collection of stories, photos, art and information on Stalag Luft I
If you are a former Prisoner of War or a next of
kin of a POW, we invite you to sign and leave your email address so others that
come may find you. Please mention camp, compound, barracks and room numbers if
During World War II there were several
companies involved in manufacturing parachutes and maintaining records of
the life-saving "incidents". The Switlik Parachute Company and the
Irvin Air Chute Company were two of them. Below you will find some
information on them and on obtaining replacement certificates and pins,
along with a little history of the parachute.
Caterpillar Club - Switlik
The Caterpillar Club was originated at Dayton, Ohio
between October 20, 1922 and November 11, 1922 by Messrs Hutton, Verne
Timmerman, J. Mumma and Milton H. St. Clair. This world-wide
club is for aviators, military and commercial, who have saved their lives
with a parachute in an emergency.
It all started with a young army test pilot named
Harold Harris. On October 20, 1922 he was flying a Loening W-2A monoplane
fighter in a mock dogfight with a friend. His plane had been equipped
the day before with experimental aerodynamically balanced airlerons.
After taking off from the test center at McCook field, Dayton near where the
Wright brothers tested their plane, his plane suddenly rocked violently and
Harris found he could not control it. He had to bail out.
Standing in the cockpit, he was sucked out by the
slipstream. After three tries he found and pulled the rip cord. This
main chute opened about 500 feet above the street of Dayton. Looking
up he admired the beautiful silk from which the parachute was made and
marveled at how white and clean it was. He was the first American
known to be saved by a manually operated parachute in an emergency jump from
a disabled aircraft.
Two reporters from the Dayton Herald, discussing the
event, suggested that since there would be more jumps with the chute, a club
should be formed to embrace these intrepid airmen. They considered
several names for the organization and selected the Caterpillar Club.
The reasoning was simple - the parachute main sail and shroud lines
were woven from the finest silk. The lowly caterpillar worm spins a
cocoon and crawls out and flies away from certain death.
To become a member - Supply a bonafide account
of your bailout. Mail to:
The Caterpillar Club
c/o Switlik Parachute Co. Inc.
PO Box 1328
Trenton, NJ 08607
The above article is from the December 2000 issue of the 8th Air
Per Debra J. Spencer with the Switlik Parachute
The Caterpillar Club was formed
in 1922 after Lt. Harris bailed out of an airplane over Dayton, Ohio. Since
that time, thousands of airmen, flyers and passengers have enrolled in this
organization. We have no dues, and the initiation fee is nominal ($10). An
attempt was made to formally organize the Club into chapters in 1943, and
again after the war in 1947. This takes a lot of effort, and although the
club is incorporated and Caterpillar Club is copyrighted, the dedicated
interest after the war was not there.
Among the many Caterpillars who
carry or carried Caterpillar Club membership cards are former President
George Bush, General Doolittle, and Colonel Lindbergh, to name a few.
Examples of their Pins and Certificates
Switlik Membership Certificate
Switlik Caterpillar Club pin
Caterpillar Club - Irvin Parachute Co.
The Irvin Air Chute Co. started the Caterpillar Club in 1922 and the
practice of awarding the tiny gold Caterpillar Pin to anyone who saved his
life by parachuting from a disabled or flaming aircraft. Each recipient of
the Caterpillar Pin is living testimony to the life saving ability of the
Irvin Type Air Chute. The Caterpillar is symbolic of the silk worm, which
lets itself descend gently to earth from heights by spinning a silky thread
to hang from. Parachutes in the early days were made from pure silk.
In 1919 Leslie Irvin, a 24-year-old
stunt man from California, demonstrated the first "free drop" parachute. He
had made the chute himself on a borrowed sewing machine. Flying safety
experts were so impressed that the American Air Force and British R.A.F.
promptly adopted the parachute as standard equipment. Later the same year,
Irvin established his first factory for the mass production of parachutes in
Buffalo, New York. In 1926 the first European factory was established in
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. By late 1945
there were 34,000 members of the Caterpillar Club.
It is estimated that at least 100,000
peoples lives have been saved by Irvin parachutes.
The Irvin Aerospace Ltd. has kept all
the old records, so if you need a replacement Certificate or Caterpillar Pin
you way contact the following:
Elizabeth Johnson, Director,
Marketing and Sales, Irvin Aerospace Canada Ltd., (613) 967-8069 E-Mail:
Here is a link to information about obtaining a replacement Caterpillar
Club pin from the Irvin Aerospace Limited - they handle all requests for
incidents that occurred in Europe.
Irvin Aerospace Limited
England SG6 1EU
Here is another address I have received for Judy on 4/15/05:
Black Horse Road
Letchworth Garden City
England SG6 1HB
Tel 01462 480 433
When inquiring about obtaining a replacement pin, It is suggested you
provide as much information on the incident as possible, including the full
name of the member, the date of the incident, the location of the incident,
and the reason that a replacement pin is being sought. Also, any other
supporting documentation may be helpful in their tracing of the membership
Little Silk Worm - a poem
found in Leland Potter's POW journal
Little silk worm - so very small,
You saved me from an awful fall.
Tho you're such an ugly thing,
I owe my life to your man made wing.
of the Parachute
Credit for the invention of the parachute goes to Sebastien Lenormand,
although it had been anticipated by Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519). J.P.
Blanchard (1753-1809), a Frenchman is said to have been the first to use a
parachute. In 1785 he dropped a dog in a basket, to which a parachute was
attached, from a balloon high in the air. Blanchard claimed to have
descended from a balloon in a parachute in 1793.
