CHRIS BUSH/The News Bulletin                                Aircrews saved by parachutes and life vests join exclusive goldfish and caterpillar clubs.

CHRIS BUSH/The News Bulletin Aircrews saved by parachutes and life vests join exclusive goldfish and caterpillar clubs.

Remembrance Day: Goldfish, caterpillars and close calls

Air crew members saved by parachutes and life vests part of exclusive company

Some mementos of flying exploits can’t be worn on military uniforms.

There’s a Royal Canadian Air Force dress uniform on display at the Vancouver Island Military Museum with an unusual pin: a golden caterpillar with red eyes, underneath the jacket’s right lapel. There’s an equally unusual patch of an embroidered goldfish with wings sewn under the left lapel.

Both are symbols of feats attesting to an airman’s flying and survival skills, but unlike medals and ribbons displaying achievements of a military career, neither the pin nor patch are sanctioned by the military and so can’t be openly displayed.

The man who wore this particular uniform, which was donated to the museum by his family, was former Spitfire pilot, Flight Lt. George Aitken who served with 403 Sqdn. RCAF. He earned both pin and patch the morning of June 2, 1942, while on a fighter sweep mission to search for and destroy enemy aircraft or targets of opportunity on the coast of France.

The flight of 12 Spitfires had done its sweep and was returning home over the English Channel at about 10 a.m. when it was swarmed by as many as 50 German Focke Wulf 190 and Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter aircraft.

Aitken’s plane was hit by machine fire from behind, which damaged his cockpit canopy and destroyed his radio. He was saved by the aircraft’s cockpit armour plating that was hit by several machine gun rounds.

Aitken took evasive action and assessed his situation. There was no sign of his flight, but he spotted one of two enemy fighters within a few hundred metres of his aircraft bank as if it were about to attack. He turned into the attacker and fired at about 200 metres. The other pilot fired and missed as they passed, but as Aitken levelled out and tried to break for home with his damaged aircraft it was hit by multiple cannon and machine gun rounds. His aircraft was heavily damaged and rapidly losing altitude with fire coming from the engine and gasoline leaking into the cockpit. Aitken decided it was time to bail out, but escaping a stricken Second World War aircraft was often, as the following excerpt from Aitken’s post-mission report attests, in itself an incredible feat of airmanship.

“Holding stick with left hand, I undid straps, slid [canopy] back then changed hands and removed helmet with my left hand, opened door and throttled back and pulled the nose back and then held onto stick and put my left leg on the wing, pulled rip cord and fell backwards out of the [aircraft],” Aitken wrote. “My chute opened and almost caught tail. This was at 1,000 feet. As I went down I saw [aircraft] hit with a hell of a bang and then sink immediately. Inflated my Mae West and turned my quick release and it seemed no time until I hit water. I had hold of my dinghy straps as I cannot swim. I hit water facing wind and parachute pulled me along on my back. I struck quick release and holding dinghy strap and then gave dinghy a hard jerk to free it from parachute and swallowed water; pulled out dinghy, got hold of bottles and slowly turned handles to inflate, then climbed in, grabbed paddles and looked for shore.”

Relying on a parachute and inflatable life preservers to save his life, earned Aitken membership in the Caterpillar Club and Goldfish Club and he received a silkworm pin from the Irvin Airchute Company of Canada and an embroidered Goldfish Club patch from the British manufacturer P.B. Cow and Company, which was one of the world’s largest fabricators of inflatable life preservers and dinghies. Employees of both manufacturers created the awards to commemorate the days aircrews lives were saved by the products.

By the end of the Second World War about 34,000 aircrew had joined the Caterpillar Club and about 9,000 had been inducted into the Goldfish Club.

Gen. James Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh and retired astronaut John Glenn are among some of the more famous members of the Caterpillar Club.

To date an estimated 100,000 lives have been saved by parachute.

