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.

A club member, Milton 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Irvin’s Caterpillar Club European Division badge was originally made in 9ct gold (and later in gilt brass), is 20mm long and 4mm wide with ruby eyes.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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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”.

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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

WW2 USN Submariner ‘Dolphins’ from an officer aboard USS Skipjack (SS-184)

USN Submariner badge, type 2, "deep wave" variation made by Hillborn & Hamburger Inc. and engraved "To Audrey from Sidney Kelf 11.25.42". Collection: Julian Tennant

USN Submariner badge, type 2, “deep wave” variation made by Hillborn & Hamburger Inc. and engraved “To Audrey from Sidney Kelf 11.25.42”. Collection: Julian Tennant

Another item from my collection this week. This time it is a WW2 USN “deep wave” type 2 Submariner badge made by Hillborn & Hamburger that I acquired from a family here in Australia. The badge originally belonged to Lieutenant Sidney Alfred Kelf who served aboard the Salmon class submarine, USS Slipjack (SS-184) in 1941 and 1942.

The badge came from the estate of Audrey Beryl Hughson an Australian who was given it as a keepsake by Kelf whilst he was stationed in Australia during WW2. The badge is engraved “To Audrey from Sidney Kelf 11.25.42” which indicates the engraving was done at the conclusion of the boat’s 5th war patrol which took Skipjack from the submarine base at Fremantle in Western Australia to Pearl Harbor.

USS Skipjack (SS-184) off Provincetown, Massachusetts during sea trials, 14 May 1938. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives.

USS Skipjack (SS-184) off Provincetown, Massachusetts during sea trials, 14 May 1938. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives.

USS Skipjack (SS-184) was laid down on 22 July 1936, launched 23 October 1937 and commissioned on 30 June 1938. It was one of the 29 submarines that formed the US Navy’s Asiatic Submarine Fleet that was based in Manila in the Philippines at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Skipjack left for her first war patrol off the east coast of Samar two days later. It ended on 14 January 1942 in Darwin, Australia and after 16 days in port, commenced her second patrol in the Celebes sea which concluded in March at the Fremantle base in Western Australia.

American Submarines at North Wharf, Fremantle, 1945. The ship in the background is submarine tender USS PELAIS, surrounded by her 'brood', which included the subs BONEFISH, RASHER, BOWFIN, BLUEFISH, NARWHAL, TINOSA, CREVALLE and COD. Photo: Family of RAN photographer, Saxon Fogarty

American Submarines at North Wharf, Fremantle, 1945. The ship in the background is submarine tender USS PELAIS, surrounded by her ‘brood’, which at that time included the subs BONEFISH, RASHER, BOWFIN, BLUEFISH, NARWHAL, TINOSA, CREVALLE and COD. Photo: Family of RAN photographer, Saxon Fogarty

On the 14th of April, under the command of Lt. Cdr. James Wiggins Coe, Skipjack left Fremantle for her third war patrol, this time in the South China Sea. The submarine had her first success on 6 May 1942 when it torpedoed and sank the Japanese transport ship Kanan Maru (2567 GRT) about 25 nautical miles north-east of Cam Ranh Bay, French Indochina. It followed this up on 8 May when it sank the Japanese transport ship Bujun Maru (4804 GRT) about 125 nautical miles east of Cam Ranh Bay and then the Japanese troop transport Tazan Maru (5477 GRT) near the Gulf of Siam on 17 May before returning to Fremantle on the 2nd of June.

On 18 July 1942, USS Skipjack left Fremantle for her 4th war patrol, this time in the Banda Sea and had her next victory when she torpedoed and damaged the Japanese fleet oil-tanker Hayatomo (14050 GRT) south-west of Ambon, Netherlands East Indies on 23 August. The patrol ended when she returned to Fremantle on 4 September.

I am not sure of when Sidney Kelf met Audrey or the circumstances of their meeting and the Audrey’s family could not provide me with any additional information about the relationship, but it would have occurred before Skipjack left for her 5th war patrol on 29 September 1942. Once again she was ordered to patrol in the Banda Sea, then work her way up north and end this war patrol at Pearl Harbor. On 14 October Skipjack had her next success sinking the Japanese transport ship Shunko Maru (6780 GRT) about 450 nautical miles west-south-west of Truk.

