A Spanish Civil War Era Parachute Rigger Wing

Original Spanish Civil War period Republican parachute badge. Collection: Julian Tennant

Original Spanish Civil War period Republican parachute badge. Collection: Julian Tennant

One of the rarest of parachute badges is that of the Republican Spanish from the Civil War” is how authors Bob Bragg and Roy Turner described this wing which is identified as #297 from their first volume on the subject of airborne qualification brevets, Parachute Badges and Insignia of the World.

Very little is known about Spanish Republican paratroopers, with some researchers denying their existence altogether. However, both the Bragg & Turner and Gregory & Batchelor’s Airborne Warfare 1918-1945 books state that in 1938 Russian instructors trained a platoon of Republican parachutists at Las Rosas near Madrid. However, no record exists showing that these paratroopers ever made an operational jump, nor any evidence to suggest that they were awarded a qualification badge.

There was however an official Republican military parachute insignia which is believed to represent qualified parachute riggers and it is likely that is the correct identification for the wing being discussed.

The badge shown above, which is held in my collection, is one of only a few authentic examples from the period still known to exist. It is a multi-piece, silver-washed brass and enamel badge that incorporates an existing aviator insignia with a separate parachute device that has been cut and shaped, attached over the top of the red enameled shield. The red enameled star has also been separately attached to the top of the badge.

The Republican Government authorised this insignia design via an order dated 26 February 1937 and recorded shortly thereafter in the Republic Gazette – Gaceta de la Republica 62 of 3 March 1937, on page 7104.  The insignia described in the Gazette reads as simply “Parachute. A deployed parachute embroidered in gold” (Paracaídas. Un paracaídas desplegado bordado en oro.)

Page from Gaceta de la Republica 62 - 3 March 1937

Gaceta de la Republica 62 – 3 March 1937 outlining the approval for a Parachute badge.

The inclusion of the word Paracaídas or parachute instead of Paracaidistas (parachutists) or Tropas Paracaidistas (paratroopers) plus its position within the gazette being listed along with other specialist insignia such as armourer, driver-mechanic and photographer also implies that this is more likely a parachute rigger trade badge rather than a paratrooper qualification wing.

Some years ago, noted Spanish parachute insignia collector, Manuel Gomez and a colleague produced a limited edition reproduction of the badge using parts of two original manufacturing dies that had been uncovered at a military regalia suppliers shop in the town of Alcala de Henares, which was home to a Republican airfield during the war. One die was for the Spanish Air Force wing and the other for a smaller parachute device, which is of a slightly different design and size to that on my civil-war period example. Both dies were incomplete with only the front faces being found, so as a result these reproductions were cast and a unique serial number engraved on the rear. Two hundred examples were produced and sold to collectors with an accompanying certificate.

REPRODUCTION Spanish Civil War Republican parachute badge

REPRODUCTION Spanish Civil War Republican parachute badge made from parts of original dies. 200 wings were cast and each is engraved with a unique number that matches the accompanying certificate. This example is number 111. Collection: Manuel Gomez

In addition to Manuel’s numbered reproduction, a number of other copies of this rare badge have also been made for the collector market. Some examples of which can be seen in the photos below.

Very little has been written about this insignia and I have not been able to find any further documentation regarding the requirements for qualification, how many were issued or what the original embroidered variation actually looked like. If you can help fill the gaps and have additional information, please contact me as I would love to find out more about the insignia and also this largely unexplored period in the early history of military parachuting.

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Vietnam War era Parachute club patches

juleswings viet para clubs and wings-01

Collection: Julian Tennant

During the Vietnam war there was at least two sport parachuting clubs operating in South Vietnam although I have patches in my collection that indicates there may have been as many as three. Detailed information about the histories of these clubs appears to be quite scant although two of the three are mentioned in various accounts and the crossover is such that I wonder if they may in fact be exactly the same group of skydivers, just jumping under two different club names? But if that were the case why the different patches?

