The Arrowhead Club

Category Archives: WWII

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Liberation Gudow

My father, George Edwin Farrar, was a POW in Germany’s Stalag Luft IV in WWII. On February 6, 1945, all of the prisoners of Stalag Luft IV were marched from the prison camp and continued to march out of Poland and through Germany until their liberation.

The prisoners were marched in separate groups, or columns, and didn’t all follow exactly the same route. All were not liberated at the same time or place.

From a letter to his mother, I know my father was liberated on May 2, 1945, after a march of eighty-six days, and was in one of the last columns to be liberated. He did not mention where he was liberated, but at the time he may not have known exactly where in Germany he was.  He said,

I guess you have heard through the government that I was liberated. I was liberated by the English May 2nd and have been treated very nice since. I should be home soon, and having some of the nice meals you fix. That I have dreamed of for all-most a year. Life was a bit hard here, but it is all over now. I have been on the road marching since Feb. 6th with very little food, but am not in bad condition.

In his book, The Shoe Leather Express, The Evacuation of Kriegsgefangenen Lager Stalag Luft IV Deutschland Germany, POW Joseph P. O’Donnell wrote that on April 30, 1945, the column of prisoners arrived at Zarrentin and spent the night sleeping in the barn of a farm.

The next morning, Day 85 of the march, the farmer slaughtered one of his cows to feed the group, but before the meal could be prepared, the prisoners were ordered to move out.

Late in the morning of May 1, 1945, the column left Zarrentin and arrived at a farm at the outskirts of Gudow late in the afternoon, a walk O’Donnell estimated to be eight kilometers, or about five miles. There, not knowing that liberation would come the next day, the prisoners spent their last night in the farmer’s barn.

On the morning of May 2, 1945, Day 86, the prisoners’ morning started as usual, awakening early, with some prisoners searching the farm for food, eggs that could be eaten raw, or potatoes that could be carried to the next stop. On this day, the Germans distributed canned sardines and commanded the prisoners to pack up and walk to the end of the farm lane to the main road where they would be liberated by the British 8th Army, the Royal Dragoons.

Joe O’Donnell reported that the column was liberated at approximately 11:50 am on May 2, 1945.

The Austrailian War Memorial website contains two photos from the liberation,

GUDOW, GERMANY. 1945-05. POW AMERICAN AIRMEN SHOWING THEIR EXCITEMENT AT BEING LIBERATED BY MEN OF THE REGIMENT OF ROYAL DRAGOONS. (BRITISH OFFICIAL PHOTOGRAPH, BU5038).
Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

and

GUDOW, GERMANY. 1945-05-02. AMERICAN PRISONERS FLOCK BACK ALONG THE ROAD TO FREEDOM AFTER BEING LIBERATED BY TROOPS OF THE BRITISH FIFTH DIVISION. (BRITISH OFFICIAL PHOTOGRAPH, BU5046).
Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

From the time my father was born until the day he died, I imagine his walk down a farm lane on the outskirts of Gudow on May 2, 1945 became the sweetest steps of his life, his final walk to liberation and freedom.

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2019

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WWII Timeline – Spring 1937

I’m continuing my WWII Timeline series with a look at April – June 1937 in this post.

But before I begin the timeline, I’d like to note that seventy-four years ago today, February 6, 1945, the march out of Stalag Luft IV, the POW camp in which my Dad was held prisoner, began.

A Timeline of WWII, Spring 1937

April 27, 1937

The Spanish city of Guernica was destroyed by German war planes and becomes symbol of anti-fascism.

May 28, 1937

Neville Chamberlain succeeded Stanley Baldwin to become prime minister of Great Britain.

June 11, 1937

Soviet leader Josef Stalin began a purge of Red Army generals.

Sources:

This series of posts is based on a compilation of timelines from:

The Holocaust Encyclopedia

The History Place:

The National WWII Museum Interactive Timeline

World War II Chronicle by the Editors of Publications International, Ltd.

