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The Caterpillar Club

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Have you ever heard of the Caterpillar Club? The Caterpillar Club is an association of people who have successfully used a parachute to jump out of a disabled aircraft. The club began in the 1920s, and though not limited to military personnel, many club members received admittance while serving in the military. Those admitted to the club received a caterpillar lapel pin identifying them as members. The Irvin Airchute Company was one of the companies that claimed to have founded the Caterpillar Club and created pins to award to members saved by Irvin parachutes. Other parachute makers followed suit. Branches of the Caterpillar Club still exist today. The club’s name refers to the silk threads used to make original parachutes, and though it’s a club that nobody wants to join, once admitted, membership comes with bragging rights and a sense of pride.

Caterpillar Club Membership Card for Lt. Wallace H. Wickander
Caterpillar Club Pin

The origins of the Caterpillar Club aren’t known, with several different people or organizations claiming to be the original founders. Our Fold3® collections contain declassified microfilm made available from a private donor. The microfilm dates from the 1920s and contains records from the US Army Air Corps related to the Caterpillar Club. You’ll find remarkable stories of Airmen who survived jumping from a disabled aircraft.

Charles Lindberg was an early member of the Caterpillar Club with four jumps to his credit. One jump came after a mid-air collision in 1925. While practicing formations and diving attacks over Kelley Field, Texas, Lindberg collided with Lt. C.D. McAllister. “My head was thrown forward against the cowling, and my plane seemed to turn around. Our ships were locked together…I jumped backwards as far from the ship as possible. Fearing the wreckage might fall on me, I did not pull the rip cord until I had dropped several hundred feet. The parachute functioned perfectly,” said Lindberg. Lt. McAllister also jumped from his disabled aircraft, and he, too, earned admission to the Caterpillar Club.

Russell B. Graham
Caterpillar Club Membership Certificate for Russell B. Graham

During WWII, the Caterpillar Club was incorporated as an official organization, and membership increased dramatically. T/Sgt. Russell B. Graham earned his membership when his B-17 Flying Fortress was shot down on February 26, 1945, after a bombing raid on Berlin. Graham and the rest of the crew bailed out. They could not see the ground until just before landing. Graham landed in a tree and survived. He kept the parachute that saved his life and, following the war, brought it home. His mother used the fabric to sew a small blessing gown, and many of Graham’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren were blessed in that gown.

Would you like to learn more about the Caterpillar Club? Read more accounts of the heroic jumps that earned admission to the Caterpillar Club and see additional records and Memorials for Caterpillar Club members on Fold3® today.

90 Comments

  1. Christina (Behlow) Eaton says:

    Very interesting read about the Caterpillar Club and military personnel who had to parachute from a disabled plane! Although my dad did not have to jump from a disabled plane, he was a paratrooper as well as a medic. He made several jumps and put his life on the line to help injured soldiers and received metals. We don’t hear or read enough about these hero’s.

    • David says:

      I see Walter Behlow in this list
      These are the names of most of the 505 Combat Team medics:

      Adams, Clayton C.
      Adams, Harlan F.
      Adams, Harry E.
      Adams, Ralph T.
      Adkins, George B.
      Affleck, John H.
      Akers, Raymond L.
      Alton, Philip A.
      Ames, Edwin
      Andur, Charles
      Attaya, Arthur B.
      Baer, Leroy E.
      Baldwin, Donald H.
      Bard, Thomas A.
      Barnette, James E.
      Barrett, Kenneth L.
      Barrow, William C.
      Behlow, Walter H.
      Bentle, Dewey H.
      Bevins, Raymond
      Bey, Paul A.
      Bickel, Earl L.
      Bishop, James C.
      Blasdel, Sherwood W.
      Bleigh, Ballard C.
      Bojarski, Theodore L.
      Bonaventura, Tony
      Boucher, Donald M.
      Brown, Earnest J.
      Brown, Jack E.
      Brown, Paul B.
      Buck, Rex D.
      Bumpus, John J.
      Byars, Kelly W.
      Campbell, Guy
      Campos, Manual
      ……..

    • Christina(Behlow)Eaton says:

      Yes, Walter is my dad.