 

Viet-Nam Parachute Club Nhay Du

Viet-nam para club-01

Viet-Nam Parachute Club Nhay Du patch. Two versions of this patch are known to exist, along with a smaller metal ‘beer-can’ insignia. Collection: Julian Tennant

The Viet-Nam Parachute Club Nhay Du  was co-located with the Vietnamese Airborne Division HQ at Tan Son Nhut airbase. The club had a mix of Allied and Vietnamese members, with most of the latter coming from the Airborne School staff who sometimes used the opportunity for free-fall descents to qualify for the higher-grade parachute monitor wings.  Thom Lyons a long time skydiver, served with the USAF in Vietnam and recounted his experiences jumping with the club during his tour of duty in 1966-67. He recalled that after “Charles” had made jumping difficult at the old DZ“, jumps were done on the military DZ at Ap Dong, which was used by the Vietnamese Airborne school. 

camo

Thom Lyons’ Vietnam Parachute Club Nhay Du and Parachute Club of America membership cards along with his Vietnamese parachutist wings which he earned whilst jumping with the club. Photo: Thomas Lyons

 

The Saigon Sport Parachute Club

Saigon sports parachute club-01

Saigon Sport Parachute Club patch. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

Thom Lyons also jumped with the Saigon Sport Parachute Club (SSPC), which used the same DZ at Ap Dong. Thom recalls,

I was in a group of crazies in 1966-67 called the Saigon Sport Parachute Club jumping at Ap Dong. We used H-34’s which is strange cause when you spot you can yell “5 BACK!”.

The first incident was a 10,000 footer and at about 4000′ I noticed that the DZ was being shelled!!! I seriously wondered if it was worth it to open at all or just get it over with, but I wasn’t that young or that stupid.

Next was a few weeks later when the crew chief ordered everyone out for some reason. We were down wind over a jungle canopy to the east of the DZ and no way could we get back. I spotted a small clearing maybe 25′ in diameter and started towards it with my 28′ cheapo. I had to work the target and put my M-45 Swedish 9mm sub-machine gun together at the same time. I land in the clearing, but the canopy was in the trees and I was dangling a foot or so off the ground. I heard people running towards me and I almost shot three kids who came after me to carry gear or whatever for money or cigarettes. They got my gear out of the tree and when I went to put some ripstop tape on some small tears from the tree, I found two small calibre bullet holes! Don’t know when I got them. Let’s say the experience was UNIQUE! The DZ was also had as rock so you either did an excellent PLF or stood it up which wasn’t often in that heat and humidity. AP DONG was also the DZ for the Vietnamese 2nd Airborne Division and there was a small triangular fort on the DZ. The chopper could land right next to the packing area, but we discouraged that for obvious reasons.

Every time we jumped, we were plagued by people trying to sell us everything from Coke-Cola to their daughters and these boys were all over who would field pack for you for a couple of cigarettes. Carry your gear back for another one.

The club had mostly Army in it, and a couple of Navy and Air Force but also some Aussies and American Civilians. The first CrossBow in Viet Nam didn’t get jumped more than a few times. An American civilian brought it in and did a hook turn into a tree trunk and the H-34 had to fly him to the 3rd field hospital which left us without a jump ship for several hours.

By the way, the H-34 was Viet in VNAF colors and we paid the pilots a (5th) bottle of Johnny Walker each to fly for us, the chopper was free. I didn’t drink so it was usually my ration for 5th’s that got used up.

After TET in 1968 the club couldn’t get the chopper anymore and the club folded, I’m told.

The club jumped every Sunday morning and had a mix of military and civilian members from Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and the USA. The club seems to be run on a shoestring budget, with Dan Bonfig, the President, Vice-President, Secretary, Treasurer and Chief Rigger who was working for the RMK-BRJ construction consortium based at 12 Thong Nhut, Saigon administering the club from his workplace. Unfortunately, he has passed away and I have not yet been able to find out any more information about the SSPC or its relationship to the Viet-Nam Parachute Club.  A lot of the anecdotal information that I have uncovered so far seems to cross over between the two clubs, hence my belief that there may be a direct connection between the two.