Most recent post from the series:

Winter 1937

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2019

Zygmunt Wujek

I met Polish sculptor Zygmunt Wujek in July 2017 at the Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in Pooler, Georgia, near Savannah, during a gathering of descendants of WWII POWs. In the above photo, Zygmunt is pictured at the museum with his American Aviator bronze bust.

The American Aviator is one of more than two hundred works Zygmunt created in his native Pomerania. Among Zygmunt’s many works were monuments commissioned by Lech Walesa to mark the entrance to Stalag Luft IV. To see photos of Stalag Luft IV then and now, including the monuments created by Zygmunt Wujek, please visit this POW site.

The American Aviator bronze bust in the photo…

…is described on the accompanying plaque as …

the only exact copy of the “American Aviator” in the 1992 memorial at Stalag Luft IV, the WWII prison camp for enlisted American airmen in Poland. Wujek used a photograph of Joseph O’Donnell, a  POW at Stalag Luft IV, as his model. At the 2006 dedication of the site as a Polish War Memorial, Wujek gave this bust to former POW Walter Grotz. It took Grotz five years to make the necessary import arrangements, and in 2011 he delivered the bust to this museum which will be its permanent home. Wujek presented it on behalf of the people of the Pomerania region of Poland as a Thank You to Eighth Air Force Veterans, all Veterans and the people of the United States.

Note:  The POW from whom the American Aviator was modeled, Joseph O’Donnell, was the author of the series of “The Shoe Leather Express” books.

My father, George Edwin Farrar, was one of the American aviators imprisoned at Stalag Luft IV during WWII, and so this particular work of Zygmunt Wujek has special significance to me.

I have not been to the site of Stalag Luft IV to see the remains of the prison camp or the memorial erected there, but seeing and touching this memorial to all the men with whom my dad shared this part of his past sends waves of emotion though me. I am thrilled that we have such a monument on American soil to remind us what these men sacrificed for us so many years ago.

Next year, 2020, will be the seventy-fifth anniversary of the march of prisoners out of Stalag Luft IV. Plans are in the works to mark the anniversary at the memorial site and across Germany following part of the path of the march. I know Zygmunt would have taken part, but sadly Zygmunt Wujek died on December 22, 2018.

Zygmunt’s obituary shared the following information:

On Saturday (22 December [2018]), a sad news came. At the age of 80, Zygmunt Wujek, a sculptor from Koszalin, a medalist, painter and draftsman and a social activist died. He became famous as the author of over two hundred monuments, including Jan Stawisiński, Victims of Bolshevism, General Władysław Anders and Martyrdom of the Polish Nation.

Zygmunt was born on September 22, 1938 in Rawicz, Poland. He studied sculpture at the State Higher School of Fine Arts (currently the Academy of Fine Arts) in Poznań. In the capital of Wielkopolska he was a participant in the demonstration of support for the workers’ protest in June 1956. He worked as an instructor at the Youth Culture Center in Poznań, but in 1965 he came to Koszalin. Here he was a teacher at the Technical School of Building, and later a sculpture teacher at the State High School of Fine Arts and a lecturer at the Design Institute of the Koszalin University of Technology. He was an activist of the Union of Polish Visual Artists. Awarded many times, including decorated with the Gold Cross of Merit, the Mater Verbi Medal and the West Pomeranian Griffin.

The news about the artist’s death is a huge loss for the Koszalin culture and a surprise for a group of his friends, because Zygmunt Wujek, who was still active, had many plans for the next year.

A more complete biography is included Zygmunt’s full (translated) obituary here.

But something is missing from this summary of Zygmunt’s life. What formed the man is not the list of his accomplishments, but the impressions that formed in his young mind when he was growing up in Poland.

Zygmunt was born during a terrible time in the world, during the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. Barely over a month following Zygmunt’s birth, over 15,000 Polish Jews living in Germany were expelled without warning. They were loaded in boxcars and dumped at the Polish border. Weeks later, the Nazis coordinated widespread attacks on Jews throughout Germany in an event call Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass.