The Japanese Freighter S.S. Shunko Maru sinking in the central Pacific, after she was torpedoed by Skipjack (SS-184) on 14 October 1942. Photographed through Skipjack's periscope. Shunko Maru's back appears to be broken, and her hull bears traces of pattern camouflage paint. Photo: US National Archives # 80-G-33292

The Japanese Freighter S.S. Shunko Maru sinking in the central Pacific, after she was torpedoed by Skipjack (SS-184) on 14 October 1942. Photographed through Skipjack’s periscope. Shunko Maru’s back appears to be broken, and her hull bears traces of pattern camouflage paint. Photo: US National Archives # 80-G-33292

The submarine concluded her 5th war patrol in Pearl Harbor on 26 November 1942, before being ordered to Mare Island Navy Yard for an overhaul. It appears that Sidney Kelf did not accompany the submarine for refit to California but remained in Pearl Harbor and assigned to the Lapwing class Minesweeper,  USS Seagull (AM-30) which was reclassified as a Submarine tender.

USS Skipjack returned to Pearl Harbor after her overhaul and completed another 5 war patrols, sinking Japanese destroyer Suzukaze and transport ship Okitsu Maru on her 9th patrol and damaging the Japanese motor sail ship Tatsu Maru No.6 on her 10th and final patrol in November 1944. The submarine was then retired to training duties before being sunk during Test Baker, the second of two atomic bomb tests conducted at Bikini Atoll on 25 July 1946.

Insignia of USS Skipjack (SS-184) during WW2

Insignia of USS Skipjack (SS-184) during WW2

My research regarding the life and service of submariner, Lt. Sidney Alfred Kelf is far from complete and I do need to do a lot more research as my original records were lost when a computer hard-drive failed. I do know that he originally joined the navy as an enlisted man and was a Chief Torpedo-man before being commissioned. I also have a photograph of his grave headstone which indicates that he was born on May 8 1902, died October 31 1966 having served in the Navy in both World War 1 and 2.

USN submariner Kelf headstone

In addition to his submariner ‘dolphins’ badge, Sidney Kelf’s participation in two successful war patrols would have qualified him for the Submarine Combat Insignia with gold star. I am not sure what his medal entitlement is but as I intend to continue to research this individual, I’ll update this article as new information presents itself.

USN Submarine Combat Insignia qualification.

USN Submarine Combat Insignia qualification. This is one of two rare variations made by Sheridans of Perth to supply the submariners stationed at Fremantle during the war. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

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A rare WW2 Hungarian Paratrooper’s medal group

Medals, insignia, photographs and documents belonging to Hungarian paratrooper, Császár Vilmos. Collection: Julian Tennant

Medals, insignia, photographs and documents belonging to World War Two Hungarian paratrooper, Sergeant Császár Vilmos. Collection: Julian Tennant

Featured this week is a very nice medal group to a WWII Hungarian paratrooper that I hold in my collection.

The group belonged to Sergeant Császár Vilmos. I still know very little about him but have learned that he served in the 3rd Parachute Company in 1941 as Lance-Corporal, was later promoted to sergeant and survived the war. His medals give clues to his service, but I am still in the process of researching his story so cannot provide a more comprehensive overview of his service at this stage.

His medals include:
The Silver Medal of Courage (Magyar Nagy Ezűst Vitézségi Érem).
The Fire Cross with Wreath and Swords (Tűzkereszt koszorúval, kardokkal) which was awarded for 3 months service in the front line as a combatant.
The Six years Long Service Cross (Legénységi Szolgálati Jel III. Osztálya)
The Upper Hungary campaign medal (Felvidéki Emlékérem)
The Medal for the Liberation of Siebenbürgen (Transylvania) (Erdélyi Emlékérem) and
The Medal for the Recapture of South Hungary (Délvidéki Emlékérem)

Hopefully the Hungarian names for the medals is correct, I have found several different translated names for these medals and so am not 100% certain if my titles are right.