Saigon Parachute Club 1967 - Photo: Hector Aponte

Saigon Sports Parachute Club circa 1967. Photo: Hector Aponte

 

Cape St Jacques Skydivers VN

Cap Saint Jacques Para Club-01

Cape St Jacques Sky Divers VN patch. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

The club represented by this last patch is a complete mystery to me. Cap Saint-Jacques was the French Indochinese name for Vũng Tàu, which during the 2nd Indochina War was home to the 1st Australian Logistics Support Group as well as various US military units. It was also a popular in-country R&R destination during the war so it does seem logical that a skydiving club may have existed there. However, I cannot find any record of this club existing during the war and none of the Australian veterans I have asked about it have any recollection of a parachute club being located there. The spelling of Cap Saint-Jacques as Cape St-Jacques on the patch suggests to me that it is post French era and my best guess is that it may be an earlier club that had folded by the mid 1960’s when the military presence started to build up in the area, but this is speculation on my part.

If anybody can help provide more detail about any of these clubs, I would love to hear from you to help clarify the situation and record some more detail about their respective histories before they are lost forever.

 

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A Pre-1975 Transportes Aéreos de Timor Pilots wing

Whilst my collecting interests are focused around military insignia I occasionally find a piece that is impossible for me to resist. I stumbled across this Portuguese Timor era civilian airline pilot’s wing several years ago and it remains a favourite of mine. The small island of Timor-Leste had long been of interest to me due to the activities of the 2/2nd Independent (commando) Company on Timor during WW2. Then between 2000 and 2012 I was lucky to visit Timor on several occasions, which helped strengthen my affection for the country and it’s people. So, when I found this Transportes Aéreos de Timor pilot’s brevet I had to have it and if anybody can help me find any other insignia from this little known airline, I would love to hear from you.

Timor TAT pilot-100

Pre 1975 Transportes Aéreos de Timor Pilot wing. Brass and enamel multi-piece construction with rotating propeller. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

The Transportes Aéreos de Timor (TAT) was an airline of the Portuguese-Timor colony, based in Dili, which flew between 1954 and 1975, serving connections within Timor and neighbouring areas. In 1967 the TAT commenced flights between Baucau and Oecusse as well as between Baucau and Darwin (Australia) with two de Havilland D.H.104 Dove aircraft.

TAT hangar_Dili_Timor-Leste

Transportes Aéreos de Timor Dove at the front of a TAT hangar at Dili airport in the late 1960’s. Photographer: Unknown. Source: Arquivo Nacional (Brasil)

 

One of the TAT Doves is on display in the Darwin Aviation Museum after it was used to escape Timor during the Indonesian invasion in 1975. By 1969 the TAT provided services to Atauro, Baucau, Dili, Maliana, Manatuto, Oecusse and Suai, plus a weekly flight between Darwin to Baucau using a chartered Fokker F-27 from Trans Australia Airlines (TAA) flew the Darwin-Baucau route. In June 1973, the airline commenced twice weekly services to Indonesian Kupang in West Timor. Transportes Aéreos de Timor ceased to exist after the Indonesian invaded and occupied Timor on the 7th of December, 1975.

Transportes_Aereos_De_Timor_De_Havilland_DH-104_Dove_1B_Wheatley

Transportes Aéreos de Timor De Havilland DH-104 Dove 1B. CR-TAG (cn 04373) Outside the Hawker De Havilland hangar with a Bristol 170 in the background. This aircraft is now on static display at Aviation Heritage Centre in Darwin, having escaped the 1975 Indonesian invasion of East Timor. Photo: John M. Wheatley

The 6th (Franco) Laotian Commando Badge 1946 – 50

Laos 6 Franco Laotian Commando ser28-2

Badge of the 6ème Commando Laotien which, in January 1948, was redesignated the 6ème Commando Franco-Laotien. This example is number 28 of the original 600 numbered badges ordered from the Drago company in France and features their 25 R. Beranger address. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