Shortly before Zygmunt’s first birthday, the Nazis invaded Poland, initiating WWII in Europe. Britain and France demanded Germany withdraw its troops, but instead the Luftwaffe raided Warsaw. In September of 1939, Britain, France, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand all declared war on Germany. Before the end of the month, Warsaw surrendered to the Nazis.

In the early years of Zygmunt Wujek’s life, his country was under Nazi occupation. Concentration camps arrived and the extermination of Jews began. Stalag Luft IV opened in May 1944 for the imprisonment of captured allied enlisted airmen.

On January 17, 1945, with Zygmunt only six years old, Soviet troops captured and liberated Warsaw from Nazi control. On the 26th, the Soviets liberated the Auschwitz death camp in Poland. On February 6, with the Russian Army approaching, the POWs of Stalag Luft IV were made to gather their belongings and march from the camp, beginning their eighty-six day odyssey out of Poland and across Germany.

Until VE (Victory in Europe) Day, May 8, 1945, Zygmunt Wujek had known nothing but war in his life, but now at school age, those terrible times would become memories, but memories that would last a lifetime.

It is impossible to think of the memorial at Stalag Luft IV without remembering Zygmunt Wujek. Though he will be greatly missed by family and friends, including the daughters of Stalag Luft IV, his memory will live on through his works of art, and especially for me, his memorial sculpture for the airmen of Stalag Luft IV and the American Aviator.

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2019

WWII Timeline – Winter 1937

I’m continuing my WWII Timeline series with a look at January – March 1937 in this post.

A Timeline of WWII, Winter 1937

January 1937

The Nazis banned Jews from many professional occupations including teaching, accounting, and dentistry. Jews were also denied tax reductions and child allowances.

January 19, 1937

Japan officially stopped adhering to the Washington Conference Treaty of 1921 which limited the size of its Navy.

January 27, 1937

China Nationalists and Communists agreed to combine forces against Japan.

Sources:

This series of posts is based on a compilation of timelines from:

The Holocaust Encyclopedia

The History Place:

The National WWII Museum Interactive Timeline

World War II Chronicle by the Editors of Publications International, Ltd.

Most recent post from the series:

Fall 1936

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2019

The Shoe Leather Express

Seventy-four years ago, near the end of WWII, with Allied forces advancing from the west and the Soviet Red Army advancing from the east, the Nazis began a series of forced marches of prisoners out of their prisoner of war camps. There is no definitive answer as to why the prisoners were marched from the camps or what the Nazis planned for them in the end. One theory is that the prisoners were marched out of the camps simply to delay their liberation.

By the end of January 1945, the plan to march allied prisoners out of Stalag Luft IV and away from liberation by the Soviet Red Army was ready to begin. The winter of 1945 was one of Germany’s coldest on record with blizzard conditions. The prisoners of Stalag Luft IV, the POW camp in which Dad was held prisoner, were ill-equipped for a march in such weather. They had been underfed and were not clothed properly for the conditions.

On February 6, 1945 the march out of Stalag Luft IV began. With just a few hours notice to prepare to march out of the camp, the prisoners scrambled to gather what they could.

The prisoners did not know where they were going or how long they would be on the road. The march out of Stalag Luft IV has been given many names – the Death March, the Black March, and even the Shoe Leather Express. Most of those that survived just called it “The March”. My dad, George Edwin Farrar, usually called it the “Forced March” when he told me stories of sleeping in the hay and stealing a chicken for food.

Many books have been written about the 86-day 500-mile march of Stalag Luft IV prisoners. The best book on the subject is the original The Shoe Leather Express by Joseph P. O’Donnell. Joe was Stalag Luft IV POW 1414 and experienced the prison camp and the march firsthand. Joe wrote a series of six books on the subject of POWs, with the first book of the Shoe Leather Express series subtitled The Evacuation of Kriegsgefangenen Lager Stalag Luft IV Deutschland Germany.