Another French aeronaut, Andre J. Garnerin (1769-1823)
is credited with being the first to regularly use the parachute
successfully. On October 22, 1797 at Paris, France, he successfully
performed an exhibition jump from an altitude of more than 2,000 feet. At a
similar exhibition in England on September 21, 1802, he jumped from an
altitude of approximately 8,000 feet. He used a parachute approximately 23
feet in diameter.
These were some of the early parachutists who made
their jumps from large balloons.
The first successful parachute jump to be made from a
moving airplane was made by Captain Berry at St. Louis, Missouri, in 1912.
In spite of this the use of parachutes as an emergency egress device for
military air crewmen was not used by the French, English, or Americans
during World War I, although the men in observation balloons were issued
parachutes. In 1917 the German pilots were issued container type chutes, and
successfully used them during the last 12 months of World War I. The Allies
were still debating the advisability of using parachutes as a means of
escape from aircraft when the armistice was signed.
It seemed that some of the hesitancy about issuing
parachutes to aircraft personnel was because of the prevailing opinion at
the time regarding the ability of the man, once he had bailed out of the
aircraft, in an emergency, after jumping free of the aircraft, they would
not have sufficient control over their arms to manually pull the ripcord.
Another concern, at the time, was the fear that, when attempting to fall
free of the airplane, the parachute might foul on the plane if the ripcord
was, in some manner, anchored to the aircraft. As a result of this apparent
dilemma, military use of the parachute by American pilots was delayed until
after World War I.
These opinions were shattered when, in conjunction
with a parachute research team at McCook Field, Leslie Irvin and Floyd Smith
developed a 28 foot back pack parachute. On April 28, 1919, Irvin jumped
from a de Havilland biplane traveling at 100 miles per hour at an altitude
of 1,500 feet.
After bailing out of the airplane and falling free, he
manually reached the ripcord handle and pulled it, and the parachute was
fully deployed at 1,000 feet. Thus Leslie Irvin became the first American to
jump from an airplane and manually open the parachute in midair.
More than 1,500 successful experimental parachute
jumps were made from airplanes before the seat pack type parachute was
issued as regular equipment to the U.S. Army in 1919. In 1922, use of the
parachute became mandatory by order of the Adjutant General.
Following this, the British Royal Air Force adopted
the U.S. type of seat pack parachute in 1925.
On October 20, 1922, Lieutenant Harold Harris, Chief
of the Flight Test Section of the Engineering Division of the U.S. Army Air
Service successfully bailed out of a disabled test aircraft, landing in a
small grape arbor in the backyard of 337 Troy Street, in Dayton, Ohio.
His was the first life ever saved in an emergency jump from a disabled
aircraft with a manually operated parachute. Lieutenant Harris later became
General Harris. His interest in flight safety continued for many years. In
June, 1966 he retired from his position as Board Chairman of the Flight
During the winter of 1939-1940, the U.S.S.R., in its
campaign against Finland, became the first nation to use paratroops. On
April 9, 1940, the Germans first used paratroopers in their assault on
Norway. On May 10, 1940, they invaded Belgium, the Netherlands, and
Luxembourg with paratroops and glider troops. As a result of these successes
with paratroops, the U.S. Army organized the first class for training
paratroops at Fort Benning, Georgia in 1940.
Since these past developments, parachutes have been
put to many uses, primarily, they have served to save lives. During the
height of World War II, production of parachutes at the Irving Air Chute
Company factory in Letchworth, England, reached a peak of nearly 1,500
parachutes per week. The world famed Caterpillar Club, founded by Leslie
Irvin and named after the silk worm (caterpillar) that spins the silk from
which parachutes were made, gained thousands of members during World War II.
By late 1945, there were 34,000 members of the Caterpillar Club. The only
requirement for membership in the select club is that the applicant must
have bailed out under emergency conditions, and furnished written
confirmation from witnesses, such as commanding officers or adjutants, that
the jump was a genuine emergency bail out.
Parachute instructions for B-17 Crews
parachute pack gently and do not allow it to get
wet or greasy.
It is advisable to
have one side of the parachute pack snapped to
the harness when in immediate danger.
during descent if over water.
Use static lines to
bail out wounded personnel.
Three short rings
on alarm signal indicates "Prepare to bail out."
One ling ring is the signal for "Bail Out."
Jump! Tales of
the Caterpillar Club by Don Glassman - Publisher: New York Simon
And Schuster 1930. This hard
cover 300 plus page book is the first definitive book on the
"Caterpillar Club" which is made up of members who "hit the silk" and
parachuted from aircraft. This book takes it from the beginning whith
stories, narrative, and photos of the early parachutes. Many drawings,
even has article on the father of parachutes, Leonardo da Vinci. It has
a roster of individuals up to that date who were inducted into this
exclusive club. It gives dates and all the particulars. This was truly
the beginning of a club whose membership would dramatically increase
Jump for it! by Gerald Bowman. Stories of the
Publishers - Evans Brothers 1955
Stories of parachutists.
Bless You, Brother Irvin - The Caterpillar Club Story
by John A. Neal
Besides the story of the
club, it contains the stories of some 85 Caterpillars from around the
World. It also advises where Caterpillars can receive their free Magnum
of Shiraz ( Grapes and Caterpillars) and also a little moralizing (Who
Packed your Parachute?).