The 6th Laotian Commando (6ème Commando Laotien) was created on 16 August 1946 to relieve the Bataillon de Marche du 5 (BM5) of the 5th Foreign Legion Infantry Regiment (5e REI), which had been based in the Sam Neau region of northeastern Laos since June 1946.  The unit’s initial strength was 34 European officers and NCOs, 151 enlisted troops and 50 auxiliary ‘partisans’. This was further reinforced by an additional 50 legionnaire volunteers. Administratively, the unit was attached to the Dien Bien Phu based Thai Autonomous Battalion (which would, the following year become the 1ere Bataillon Thai). In September 1946 the unit recruited a further 200 volunteers from the Sam Neau region and in October, along with the 6e Bataillon de Chasseurs Laotiens (6BCL) and Bataillon Thai formed part of Groupement QUILICHINI.

By early 1947, the Commando’s Sam Neua operational area covered 400km and the unit was under intense pressure from the Viet Minh. This led to a hasty recruiting campaign and in September 1947 a re-organisation of the unit, which according to the S&T book, Les Insignes Des Forces Armees Au Laos, was divided into;

A Company consisting of 2 regular commando sections, 1 section of auxiliary ‘suppletif’ troops and 1 section of ‘partisans’;

B Company consisting of 3 regular commando sections and 1 section of auxiliary ‘suppletif’ troops;

C Company consisting of 2 regular commando sections and 1 section of auxiliary ‘suppletif’ troops;

60th Partisan Company consisting of 3 sections of partisans;

61st Partisan Company consisting of 1 regular commando section and 3 partisan sections.

The terms ‘partisan’ and ‘suppletif’ both refer to auxiliary indigenous troops that are not part of the ‘regular’ forces. Most researchers and historians use the terms interchangeably as it is generally believed that the descriptor reflects a time period when it was in use. In reference to the Laotian context, the term ‘Partisans’ was first used in 1945 then replaced by ‘Soum’, a Laotian word for ‘group’ in 1948  and finally by ‘Suppletifs’ from 1950 onward. In Michel Bodin’s Les laotiens dans la guerre d’Indochine, 1945-1954 the author makes a further distinction, stating that whereas the ‘suppletif’ was an auxiliary soldier serving alongside the ‘regular’ troops, the ‘partisans’ served as village guards and could be described as a self-defense militia.

The 61st Partisan Company did not last long and a month later, on 31 October, it was dissolved with its members being reassigned to C Company. Then on 31 January 1948, C Company itself was dissolved with the 6th Laotian Commando now consisting of A and B Companies, the 60th Partisan Company and the Detachement Autonome de Muoung Pao (D.A.M.P.). All four companies consisted of a mix of regular and auxiliary/partisan troops.

On 1 July 1948, the Commando was formally separated from the 1ere Bataillon Thai to become an independent administrative unit and re-designated the 6ème Commando Franco-Laotien (6th Franco-Laotian Commando). A year later, on 1 January 1949, a new unit, the 8e Bataillon Chasseurs Laotiens (8BCL) is formed which incorporates members of the commando. Finally, on 1 January 1950 the 60th Partisan Company becomes the last of the commando to be integrated into 8BCL and becomes part of the 24th Company based at Muong Het approximately 65km north of Sam Neau.

 

Insignia

The gold anchor bearing the unit number 6 reflects the Commando’s relationship to the French colonial forces whilst the tricephalous (three-headed) elephant and parasol reflects the Laotian connection.

According to J. Y. Segalen’s 1985 edition of the insignia classification book, Les insignes de l’armée Française, 1000 of the 6th Laotian Commando badges were made bearing the Drago Berenger maker’s mark. Of those 600 were individually numbered. A later batch was also produced by Drago, this time featuring the Drago Olivier Metra markings but no further details are available.

