In 1922 Leslie Irvin of the Irvin Air Chute Company of Canada founded what was to become one of the world’s most exclusive societies; The Caterpillar Club.
Three years previously Irvin had made a name for himself as a 24 year old stunt man living and working in California, where he demonstrated his first ‘free drop’ parachute, which he manufactured on a borrowed sewing machine. The American Air Force and the British RAF were so impressed with the result that they promptly adopted the Irvin parachute as standard equipment, and Irvin quickly found himself opening production factories on both sides of the Atlantic.
On 24th August 1920 at the McCook Field Flying Station near Dayton, Ohio, William O’Connor became the first lucky pilot to have his life saved by an Irvin parachute. Although it would be two years later, on October 20th, when Lt Harold R. Harris leapt from a failing monoplane, that the press suggested a club should be formed. Harris became the first member, and from that moment onwards any person who jumped from a disabled aircraft with an Irvin parachute would become a member of The Caterpillar Club.
The humble silk worm was the inspiration behind the name for the club, making reference to the silk threads that spun the original parachutes, and thus recognising the debt owed. The silkworm or caterpillar descends gently to earth from a height by suspending itself upon its silken threads, much like the strings of the chute. Another metaphor is that caterpillars have to climb out of their cocoons in order to escape.
Irvin promised to produce a gold pin for every person whose life was saved by one of his parachutes. Each was set with cabochon gemstone eyes and engraved on the reverse with the recipients name. The requirements were stringent, with all applicants providing evidence to support their story, and in most cases the parachutes used were identified by the serial number. The aircrew would then wear the tiny pin with pride on a uniform lapel or medal ribbon, typically the Distinguished Flying Cross, or the Distinguished Flying Medal. Such was the demand, that many applicants from the 1944-45 period never received their pin until after the war.
During the height of World War II, production of parachutes at the Irvin Air Chute Co. factory in Letchworth, England reached a peak of nearly 1,500 parachutes per week, and by the end of 1945 there were 34,000 official members of the Caterpillar Club, although the total number of people saved by Irvin parachutes was estimated to be in the region of 100,000.
This week at Laidlaw’s we were lucky enough to have a wartime pin consigned to auction, awarded to Rear Gunner Sgt E Perran of Newfoundland, Canada. Perran’s pin was awarded to him following a routine training operation on 4th September 1942, which tragically ended in disaster. The Vickers Wellington X3940 bomber on which he was flying suffered an engine fire on a night-time cross country flight. Pilot F/Sgt Green ordered the crew to bail out, and Perran, alongside Bomb Aimer Sgt Perkins and Wireless Operator/ Air Gunner Sgt Suter, followed orders. Unfortunately Green and his navigator F/Sgt Meers were both killed when the Wellington crashed in Grimston Park near Tadcaster. Green was aged 22, and Meers was 24.
Sadly the training unit lost another aircraft on that same night when Wellington DV600 crashed in Borrowdale near Keswick in the Lake District.
The loss of life is a gentle reminder of the power the morale-boosting Caterpillar Club held during these vital war years. It is so often the way that we as humans deal with adversity by laughing in the face of fear, and celebrating courage with unofficial clubs. The Caterpillars were just one of many similar societies for feats of survival against the odds. There were other parachute clubs created by various manufacturers such as the GQ Parachute Company ‘Gold Club’, but none have been so iconic as Irvin’s Caterpillar Club with their motto ‘Life depends on a silken thread’.
While The Caterpillar Club celebrated those who survived with the help of a parachute, there were other clubs which had a different set of requirements to join. Most notably perhaps is The Goldfish Club, for those who had their life saved at sea with the use of a life preserver or dinghy, The Late Arrivals Club (or Flying Boot Club) for the aircrew that ditched in enemy territory and had to walk back to Allied ground, and perhaps darkly of all was The Guinea Pig Club, the club you would least like to join. The Guinea Pigs were all members of the RAF or one of its Commonwealth air forces, and patients of pioneering surgeon Dr McIndoe, who specialised in reconstructive plastic surgery, primarily as a result of fire. Aircrew and ground crew were prone to disfiguring injuries due to fire eruptions and explosions during crashes, while ground crew personnel often risked their own lives in rescue attempts, resulting in similar injuries. A truly sobering thought and the reality behind the outwards bravado these clubs portrayed.
Club badges are rare to find, although we were fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to sell a Guinea Pig Club badge last year. Many Caterpillar Club badges were lost at the time due in part to size (they are very dainty indeed) and also to the frequency with which they were worn. Our Caterpillar badge will hopefully find a new home on July 2nd, nearly 75 years after it was first awarded.