Also included in this group are his railway pass, bullion NCO’s parachutist wings, his extremely rare ‘Master’ parachutist badge which was awarded for 25 (perfect) jumps, plus several photographs of him in uniform and conducting parachute jumps.

Studio portrait of (Sergeant) Császár Vilmos wearing his medals, the distinctive silver bullion embroidered Hungarian parachutist wing for NCO's and the incredibly rare first class (sometimes referred to as the 'master') parachutist badge on the breast pocket. Collection: Julian Tennant

Studio portrait of (Sergeant) Császár Vilmos wearing his medals, the distinctive silver bullion embroidered Hungarian parachutist wing for NCO’s and the incredibly rare Master parachutist badge on the breast pocket. Collection: Julian Tennant

Sergeant Császár Vilmos' Railway booklet dated 26 Jan 1944. When the photograph for the pass was taken it appears that Sgt Császár Vilmos had only been awarded the Upper Hungary campaign medal (Felvidéki Emlékérem), the Medal for the Liberation of Siebenbürgen (Transylvania) (Erdélyi Emlékérem) and the Medal for the Recapture of South Hungary (Délvidéki Emlékérem). Collection: Julian Tennant

Sergeant Császár Vilmos’ Railway booklet dated 26 Jan 1944. When the photograph for the pass was taken it appears that Sgt Császár Vilmos had only been awarded the Upper Hungary campaign medal (Felvidéki Emlékérem), the Medal for the Liberation of Siebenbürgen (Transylvania) (Erdélyi Emlékérem) and the Medal for the Recapture of South Hungary (Délvidéki Emlékérem). He was subsequently awarded the ‘Fire Cross’ with wreath and swords reflecting at least 3 months in the front line as a combatant, the Silver Medal of Courage for bravery and  Six Year Long Service Cross. Collection: Julian Tennant

Studio portrait of (Sergeant) Császár Vilmos and female, possibly wife or sister? The photograph shows that his arm is in a sling, indicating a wound or injury so I am guessing that this photo was taken whilst on recovery leave. Note that Császár Vilmos is also wearing the bullion jump wing on the left side of his cap. Collection: Julian Tennant

Studio portrait of (Sergeant) Császár Vilmos and female, possibly wife or sister? The photograph shows that his arm is in a sling, indicating a wound or injury so I am guessing that this photo was taken whilst on recovery leave. Note that Császár Vilmos is also wearing the bullion NCO’s jump wing on the left side of his cap. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

I have not yet been able to discover much about Császár Vilmos. The presence of the Liberation of Siebenbürgen (Transylvania) (Erdélyi Emlékérem) medal, which was introduced on the 1st of October 1940 to commemorate the incorporation of Northern Transylvania into Hungary indicates that Császár Vilmos became a paratrooper early in the war and possibly a member of the Royal Hungarian 1st Honvéd Parachute Company, before it was expanded to a Battalion in 1941.

When the 1st Honvéd Parachute Battalion was formed, Császár Vilmos was posted to the 3rd Company. My knowledge of the operations undertaken by the Hungarian paratroopers is weak, so I am not sure about exactly where he fought although the inclusion of the Upper Hungary and Southern Hungary medals in the group provides clues for my continuing research. At this stage of my research I am still largely ignorant of the qualification requirements for these medals and what role Hungarian paratroopers may have carried out in those operations. Hungarian researcher and historian, David Kiss, has written a very informative English-language article about the early history of Hungarian paratroopers which details some of the operations they were involved in, but I am still trying to ‘connect the dots’ between the historical records and the service of this soldier. However as new information comes to light I’ll continue to update this post to reflect a more complete record of  Császár Vilmos military career.

 

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The Mysterious Vietnam War Mary Poppins Platoon HAHO Parachutist Badge

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Mary Poppins Platoon Combat Qualification Gold Wing with the ARVN Jump Status Indicator for comparison. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

This “Mary Poppins Platoon Combat Qualification” parachutist badge (left) is one of the more interesting unofficial/novelty airborne badges in my collection.