 

 

 

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The 1st Laotian Parachute Battalion badge 1952 – 1954

Lao para Drago OM 1952-19

Original 1952 issue 1er Battaillon de Parachutistes Laotiens (1BPL) badge. The parachute and wings represent the airborne status of the unit. The four tiered parasol surrounded by three elephants symbolises Laotian royalty and reflects the legend that Khoun Borom founded the Kingdom after arriving on a white elephant and protected from the sun by a 4 tiered white parasol. The three elephants also symbolise the three principalities of Laos until 1947. The red enamel work reflects the national colour. The motto can be translated as “Dare to Conquer” or “As Courage Triumphs”. 2000 of these badges were ordered from the Drago company in 1952 and features the “Drago Paris Nice 43. R.  Olivier Metra” hallmark. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

The first Lao parachute unit, 1ere Compagnie de Commandos Parachutistes Laotiens (1ere CCPL)  was raised by the French in July 1948 from soldiers of the 3rd Company of the 1st Laotian Chasseur Battalion (1ere BCL). On 11 May 1949 it conducted its first operational parachute jump when 18 commandos were deployed to reinforce the garrison of Luang Nam Tha. By the end of the year it had carried out six more airborne operations and by April 1951 the unit had expanded from three to six commando sections. Then, in October 1951, Commandos 4, 5 and 6 were removed to form the basis of the 2nd company for a new unit, the 1st Laotian Parachute Battalion (1er Battaillon de Parachutistes Laotiens 1 BPL)

1_ccpl10

Forerunners to 1st Laotian Parachute Battalion, Laotian paratroopers of 1st Laotian Parachute Commando Company (1ere CCPL) boarding an aircraft for a training jump in 1950.

On 1 April 1952, 1BPL was formally established with a strength of 853 men, including 13 French officers and 46 NCO’s, divided into a headquarters and three companies. By the end of the year the battalion had participated in 20 operations of which 6 included parachute insertions. In December 1952, during Operation Noel, 576 men from the unit parachuted into Sam Neua (Xam Neua) in north-eastern Laos to reinforce the garrison there. Then, in February 1953, a fourth company of 80 more paratroopers jumped in to bolster the garrison strength. However, in April 1953, the Viet Minh launched an invasion of north-eastern Laos crushing the garrison and forcing the remnants of the battalion to flee toward the Plain of Jars.

In May the unit was reformed at its base in Chinaïmo army camp on the eastern outskirts of Vientiane, undertaking commando and reconnaissance tasks north of Luang Prabang. In March 1954, 1er BPL began preparations for the relief of Dien Bien Phu as part of Operation Condor and by early May the battalion had relocated close to the Lao-Vietnamese border but withdrew after the French garrison surrendered.  On 18 June 1954 the unit regrouped at the French Air Force base at Seno near Savannakhet, then conducted the last airborne operation of the war when it parachuted into the town of Phanop in Khammouane Province to link up with militia units to clear the territory up to the Mu Gia Pass on the Vietnamese border.

1bpl insignia-19

An unknown French officer serving with 1BPL. Note the enameled unit badge on his right breast pocket and the standard French parachutist beret badge. During the period of 1BPL, the standard French wings were also worn. The distinctive Lao style beret badge which replaced the sword with a trident and also the Lao parachute wings, were created after the French departure and 1 BPL had been re-designated 1st Parachute Battalion of the  Armée Nationale Laotiènne. Collection: Julian Tennant.

On 6 August 1954, following the implementation of the ceasefire in Indochina, 1BPL returned to Seno where it was integrated into the Laotian National Army (ANL). In October, following the departure of its French cadre it was redesignated the 1st Parachute Battalion  (1er Bataillon Parachutiste – 1BP).

LAOS-54-108-R13

Laotian paratrooper of 1BPL circa 1954. Note the standard French parachutist beret badge worn by 1BPL.

