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.

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

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

catterpillar 1
A November 1943 article from Aviation Week magazine commemorating the then Colonel Harris’ achievement of becoming Caterpillar #1.

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 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.”

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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