Two variations of the badge are known to exist. A silver badge, described as the ‘basic’ wing and a second type with a point at the apex of the umbrella plus a gold wing which is referred to as the MPP Combat Qualification Gold Wing. As can be seen in the picture it’s design draws heavily on the ARVN Jump Status Indicator insignia which was worn by members Vietnamese Airborne personnel who were on jump status. The umbrella canopy may reference the pocket badge worn by the French Indochina period 1st Indochinese Parachute Company (1er Compagnie Indochinoise Parachutiste – 1 CIP) or it may be a reference to the French slang term le pépin, which means either parachute or umbrella.

Two of the first Vietnamese parachutist units. Top: French (Drago) manufactured miniature badge for the 1st Indochinese Parachute Company (1er Compagnie Indochinoise Parachutiste - 1 CIP) which existed between 1947 and 1951. Like the Mary Poppins Platoon insignia, this badge also features an umbrella in place of the parachute. Whether the connection between the two is intentional or coincidental is unknown. Bottom: Local made badge fo the Escadron Parachutiste de la Garde Cochinchine which was raised in Hanoi in 1949. Both these units became part of the nucleus of the newly formed 1st Vietnamese Parachute Battalion (1 BPVN) on the 1st of August 1951. Collection: Julian Tennant

Two of the first Vietnamese parachutist units. Top: French (Drago) manufactured miniature badge for the 1st Indochinese Parachute Company (1er Compagnie Indochinoise Parachutiste – 1 CIP) which existed between 1947 and 1951. Like the Mary Poppins Platoon insignia, this badge also features an umbrella in place of the parachute. It is unknown whether the connection between the two badges is intentional or coincidental. Bottom: Local made badge for the Escadron Parachutiste de la Garde Cochinchine, raised in Hanoi in 1949. Both these units became part of the nucleus of the 1st Vietnamese Parachute Battalion (1 BPVN) in August 1951. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

It may be that this link to the Indochina era 1 CIP is purely coincidental and the umbrella symbolism refers directly to the fictional character of Mary Poppins as described in COMBAT Magazine’s Mil Terms dictionary, which also includes a picture of the badge and states,

“MARY POPPINS : by reference to the children’s nanny who was possessed of magical powers, which were best exemplified for High-Altitude High-Opening (HAHO) parachuting by her use of an umbrella to descend back to earth after whirling around in the atmosphere. Introduced in 1934 by P.L. Travers, this FICTIONAL CHARACTER could not only slide up banisters, but could walk into a picture, understand what dogs are saying, and travel around the world in seconds. Julie Andrews played the part of this nanny in the 1964 namesake film, which was shown to troops in Vietnam. An informal (and very unofficial) skill badge depicting this nanny with her deployed umbrella was adopted during the Vietnam-era as a sardonic symbol of High-Altitude High-Opening (HAHO) parachuting.”

I am not sure of the original source of information for that definition and I wonder if the MilTerms dictionary piece is somehow linked to the story ‘behind’ the “Mary Poppins Platoon” insignia that was originally published in the Vietnam War Veterans Trivia Newsletter Vol. 1 No.2.

That account relates a somewhat amusing and far-fetched tale which is too incredulous to be taken seriously or believed. It attributes the badge to a combined ARVN Ranger and MACV airborne forces “Mary Poppins Platoon.”

The article, which is shown below, describes the adventures of Sergeant Nguyen Van “Stosh” Kozlowski, a Eurasian soldier of mixed Vietnamese and Slavic heritage, serving in the 32nd Battalion of the 5th ARVN Ranger Group who, after a heavy night drinking is deployed on a HALO mission into North Vietnam. Hung over and with his brain still muddled by alcohol he, inadvertently deploys his parachute immediately after exiting the aircraft and rides the canopy all the way back to III Corps and to cut a long story short becomes one of the founding fathers of the High Altitude High Opening (HAHO) concept. Promoted to captain, the now Dai Uy Kozlowski is tasked with building the “Mary Poppins Platoon” of HAHO parachutists which goes on to have a somewhat interesting combat record plagued by mishap and misadventure.