Lao para Drago and fake-19

Comparison of my original 1952 French DRAGO OM hallmarked 1st Laotian Parachute Battalion badge (top) and a well made fake (bottom) that I first encountered during a trip to Vietnam in mid to late 2000. The fakes tend to feel slightly heavier than what you would expect for these badges and I suspect that is because of the alloys used. A very noticeable and critical point of difference is that the irregular hatching on the back does not match that of the originals. Nor does the text detail, which is a bit larger and less well defined as it is on the original. The detail and finish of the front of the badge is also lacking the fine precision of the original and this is particularly obvious on the elephants, text and parachute lines. Experience counts when looking at these badges. During that first encounter with the fakes in Vietnam it was only because several dealers at the notorious Dan Sinh market had examples of this and other rare French period badges that the red flags went up. At first glance the badges could be mistaken for original, but when compared to an original the differences are obvious. Caveat Emptor!

 

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A Vietnam War MIKE FORCE Zippo to an Australian Advisor

Unfortunately due to work commitments related to the COVID-19 virus, I have not been able to complete the content that I had planned for this week. So, rather than miss my Sunday deadline, here is one of the pieces from my small cigarette lighter collection. Collecting military lighters is a sideline to my insignia collection and is focused on Australian airborne and special operations unit Zippo (or other brand) lighters. If you have a lighter that fits into this area and you wish to sell or trade for insignia or other militaria, please contact me via my Facebook page.

AATTV John Vincent Zippo-01

Zippo lighter presented to AATTV advisor WO2 John Vincent who served with  2 Mobile Strike Force (MIKE Force) in 1969/70. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

This is a 1968 dated Zippo lighter that was presented to Australian Warrant Officer Class-2 John Roderick Vincent who served with the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) as an advisor to the Pleiku based 2 Mobile Strike Force (MIKE Force) in 1969/70.

WO2 Vincent deployed to Vietnam as a member of the AATTV on the 28th of May 1969. Upon arrival, in June, he completed the 5th SFGA Combat Orientation Course at Hon Tre island off Nha Trang. After completing the course, he was posted as a platoon commander with 223 Company of the 2nd Mobile Strike Force battalion (2MSF) based at Pleiku. On the 23rd of June, shortly after taking command of his Montagnard platoon, Vincent’s MIKE Force unit was committed to the Battle for Ben Het, where 3000 NVA troops had besieged a camp housing a twelve man US Special Forces A-Team (A-244) and their 200 CIDG Montagnard tribesmen plus families.  In September 1969 Vincent was reassigned to the Training Company of 2MSF in Pleiku where he remained, apart from a brief period in early April when he provided support during the Dak Saeng Special Forces camp siege, until completing his tour on 14 May 1970.  The concluding date on his lighter states 14 April 1970 and I am not sure why this is earlier than the other documentation related to his service.

jvincent-1

AATTV advisor WO2 John Vincent, with soldiers of 2MSF Pleiku. Far left is the Montagnard Company Commander, next is John’s radio operator and to his right is John’s bodyguard. John described them as “the most loyal soldiers I have ever worked with.” Photo courtesy of Tom”Stumpy”Burke, Pleiku Mike Force, 5th Special Forces Group.

AATTV John Vincent Zippo-02-2

WO2 John Vincent’s Zippo lighter that was presented to him towards the end of his tour as an Australian Advisor with MIKE Force. The front reads “1st June 1969 – 24th April 1970″ and features an enameled C-4 Mike Force, IV Corps ‘beer can’ badge. The reverse is panto-graphed to “WO John R.Vincent 29581 From the Officers and Men of the 2nd Mobile Strike Force Command (Mike Force).” Collection: Julian Tennant

aattv john vincent

Pleiku, South Vietnam. 1969. Warrant Officer 2 (WO2) John Vincent of Northwood, NSW, a member of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) watches carefully as a Montagnard soldier receiving parachute training practices landing from the height of a few feet. At the end of five days training the wiry Montagnard will jump from 1200 feet into a training area. WO2 Vincent, an Army Physical Training Instructor is one of the AATTV men who train the Montagnards and operate with them. The Montagnards of Mike Force, part of the Special Forces in Vietnam, are taught their basic infantry skills and given parachute training by AATTV advisers. Australian War Memorial Accession Number: EKN/69/0135/VN

 

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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

An unidentified French Indochina or 1950’s period Airborne unit badge.