The complete list of the Shoe Leather Express books is as follows:

  • Book 1:  The Shoe Leather Express, The Evacuation of Kriegsgefangenen Lager Stalag Luft IV Deutschland Germany
  • Book 2:  The Shoe Leather Express Book II, Luftgangsters Marching Across Germany, A Potpourri of Prisoner of War Experiences in Nazi Germany During World War II
  • Book 3:  The Pangs of the Thorn, Book III of The Shoe Leather Express, A Collection of True Stories of Prisoners of War in Japan and Nazi Germany WWII
  • Book 4:  A History of Stalag Luft IV, May 1944 – February 1945, Book IV of The Shoe Leather Express
  • Book 5:  And Then We Came Upon A Time of Great Rewarding, A Time of Remembrance, A Collection of Prayers and Poems for and by Prisoners of War
  • Book 6:  Talent Behind Barbed Wire, A Collection of Sketches and Cartoons of Prisoner of War Life

The harsh conditions of the march from Stalag Luft IV and treatment of the POWs is not well known. The march itself is rarely a topic of discussion in the subject of WWII history. But that needs to change. February 6, 2020 will mark the 75th Anniversary of the start of the Black March, and this event from history should be recognized and remembered.

The 50th Anniversary of the Forced March was commemorated in the Congressional Record. On May 8, 1995, in the First Session of the 104th Congress, John William Warner entered the commemoration into the 141st Congressional Record (S6237). It may be read here in one of my past posts.

As for Joseph O’Donnell’s Shoe Leather Express books, they are out of print and hard to find through used book sources, but the preface and first two chapters of the original Book I may be read online courtesy of Joseph O’Donnell and Gregory Hatton here.

Candy Kyler Brown, daughter of Stalag Luft IV POW John R. Kyler kindly provided me with the titles of all the books in Joseph O’Donnell’s The Shoe Leather Express series. Candy began researching her father’s WWII and POW experiences long before I began researching mine and has produced both a website and book with must-read information for anyone interested in learning more about the WWII POW experience.

Candy’s book, What I Never Told You: A Daughter Traces The Wartime Imprisonment Of Her Father, is available on Amazon.

Candy’s website, Remember History, offers a wealth of information about her father and about her friend, Joseph O’Donnell, and his POW experiences.

As Candy and I and other sons and daughters of Stalag Luft IV POWs have learned, it all starts with an inquisitive mind and a desire to know the truth about our fathers’ captivity during WWII. Don’t let this important part of our country’s history and your family’s history be lost to the past.

Learn everything you can by reading published books and personal accounts published online.  Search for your own family WWII-era letters and photos long packed away.

If you’re lucky enough to have a living father, grandfather, or uncle in his mid-90’s, ask him if he served in WWII. Ask about his war service and learn everything you can from him. If he is a former prisoner of war, find out everything you can about his POW experience. Record it. Share it with the world or just share it with future generations of your family.

We must not forget their service and we must not forget their sacrifice. Remember and make these men proud.

Resources

Preface and first two chapters of The Shoe Leather Express Book I

What I Never Told You: A Daughter Traces The Wartime Imprisonment Of Her Father by Candy Kyler Brown

Candy Kyler Brown’s website, Remember History

The 50th Anniversary of the Forced March commemorated in the Congressional Record

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2019

WWII Timeline – Fall 1936

I’m continuing my WWII Timeline series with a look at October – December 1936 in this post.

A Timeline of WWII, Fall 1936

October 1, 1936

Spain’s Nationalists declare Franco head of Spain.

October 25, 1936
Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy sign a treaty of cooperation or friendship.

October 29, 1936

Soviet tanks and planes see action in Spain on the side of the Loyalists.

November 1, 1936

Roosevelt is re-elected to his second term as U.S. president.

Germany and Italy announce a Rome-Berlin Axis one week after signing a treaty of friendship on October 25. Benito Mussolini, speaking to a crowd in Milan, said,

the line between Rome and Berlin is not a partition but rather an axis around which all European states…can also collaborate.

This was the first time Axis was used to mean Italy and its allies. The main Axis powers were Germany, Italy, and Japan. Germany was led by Adolf Hitler and dominated most of continental Europe; Italy was led by Benito Mussolini and dominated the Mediterranean Sea; and Japan was led by Emperor Hirohito and dominated East Asia and the Pacific.

