tunnels, capturing valuable resources and intelligence information, led to a change in American policies and subsequently all American units throughout Vietnam were ordered to enter and clear tunnels before destroying them. The operation also highlighted the differences in doctrine and tactical principles between the Australians, who had brought years of counter-insurgency experience from Malaya with them and the Americans whose strategy was one of attrition, with ‘body counts’ being their measure of success. In 1966 as the allied build up in Vietnam grew, the Australian units were placed under direct Australian operational command with the formation of the 1st Australian Task Force in April 1966.

After completing a 12 month stint in Vietnam with 1RAR, Lex McAulay returned to Australia in 1966 and helped to set up a short colloquial Vietnamese course in Sydney. In late 1967, Lex went back to Vietnam as a staff member of the Military Attaché at the Australian Embassy in Saigon, returning in 1968. His final tour of duty in Vietnam was in 1970 where he eventually took charge of the Interrogation and Document Translation Section of the Australian field HQ. It was in Saigon during one of these later tours that he acquired the other lighter I acquired from him, a Korean ‘My-Lite’ copy of a Zippo lighter which features a Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) badge on one side and the US Vietnam Service medal on the other.

Korean 'My-Lite' copy of the Zippo lighter which Lex McAulay bought in Saigon during one of his later deployments to Vietnam. Collection: Julian Tennant

Korean ‘My-Lite’ copy of the Zippo lighter which Lex McAulay bought in Saigon during one of his later deployments to Vietnam. Collection: Julian Tennant

Lex completed his third deployment to Vietnam in April 1971 and was preparing for a fourth tour when the Australian commitment ended. He remained in the Army until his retirement in 1982 and has subsequently authored several books related to military history as well as managing Banner Books, which specialises in Australian aviation and military studies. In 2007 Lex was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for services to literature and as a military historian.

_____________________________________________________

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.

_____________________________________________________

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

 

Australian Airborne Insignia #2. The 6RAR Parachute Company Group

6RAR Para Coy Gp. Exercise Distant Bridge - Painting by K. Wenzel, commissioned by Lt Col. A.L. Mattay and presented to the Battalion.

“Exercise Distant Bridge” – Painting by Ken Wenzel  and presented to 6RAR by Lt Col. A.L. Mattay, who was CO from January 1980 until December 1981. Exercise Distant Bridge was the first deployment by the 6RAR Para Coy Gp and the largest tactical air drop in Australia since WW2.

In 1974, the Brisbane based 6th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR) under the command of Lt Col Tony Hammett took on an unofficial parachute role. At this time Australia had a special forces capability in the Special Air Service Regiment and the reservist Commando Companies, but no conventional airborne unit outside of the Airborne Platoon attached to the Parachute Training School. Hammett, who had been parachute qualified since 1959 encouraged soldiers of his battalion to undertake parachute training, but once qualified, they remained spread throughout the battalion. There were attempts in 1977 and 1978 to gain official parachute status but these were resisted until early in 1980 when the Enoggera based 6 Task Force was given approval to raise an airborne group based around an infantry rifle company.

Beret badges of 6RAR Para Coy Gp

Royal Australian Regiment (RAR) and the unofficial beret badge of the 6RAR Parachute Company Group. Approximately 150 of the unofficial beret badges were produced and presented to members of the company, but were never worn. The badge is die-struck with two clutch grip attachments and has a small ‘TAIWAN’ hallmark on the rear. Collection: Julian Tennant

Delta Company, 6RAR, which had achieved fame for its performance in the Battle of Long Tan in 1966, was selected for the task. Whilst remaining as Delta Company, it was now also officially called the 6RAR Parachute Company Group and by February 1981 had reached its target strength of 180 men. Shortly thereafter, on the 10th of April 1981, four C-130H Hercules aircraft from No. 36 Squadron flew 162 paratroopers from the company group 1600 kilometers from Amberley in Queensland to a DZ at an old WW2 airfield near Ross in Tasmania for Exercise DISTANT BRIDGE. This marked the the unit’s first full-scale deployment as an airborne force and the largest Australian tactical parachute drop since WW2.

Aust basic para pre 1998

Australian parachutist wings for summer (top) and winter dress (bottom) as worn by members of the 6RAR Parachute Company Group. Collection: Julian Tennant

Apart from the standard Australian Army parachutist badge, the paratroopers of the 6RAR Para Coy Gp did not wear any officially authorised insignia to distinguish the unit from other formations. However, the 2IC of the unit, Captain Richard ‘Dick’ Arnel did have insignia produced with the intention of having the design recognised as the official unit badge. The badge, featuring an upright SLR bayonet on a parachute with outstretched wings, over a scroll with the words “6RAR PRCHT COY GP” was produced as beret and collar badges, cuff links, tiepins, challenge coins as well as sports patches. About 150 sets of the beret and collar badges were made and issued to members of D Coy 6RAR but they were never worn. The cloth sports patches, which were made locally within Australia appear to have had production continued long after the demise of the unit and can still be found for sale in surplus stores and other retail outlets.

6RAR Para Coy Gp patch 3

Track suit / sports uniform patches of the 6RAR Parachute Company Group. The patch on the left, which has been removed from a uniform appears to be a modified variation of the patch on the right. I am not sure why the original owner may have carried out this modification. Collection: Julian Tennant

The raising of the 6RAR Parachute Company Group signaled the start of a standing conventional airborne capability for the Australian Army and led to formation of the larger battalion sized group when, in October 1983, the 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR) was designated a ‘Parachute Infantry Battalion’. Members of the 6RAR Para Coy Gp made one final jump near Amberley in Queensland before handing over the role and 3RAR formerly assumed the parachute role on the 1st of December 1983. 3RAR maintained the capability until 26th of August 2011, when it relinquished its airborne status and reverted to the role of a standard infantry battalion. Australia no longer has any conventional airborne units.