ARVN unidentified Airborne SSI 2-2

The unidentified French Indochina period French or Vietnamese Airborne unit badge which  formerly belonged to a Nung soldier who fought in both the first and second Indochina Wars. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

This is an unusual and as yet unidentified early Vietnamese Airborne patch that I have in my collection. It is the actual badge shown on page 81 of Harry Pugh’s book Insignia of the Republic of Vietnam Army Airborne Division, where it is described as an Unknown Airborne Insignia obtained in Saigon in 1967.

When I bought the badge from Harry, he elaborated a little further in an accompanying note regarding its provenance.

“When I was in Vietnam, 67 & 68, the chief of my Nung Security was an older Nung, “Song”. He had served with the French during the French Indochina war but I never asked him which unit. After the war he served with the Nung units of the U.S. Special Forces. At some point he was wounded again and retired. Was told, but no confirmation at all, that he was in the camp when Donlon got his Medal of Honor [In 1964 US Special Forces Captain Roger Donlon won the first Medal of Honor to be awarded in Vietnam]. A predecessor had hired him as the security chief at Tam Ky, Quang Tin Province, Embassy House.

Song and I were good friends as we shared an interest in planting flowers on our bunkers etc. Anyway, when he learned that I collected insignia (at the time was just starting out) he came back from a leave to Saigon and brought this patch to me. He said it was the insignia that he wore when serving with the French. – I do not know if in a Vietnamese or French unit. That is the only identification I got and never followed through.

Later, I have seen a photo of troops with this patch being worn. But I just do not know the rest of the identity.”

The badge measures 65mm wide by 65mm high and its construction methods match the insignia made during the French era and the early post-colonial period, including the use of the French style attachment pin.

ARVN unidentified Airborne SSI 2

A comparison showing the front and rear of the unidentified badge and one of the 1955-1959 period Vietnamese Airborne Group patches in my collection. The construction methods of both badges including attachment pins are very similar. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

During my research, other collectors have suggested that the design is somewhat reminiscent of the French Airborne School, Ecole des Troupes Aéroportées (ETAP) and Base-Ecole des Troupes Aéroportées (BETAP) badges (as shown below). However, I think that the connection between the French based parachute school and this insignia is incidental as the airborne training units serving in French Indochina had their own unique insignia.

Base-Ecole des Troupes Aéroportées (BETAP) circa 1953

1953 period Base-Ecole des Troupes Aéroportées (BETAP) breast badge. Some design similarity can be seen between this insignia and the unidentified bullion badge, however I think that it is purely coincidental as neither the ETAP nor BETAP served in Indochina and the differences are significant enough to discount a connection. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

I have not yet been able to track down the photograph that Harry refers to in his note, nor can I find any reference to this design in either the Malcros or Baltzer/Micheletti French Airborne insignia books and none of my French-language reference books about Vietnamese and ARVN badges feature similar insignia, so it remains a mystery to me. If anybody can help with the identification of this badge, your assistance will be greatly appreciated.

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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 WW2 South African Veterinary Corps Medal Group

TENNANT Mervyn medal group SAVC-1

Medals, badges, photographs and paperwork belonging to my uncle, 151283V,Farrier Corporal, Mervyn Tennant who served with the South African Veterinary Corps (SAVC) during World War 2. Collection: Julian Tennant

During a recent visit to my parents in Melbourne, I was given this group which belonged to my father’s uncle, Mervyn Tennant, who served with the South African Veterinary Corps (SAVC) during World War Two. The group consists of his medals, badges, some photographs and ephemera from his war service. It also included two booklets from the Springbok Legion, a Leftist anti-fascist, anti-racist organisation formed in 1941 to fight for the rights of South African servicemen during the war and which later became radicalised by members of the Communist Party of South Africa. Unfortunately, I know very little about Mervyn and nobody in the family is able to tell me about his life or war service.