November 6, 1936

Germany’s “Condor Legion” of planes and pilots arrives in Spain to support the Nationalists.

November 18, 1936

Germany and Italy formally recognize General Francisco Franco’s new Spanish government.

November 25, 1936

Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan sign the Anti-Comintern (Communist International) Pact which was directed against the international Communist movement.

December 1936

In China, General Chang Hsueh-liang orchestrated the kidnapping of Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek. His intent was to force Chiang Kai-shek to concentrate his time and energy on confronting the Japanese rather than the Chinese Communists.

December 11, 1936

George VI is crowned King of England. His brother, Edward VIII, had married American divorcée Wallis Simpson and had abdicated the throne. George VI’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth, would succeed him upon his death in 1952 .

Sources:

This series of posts is based on a compilation of timelines from:

The Holocaust Encyclopedia

The History Place:

The National WWII Museum Interactive Timeline

Anti-Comintern Pact on Wikipedia

World War II Chronicle by the Editors of Publications International, Ltd.

Most recent post from the series:

Summer 1936

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2019

WWII Timeline – Summer 1936

I’m continuing my WWII Timeline series with a look at July – September 1936 in this post.

A Timeline of WWII, Summer 1936

July 17, 1936

Civil war erupts in Spain. Fascist General Francisco Franco leads the “Nationalists” against the “Loyalists.” Germany’s Hitler and Italy’s Mussolini assist by flying Franco’s troops from Spanish Morocco to Spain. They later also send planes and troops to help Franco fight the Spanish Republic.

August 1936

The Nazis set up an Office for Combating Homosexuality and Abortions (by healthy women).

August 1, 1936

The 1936 Summer Olympic Games, which had been awarded to Germany before Adolf Hitler rose to power, begin in Berlin. During the Olympics, in an attempt to gain favorable public opinion from foreign visitors, Hitler and the top Nazis refrain from taking any actions against Jews.

August 7, 1936

The subject of Laura Hillenbrand’s non-fiction best-seller Unbroken, Olympic runner Louis Zamperini finished 8th in the 5000-meter men’s event at that Olympics with a time of 14:46:8. But Zamperini’s final lap of 56 seconds was unheard of. It was rare for a final lap in a 5000-meter race to be run in under a minute. Afterwards, Zamperini and Hitler shook hands, and Hitler said, “Ah, you’re the boy with the fast finish.”

September 15, 1936

Spain’s Loyalist government protests the shipment of arms to Germany’s and Italy’s Nationalists.

Sources:

This series of posts is based on a compilation of timelines from:

The Holocaust Encyclopedia

The History Place:

The National WWII Museum Interactive Timeline

Wikipedia:  Louis Zamperini

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

World War II Chronicle by the Editors of Publications International, Ltd.

Most recent post from the series:

Spring 1936

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2018

Site Map of Station 106 at Grafton Underwood

The last time I caught up with Mark Meehl was in October in Dayton, Ohio at the latest 384th Bomb Group Reunion. Both Mark and his brother Jerry attended as they have for many years. Mark and Jerry’s dad, Paul Edwin Meehl, was a ground crew chief assigned to the 384th’s 547th Bomb Squadron from early 1943 through the end of the war. He also transferred with the group to Istres, France at the end of the war in Europe.

Left to right: Mark and Jerry Meehl at the 2018 384th Bomb Group Reunion in Dayton, Ohio

Mark is the group’s archivist, is a researcher who specializes in ground personnel, and also maintains the master log of all combat sorties. Mark’s brother Jerry (Gerald) is also interested in military history and has written or co-written three books, one with 384th Bomb Group waist gunner Jack Goetz.

At the reunion, I mentioned to Mark that I wanted to attend the group’s next junket to England – in September 2019 – and hoped to find the site of some air base photos in my dad’s collection. Mark shared scans of a couple of maps of the Station 106 site plan at Grafton Underwood with me and using them I believe I may be able to stand in the very same area the photos were taken when I visit.

For starters, this map that Mark shared with me shows the entire site with runways, living areas, and the small village of Grafton Underwood.