  2. ROBERT A DEA says:

    My father, RCAF F/O K. A. Dea was assigned to the 421 “Red Indian” Squadron at 2F Wing Grostenquin, France in the mid 1950s. He was flying F-86 Sabre Mk.V A/C 23166. As he had just arrived to the unit another F-86 pilot took my father up as his wingman for a familiarization flight. They went up through the thick cover of clouds and after some time became separated. Ultimately both Sabres were running low on fuel. The lead Sabre stayed in the area, as long as he could, looking for my father until he had no choice but to return to base. Meanwhile my father, near Bitburg, ran out of fuel and was forced to eject. He landed safely and made his way back to the base within 24 hours. He did receive his Caterpillar Pin and certification.

  3. Ruud Slangen says:

    Lancaster ED771 PO-E 467 Squadron (R.A.A.F.) crashed 1st May 1943 in Harderwijk, the Netherlands. 3 died, 4 bailed out, 3 survived. F/L Rex A. Cragie 40210, Sgt William T. Fair 929876 and P/O Geoffrey Phillips 130512. Were they members of the Caterpillar Club?

  4. Jane Stokes Pavelko says:

    My husband, Bob Pavelko, and his navigator became a members of the Caterpillar Club in an unusual way. As a pilot of an FB-111A, Bob was flying a high-speed, low-level training sortie (550 mph at 400 feet above the ground) in northern Maine on December 23, 1975. The left engine compressor failed sending compressor blades through the fuel tank starting an uncontrollable fire in the fuselage that burned through the flight controls. Unable to control the plane, Bob had no choice but to eject. In an FB-111A, the entire cockpit is ejected as a capsule with a parachute attached at the top. At the moment of ejection, the capsule was upside-down in a 60 degree dive. Bob saw the plane crash before the parachute fully deployed and only had time for one swing before the capsule landed on the snow covered ground. The temperature was 10 degrees F below zero. Both Bob and his navigator were able to walk away.
    Bob received a lapel pin and certificate from M. Steinthal & Co., Inc. saying that Bob “has successfully used a M. Steinthal & Co., Inc. parachute in an emergency, and is hereby awarded membership in our Caterpillar Club.”

  5. Darrell Stanley says:

    My father was an airborne parachute rigger in the US Army from 1954 until he retired in 1976 after 22 years. He should have been a member of the caterpillar club when he was on an aircraft headed to Alaska in 1955 with others from his company on the flying box car (C-119) and the engines caught fire and they all had to bail out. The two crew members died in that crash but all of the passengers including my dad bailed out with parachutes scattered over quite an area. I tried to contact them the company last year to see if he could get a pin, but I got no response from the company that handles it now. He is 87 years old now and has a lot of pride from serving and his Army career. I had my wife make him a Caterpillar quilt with most of the patches from his commands, but would love to have given him a pin to go along with it. Too bad these companies have dropped the ball.

  6. Gordon Smith says:

    My father Clark W. Smith bailed out of his P-38 fighter in Tunisa, at the end of December 1942. He was the second American fighter pilot to land in North Africa. He was shot down 4 missions shy of coming home at about 1500 feet and broke his ankle upon landing. He was captured and was a POW for 28 Months. He was in the club.

    • David Jones says:

      I think piloting the P38 must have been an awesome experience. My father couldn’t be a pilot because he was color blind. Ended up being a paratrooper in 101st Airborne.

    • They sure were – USAAF’s top scoring ace was Richard Bong, flying a P-38.

      Here’s how he got started – report by General Kenney:

      “In San Francisco I on had just the morning finished where of reading I July was long report concerning the exploits of one of my young pilots who had been looping the loop around the center span of the Golden Gate Bridge in a P-38 fighter plane and waving to the stenographic help in the office buildings as he flew along Market Street. The report noted that, while it had been extremely difficult to get information from the somewhat sympathetic and probably conniving witnesses, there was plenty of evidence proving that a large part of the waving had been to people on some of the lower floors of the buildings.

      A woman on the outskirts of Oakland was quoted as saying that she didn’t need any help from my fighter pilots in removing her washing General from Kenney the clotheslines Reports-July unless zyx, 1942 zythey would zyxlike to do it on the ground.

      Considering the mass of evidence, it was surprising that more complaints had not been registered, but in any event zyI would have to do something about the matter. Washington was determined to stop low-altitude stunting and had put out some stringent instructions about how to handle the budding young aviators who broke the rules. The investigating officer had recommended a General Court-Martial.