I do know that he was a farrier corporal, involved in the transport of animals from Durban to Karachi after the Indian Remount Purchasing Commission commenced buying animals in South Africa for shipment to India. Between August 1942 and September 1945, 58 shipments were made, transporting 22016 mules, 3527 horses, 323 cows, 2259 pigs, 3 Angora goats and 1 zebra. One ship was lost when it was torpedoed in March 1943 with the loss of 737 animals on board, but all other shipments were successful (source: Journal of the South African Veterinary Association, Volume 17, Issue 2, Jan 1946, p. 69 – 80).

TENNANT Mervyn medal group SAVC-8

Studio photo of Mervyn Tennant taken at the “Astra Studios, 26 Bureau Lane, Pretoria”. In this photo Mervyn can be seen wearing the Union Defence Force cap and collar badges, so I am not sure if this was prior to or during his service with the South African Veterinary Corps (SAVC), but he does appear to be wearing his Farrier proficiency/trade badge on his right shoulder. Collection: Julian Tennant

I am not sure how many of these trips Mervyn participated in, but I do recall my father telling me about this when I was a boy and it is also supported by some of the India visitor booklets that are included in his group. His medal record indicates that he was awarded the 1939-45 Star, War Medal 1939-1945 and Africa Service Medal, but did not meet the qualification criteria for the Burma Star, so I assume that his service was restricted to the transportation journeys between South Africa and India.

The badges that are included with the group include his cap and collar badges, plus some shoulder titles. One of the titles is the ZAVD variant identified in Colin Owen’s book The Military Badges and Insignia of Southern Africa as being worn from 1922 – 1926, whilst an article in the journal of The South African Military History Society states that it was the second brass title used by the South African Veterinary Corps and used up to 1922.  I wonder if the information from both sources is correct as Mervyn was not in the army at that time. My only guess is that when the South African Veterinary Corps was resurrected for service during World War Two, older existing supplies of the insignia that were still in the military system were issued until those stocks were exhausted. Maybe a South African insignia specialist of this period can clarify why this anomaly may have occurred?

TENNANT Mervyn medal group badges-10

South African Veterinary Corps (SAVC) cap and collar badges, shoulder titles and farrier trade badge worn by my uncle Mervyn Tennant during his service with the SAVC during World War 2. Collection: Julian Tennant.

TENNANT Mervyn medal group SAVC-5-Edit

Photo of Mervyn Tennant (right) and another South African soldier taken in South Africa during the war. In this photo he can be seen wearing the South African Veterinary Corps badge on his cap and also has ribbons on his chest, so I assume that this picture was taken shortly before his discharge in 1946. Collection: Julian Tennant

Some photographs of Mervyn also show him wearing the Union Defence Force General Service cap and collar badges. Unfortunately I think that I may have traded these and some of his other Veterinary Corps insignia when I was young collector back in the 70’s. C’est La Vie.

TENNANT Mervyn medal group SAVC-11

Group photograph showing Mervyn (the short guy wearing a pith helmet on the left) with some army and air force mates. I don’t know where this photograph was taken or whether these are all South Africans, but it does show an interesting mix of uniform details. Collection: Julian Tennant

Tennant Mervyn brochures-01

Picture ‘Letter Folder’ showing views of Durban (South Africa) and a couple of visitor booklets given to troops arriving in India that were among the things in the Mervyn Tennant group. Collection: Julian Tennant

Tennant Mervyn springbok legion-01

Booklets from the Springbok Legion, a left of centre, anti-fascist, anti-racist organisation formed in 1941 to fight for the rights of soldiers during and after WW2. Over time the Springbok Legion became radicalised by members of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) who infiltrated it and took up various official positions within the Legion. Collection: Julian Tennant

Tennant Mervyn medals-01

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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.

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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. These pins were given to buyers of this new parachute rig.

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.

The Pioneer PC pin was given to new buyers of the Para-Commander rig and 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.

Pioneer PC pin Jerry Irwin

American skydivers at a DZ in the 1960’s. Note the Pioneer PC pin being worn on the hat of the parachute rigger on the right. Photo: Jerry Irwin

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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