Nine years ago, World War II veteran Don Chaney from Chester, West Virginia, came to a Veterans Breakfast Club event with a little “Caterpillar Club” pin shaped like the insect on his lapel. I asked him about the pin and got a great story in return.
Don was a B-26 pilot in Europe. He flew on D-Day over Utah Beach and continued flying until he reached 65 missions in March 1945. He joined the Caterpillar Club on his 55th mission.
The club was created in 1922 by a Hollywood stuntman and all-around daredevil who is credited with inventing the modern parachute: Leslie Irvin of the Irvin Airchute Company.
On October 20 of that year Lieutenant Harold R. Harris jumped from a disabled Loening W-2A monoplane over Dayton, Ohio. He was wearing an Irvin Airchute and survived. Harris has gone down in history as one of the first people saved by a parachute.
Irvin cooked up the idea of a special pin that would be informally awarded to anyone who jumped from a disabled airplane. It was a nice way to promote his company and parachute technology. The caterpillar seemed the perfect metaphor. “Life depends on a silken thread” became the club’s motto. As you might expect, the Caterpillar Club received many new members during WWII, when thousands of air crews bailed out and lived to tell about it. Countries on all sides in WWII used Irvin parachutes to float safely back to earth.
Don Chaney earned his pin flying co-pilot on February 6, 1945. The target was an ammo dump near Rheinbach, Germany. The weather was dreadful. No planes should have flown that day. Returning home, Don’s plane got diverted from one fogged-in airfield to another. The only way to see the ground was out a side window with the plane banked so severely that its wings were near perpendicular to the horizon.
The pilot attempted landings but with zero visibility, it was safer to abandon ship. Just as the plane maneuvered into position for the bail out, another B-26 burst into view at twelve o’clock and narrowly averted a head-on collision with Don’s plane. Instead, the one plane’s wing clipped the tail of the other, crippling them both.
Don put the wheels down, and the six-man crew jumped through the nose wheel-well from 1,500 feet. The other B-26 crew did the same. Amazingly, they all survived.
Don, who died in 2014, had many other great stories to tell, which I hope to share later.
You can still order Caterpillar Club pins for yourself or those
who survived air disaster by parachuting safely to earth. The descendent of Irvin’s own parachute company still distributes them, as does Switlik Marine and Aviation, which also produced parachutes during World War II.