      I had sent word to the pilot’s commander that I wanted to see the lad in my office, and I was expecting him at any minute. My secretary opened the door and said, “Your bad boy is outside. You remember-the one you wanted to see about flying around bridges and down Market Street.”

      I said to send him in. I heard her say, “The General will see you now, Lieutenant,” and in walked one of the nicest-looking cherubs you ever saw in your life. I suspected that he was not over eighteen and maybe even younger. I doubted if he was old enough to shave. He was just a little blond-haired Norwegian boy about five feet six, zyxwith a round, pink baby facc and the bluest, most innocent eyes-now opened wide and a bit scared. Someone must have just told him how serious this court-martial thing might be. He wanted to fly and he wanted to get into the war and do his stuff , but now he was finding out that they really were tough about this low-altitude ‘buzzing’ business and it was dawning on him that the commanders all had orders really to bear down on young aviators who flew down streets and rattled dishes in people’s houses. Why, he might be taken off flying status or even thrown out of the Air Force! He wasn’t going to try to alibi out of it, but he sure hoped this General Kenney wasn’t going to be too rough. You could actually see all this stuff going on in his head just behind those baby-blue eyes. He didn’t know it, but he had already ‘ won.

      I let him stand at attention while I bawled him out for getting himself in trouble, and Assignment getting zyxwto zyxwvthe me Pacific in trouble, too, zyxbesides giving people the impression that the Air Force was just a lot of irresponsible airplane jockeys. He could see that he was in trouble just by looking at the size and thickness of the pile of papers on my desk that referred to his case. But think zyof all the trouble he had made for me. Now, in order to quiet down the people who didn’t approve of his exuberance, I would have to talk to the Governor, the Mayor, the Chief of Police. Luckily I knew a lot of people in San Francisco who could be talked into a state of forgiveness, but I had a job of looking after the Fourth Air Force and I should spend my time doing that instead of running around explaining away the indiscretions of my wild-eyed pilots.

      “By the way, wasn’t the air pretty rough down in that street around the second-story level?” I was really a bit curious. As I remembered, it used to be, when I was first learning to fly.

      “Yes, sir, it was kind of rough,” replied the cherub, “but it was easy to control the plane. The aileron control is good in the P-38 and-” He paused. Probably figured he had said enough. For a second, the blue eyes had been interested more than scared. He was talking about his profession and it was more than interest. It was his life, his ambition. I would bet anything that he was an expert in a P-38 and that he wanted to be still better. We needed kids like this lad.

      “Lieutenant,” I said, “there is no need for me to tell you again that this is a serious matter. If you didn’t want to fly down Market Street, I wouldn’t have you in my Air Force, but you are not to do it any more and I mean what I say. From now on, if I hear any more reports of this kind about you, I’ll put you before a General Court and if they should recommend dismissal from the service, which they probably would, I’ll approve it.”

      I began slowly to tear up the report and drop the pieces of paper in the waste basket. The blue eyes watched, a little puzzled at first, and then the scared look began to die out.

      “Monday morning General Kenney you check Reports-July in at this address out Oakland and if that woman has any washing to be hung out on the line, you do it for her. Then you hang around being useful -mowing a lawn or something-and when the clothes are dry, take them off the line and bring them into the house. And don’t drop any of them on the ground or you will have to wash them over again. I want that woman to think we are good for something besides annoying people. Now get out of here quick before I get mad and change my mind. That’s all.” “Yes, sir.” He didn’t dare to change his expression, but the blue eyes had gone all soft and relieved. He saluted and backed out of the office. The next time I saw Lieutenant Richard I. Bong was in Australia.”

    • Robert Carlton says:

      Hi Gordon,
      Was he with the 48th or 49th FS? My dad, in the 49th, was also with the first group into Tunisia with P-38s in Operation Torch in November 1942. They might have known each other!

  7. Dee de Glanville says:

    My father in law Paddy Fleming was a member of the caterpillar club. I have his little gold caterpillar. He was the only survivor of his plane which crashed and was taken prisoner when he landed in France. He went on to work with various record companies ending up in Sony Records in Soho Square. He worked in PR and looked after many famous people like Sammy Davis Jnr and Frank Sinatra

  8. Geraldine Smith says:

    My father was also a member of the caterpillar club but his badge had a ruby eye. We were told this was because the plane was in flames when he baled out.

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