6RAR Para Coy Gp tie clip

Tie-clip made for members of the 6RAR Parachute Company Group. Collection: Julian Tennant

_____________________________________________________

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 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.

_____________________________________________________

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.

caterpillarclubmetalartsco.jpg

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

DDA3ACADE7CD2_001.jpg

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.

_____________________________________________________

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.”

3996518

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

_____________________________________________________

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

Australian Airborne Insignia #1 – Airborne Platoon?

Aust Para PTF patch

As yet to be positively identified Australian Airborne patch. The design is printed on calico / linen material, reminiscent of the patches sometimes used by Australian and Commonwealth units in the 1950’s.

This is the first of an ongoing series of articles which will take a closer look at some of the insignia used by the Airborne and Special Operations units of the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

This week, my thoughts on a couple of mystery Australian Airborne patches which have not yet been positively identified. I suspect that both of the badges featured have a connection to the platoon of qualified parachutists, known as Airborne Platoon, that has been attached to the Australian parachute training units since the 1950’s.

Airborne Platoon has been an integral part of the parachute training activities carried out within the Australian Defence Force since 1951. The platoon formation was promulgated in Military Board Instruction 145 of 21 September 1951 and states,

“Establish in the Australian Military Forces a mobile group capable of providing Army, inter-service and public duties in the following fields.

  1. Land/Air Warfare tactical research and development;
  2. Demonstrations to assist Land/Air Warfare training and security;
  3. Airborne fire fighting
  4. Airborne search and rescue;
  5. Aid to the civil power – national catastrophes.

Method: By regular attachment of a rifle platoon from the Royal Australian Regiment to the component of the School of Land/Air Warfare. Platoon to be relieved annually.”

In subsequent years the role and tasks performed by the Airborne Platoon has evolved and today its function is different to that originally outlined above. Soldiers from Airborne Platoon, which number around 20, assist with various training activities conducted at the Parachute Training School (PTS). Colloquially known as ‘stooging’ these include providing sticks of qualified parachutists for trainees to use during advanced courses for example the stick commander’s course as well as demonstrating techniques, operating simulators and training equipment etc.

airborne platoon pts

Airborne Platoon 1963. Note the unit crest with the words “AIRBORNE PLATOON” superimposed on the boomerang. Unfortunately I have been unable to ascertain the exact colours used for the crest, however I suspect it may consist of a white parachute, pale blue wings, red brown kangaroo and yellow boomerang. The members of the platoon when this photograph was taken in 1963 are as follows:  Back row L-R – John Clarke, Frank Carroll, Charlie Liddell, Wayne Blank KIA in Vietnam , Mick Caroll DCM in Vietnam, Tom Davidson, Alex McCloskey DCM in Vietnam, Jimmy Acorn, “Smudger” Smith Centre L-R -Ted Harrison, Bernie Considine, John Burling, Peter Wilkes DCM in Vietnam, John Mulby, Rob Perry, John Durrington KIA in Vietnam, Roy Cladingbole, Ron Gilchrist, Sitting Front L-R – Brice French, Bob Mossman, Maurice Barwick, Dick Collins, Bill Jenkinson, Lou Langabeer

Members of the platoon wear the maroon beret and wing type for which they are qualified, but my research, thus far, does not indicate the use of any other authorised uniform insignia. However, photographs of the platoon show that the platoon displayed a distinctive unit crest for official photographs and also at the platoon lines on base. The crest features a stylised version of the Australian parachute qualification with white parachute and blue wings, surmounted by a red/brown kangaroo above a boomerang. Photographs from the 1950’s and 60’s show the boomerang featuring the words “AIRBORNE PLATOON” but by the 1970’s this had evolved to include the words “ROYAL AUSTRALIAN REGIMENT”.

zoom_airborne-platoon

Airborne Platoon photograph showing members of the unit in 1973. Note the change to the unit crest including the replacement of the words “AIRBORNE PLATOON” on the boomerang with “ROYAL AUSTRALIAN REGIMENT”

airborne platoon pts 1

Two members of Airborne Platoon by their unit crest displayed at their lines during the 1970’s.

The use of this crest could provide clues to a couple of unusual Australian military parachutist insignia that are known to exist but have not yet been formally identified. The first is a printed calico badge (shown at the top of the page) of the type used for shoulder patches by Australian Commonwealth Military Forces during the 1950’s and 60’s.

The second badge which I hold in my collection also incorporates the same design elements. The manufacturing style and weave of this badge indicates that it dates from the 1960’s and possibly made by the ACE Novelty Company in Japan. There are differences in scale, shape of the various design elements and colours when compared to the later RAR Airborne Platoon insignia. However, the symbolism used in both the badges and the Airborne Platoon crests leads me to suspect that both these two insignia may both have been made for and used by the Airborne Platoon in the first couple of decades of its existence.

Unidentified Australian parachute patch. Because of the symbolism used here and also with the early Airborne Platoon crest, I wonder if this badge may have been used unofficially on sports wear, jumpsuits etc by members of the Airborne Platoon at some point from the late 50's through 1960's? I don't know the answer and any additional information is welcomed. Collection: Julian Tennant

Unidentified Australian parachute patch. Because of the symbolism used here and also with the early Airborne Platoon crest, I wonder if this badge may have been used unofficially on sports wear, jumpsuits etc by members of the Airborne Platoon at some point from the late 50’s through 1960’s? I don’t know the answer and any additional information is welcomed. Collection: Julian Tennant

At this stage these observations are my own and unsubstantiated by any verifiable evidence that I am aware of. If anybody can provide any more information about either of the badges (or has an example of the printed calico patch for sale or trade), I would welcome your input and any additional information, so please contact me if you can help.

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