Mary Poppins VN newsletter

The article published in the Vietnam War Veterans Trivia Newsletter and also in ‘Chute & Dagger’. Based on some of the statements, it seems clear that it was intended as a joke and not to be taken seriously and so I suspect that it does not accurately explain who made the badges or why.

 

The newsletter article was definitely written to entertain rather than as an accurate historical record of a real unit and I suspect that this insignia could simply be a novelty item rather than an actual parachutist ‘qualification’.  But, I also wonder what the real story behind the badge is. Maybe there is a connection to High-Altitude military parachuting in Vietnam, but if so, who had them made? Why? And who were they given to?

 

Myanmar/Burmese KNLA Insurgent Army patch

KNLA-patch LR

Myanmar / Burma: Printed shoulder patch of the Karen National Liberation Army.

One of my collecting interests are the insignia worn by various insurgent groups and guerilla armies. Burma/Myanmar is a country of particular interest to me, so I was quite excited to obtain this printed Karen National Liberation Army patch recently. This printed patch appears to be one of several different variations that are used by the KNLA.

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General Baw Kyaw Heh, Vice Chief-of-Staff of the Karen National Liberation Army wearing a variation of the KNLA shoulder patch.

The Karen National Liberation Army (Burmese: ကရင်အမျိုးသား လွတ်မြောက်ရေး တပ်မတော်; abbreviated KNLA) is the military branch of the Karen National Union (KNU), which had been fighting the Burmese/Myanmar Government for the self-determination of the Karen people since 1949 until signing a ceasefire agreement with the government in January 2012.

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An officer of the KNLA in dress uniform displaying another variation of the KNLA shoulder patch.

The KNLA was reported to have had a strength of roughly 6,000 soldiers in 2012 and according to the Karen National Union website,

‘The KNLA has seven brigades and three headquarters battalions. Brigades are comprised of up to five battalions, each of which has four companies, each of which in turn has three platoons. The KNLA also has 3 main branches, General Staff Office, Adjutant General Office, and Quartermaster Office.

The mission of the KNLA from its foundation through to the present day is solely as a self-defense force for the Karen people and the organisation, since without such a defense force the Karen would likely be eradicated. The KNLA has no aspirations other than to safeguard and guarantee the safety of the Karen people and to support the organisation in their stand for political dialogue. Karen self-defense requirements include countering Burma Army aggression; to ban narcotics; to provide village security; and to provide security for humanitarian relief missions.’   (http://www.knuhq.org/about/defense-department/)

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KNLA soldier wearing an embroidered variation of the shoulder patch.

 

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The Winged Boot

SAAF cap badge & winged boot award

SAAF cap badge and Winged Boot award

A little while back I was fortunate enough to get hold of a couple of badges that an Australian soldier brought back on a ‘badge belt’ which he had put together whilst serving in the Western Desert campaign during World War 2. The two badges are a South African Air Force cap badge and a rare sand-cast ‘Winged Boot’ badge, which I believe is  related to the SAAF badge.

The ‘Winged Boot’ award was an official award, presented by the Late Arrivals Club which originated amongst members of the South African Air Force members of the RAF Western Desert Group in June 1941. The award was presented to servicemen whose aircraft had crashed or been shot down behind enemy lines and had to walk back to the Allied forces. The badge was sand cast and included varying amounts of silver content. This particular badge appears to me, to be mainly brass, but it’s provenance makes it undoubtedly original.

Winged boot RAF 38 Sqn Pilot at Shallufa Eygpt early 1942

RAF pilot from No. 38 Squadron wearing a “Winged Boot” award whilst stationed at Shallufa, Egypt, in early 1942.

The award badge was presented along with a certificate, which contained the motto, “It is never too late to come back” was to be worn on the pleat of the left pocket, just below the flap.   Whilst predominantly a commonwealth award, it was also adopted by some US servicemen (utilising a bullion variation of the design), primarily in the European and CBI theatres.

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Late Arrivals Club Certificate – Image courtesy of Alex Bateman

There is also a short news clip about the Late Arrivals Club showing both the badge and certificate which can also be seen on the Pathe News site.

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