Martin-Baker, a British manufacturer of aircraft ejection seats, also sponsors the Ejection Tie Club and produces a tie, patch, certificate and tie pin and membership card for aircrew whose lives have been saved by Martin-Baker ejection seats. The club was founded in 1957 and as of 2018 has more than 6,000 registered members.



photos@nanaimobulletin.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Just Posted

Nanaimo artist Dave Stevens is displaying paintings inspired by arbutus trees and the Millstone River at Nanaimo Harbourfront Library from now until the end of fall. (Josef Jacobson/News Bulletin)
Nanaimo writer and artist’s work goes up at Harbourfront library

Dave Stevens presents work inspired by arbutus trees and the Millstone River

The courthouse in Nanaimo. (News Bulletin file)
Nanaimo man, already in jail, found guilty of sexual abuse of sons

Man previously sentenced for sexual interference involving girl in Nanaimo

Members of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ Marine Mammal Response Program rescued an adult humpback what that was entangled in commercial fishing gear in the waters off of Entrance Island on Thursday, June 10. (Photo courtesy Marine Mammal Response Program)
Rescuers free humpback ‘anchored’ down by prawn traps near Nanaimo

Department of Fisheries and Oceans responders spend hours untangling whale

Stuffed toys, many with donations pinned to them, are piled in the Lions Pavilion at Maffeo Sutton Park at a vigil May 31 honouring the 215 Indigenous children whose remains were discovered outside a residential school in Kamloops. (News Bulletin file photo)
Thousands donated to child and family service agency following Nanaimo vigil

Toys and money donated to Kw’umut Lelum child and family services

A section of proposed Harbourfront Walkway between White Eagle Terrace and Battersea Road. (City of Nanaimo image)
Nanaimo’s proposed walkway extension project estimated at $25-30 million

City asking for feedback on concepts to connect Departure Bay Beach and ferry terminal

Members of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ Marine Mammal Response Program rescued an adult humpback what that was entangled in commercial fishing gear in the waters off of Entrance Island on Thursday, June 10. (Photo courtesy Marine Mammal Response Program)
Rescuers free humpback ‘anchored’ down by prawn traps near Nanaimo

Department of Fisheries and Oceans responders spend hours untangling whale

Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of June 13 to 19

Flag Day, Garbage Man Day, International Panic Day all coming up this week

British Columbia-Yukon Community News Association’s 2021 Ma Murray Awards were handed out during a virtual ceremony on Friday, June 10. (Screen grab)
Black Press Media winners take gold at B.C. and Yukon journalism awards

Publications received nods in dozens of categories

Frank Phillips receives a visit from his wife Rena at Nanaimo Seniors Village on their 61st wedding anniversary, March 31, 2020. Social visits have been allowed since COVID-19 vaccination has been offered in all care homes. (Nanaimo News Bulletin)
B.C. prepares mandatory vaccination for senior care homes

180 more cases of COVID-19 in B.C. Friday, one more death

A Comox Valley shellfish operator pleaded guilty and was fined $10,000 in provincial court in Courtenay earlier this year. Record file photo
B.C. clam harvester fined $10,000 for Fisheries Act violations

Charges against three others were stayed in Courtenay Provincial Court

Small town residents Reed and Dusty, played by drama students Niya Irving and Cole Simpson, contemplate what brought them to a condemned park and what is keeping them there in the Dover Bay Secondary School production of ‘Bethel Park Falls.’ (Josef Jacobson/News Bulletin)
High school drama students present outdoor performance at Nanaimo’s Dover Bay

Production to be staged in school courtyard with in-person audience

Police in Nanaimo hope the public can help find Sarah Duguay so investigators can check on her well-being. (Photo submitted)
Nanaimo RCMP trying to find woman who called police for help but hasn’t been located

Sarah Duguay, 40, not reported missing, but police want to check on her well-being

Beef to the pet owner who brought his puppy into the cold beer and wine store, where it promptly peed on another customer’s ankle.
Beefs & Bouquets, June 9

To submit a beef or a bouquet to the Nanaimo News Bulletin, e-mail editor@nanaimobulletin.com

Chilliwack cocaine trafficker Clayton Eheler seen with a tiger somewhere in Asia in 2014. Eheler was sentenced to nine years jail in 2018, but was released on bail in October 2020 pending his appeal of conviction.(Facebook)
Director of civil forfeiture seeks $140,000 from Fraser Valley drug dealer’s father-in-law

Clayton Eheler’s father-in-law Ray Morrissey caught with money in Fort St. John by B.C.’s gang unit

Most Read