Overall plan of the Grafton Underwood airfield and all the site areas.
Scan by Mark Meehl of original plans/maps courtesy of Matt Smith in England

Click on the image to open it to full screen. (Then use your browser Back button to return to this post). The legend for the map is:

  • Site No. 1 – Airfield and Hardstands
  • Site No. 1 – 547th BS & Maintenance Technical Site
  • Site No. 1 – Group Headquarters
  • Site No. 1 – Old Head Wood Bomb Stores
  • Site No. 1 – SE Area
  • Site No. 1 – Technical Site
  • Site No. 1 – Warkton Common Bomb Stores
  • Site No. 2 – Communal
  • Site No. 3 – Communal
  • Site No. 4 – Group Staff Quarters
  • Site No. 5 – Ground Echelon Quarters
  • Site No. 6 – Ground Echelon Quarters
  • Site No. 7 – W.A.A.F.
  • Site No. 8 – 544th BS Area
  • Site No. 9 – 547th BS Area
  • Site No. 10 – 545th BS Area
  • Site No. 11 – 546th BS Area
  • Site No. 12 – Sick Quarters
  • Site No. 13 – Sewage
  • Site No. 14 – Sewage

Mark also told me I could add the site map as an overlay on Google Earth, so armed with a few instructions from Mark, I came up with this…

Grafton Underwood site map overlaid on Google Earth map

I’ll be playing around with this feature of Google Earth some more and try to get better results, but I’m pretty pleased with my first attempt.

My dad was in the 544th Bomb Squadron, so one of my interests is in Site No. 8. I believe my dad’s photos were taken in this area, and I’ll explore that site in more detail in a future post.

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2018

WWII Timeline – Spring 1936

I’m continuing my WWII Timeline series with a look at April – June 1936 in this post.

A Timeline of WWII, Spring 1936

May 2, 1936

The leader of Abyssinia, Haile Selassie, fled the capital, Addis Ababa, as the country is overrun by Italian troops.

May 9, 1936

In an invasion that began October 2, 1935, Mussolini’s Italian forces conquer and annex Ethiopia.

May 12, 1936

Italy renounces its membership in the League of Nations.

June 17, 1936

Heinrich Himmler is appointed Reichsführer-SS, chief of the German Police. The second-most powerful man in Nazi Germany, he was head of the SS, the Gestapo, and all of the Third Reich’s police and security forces.

In 1936, Himmler spoke to his SS and instructed them:

I know there are many people in Germany who feel sick at the very sight of this black (SS) uniform. We understand this and we do not expect to be loved…All those who have Germany at heart, will and should respect us. All those who in some way or at some time have a bad conscience in respect to the Führer and the nation should fear us. For these people we have constructed an organization called the SD (SS security service) and in the same way…the Gestapo (secret state police)…

Unconditional and highest freedom of will comes from obedience, from service to our Weltanschauung (world view), obedience which is prepared to render each and every sacrifice to pride, to external honor and to all which is dear to us personally, obedience which never falters but unconditionally follows every order which comes from the Führer or legally from superiors…

He won their obedience and when the order came from Hitler to exterminate the Jews, they obeyed.

Sources:

This series of posts is based on a compilation of timelines from:

The Holocaust Encyclopedia

The History Place:

The National WWII Museum Interactive Timeline

World War II Chronicle by the Editors of Publications International, Ltd.

Most recent post from the series:

Winter 1936

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2018

Why Did the Caterpillar Cross the Pond?

Question:  Why did the caterpillar cross the pond?

Answer:  To save the lives of airmen who were forced to bail out of disabled aircraft, like George Edwin Farrar of the 384th Bomb Group of the USAAF 8th Army Air Forces and Lawrence Edgar Newbold of the RAF 50 Squadron in WWII.

I recently wrote about Lawrence Newbold here. Lawrence was forced to bail out of his Avro Lancaster on March 18, 1944 on a mission to Frankfurt. Six months later, my dad, George Farrar, was thrown from his disabled B-17 on September 28, 1944 on a mission to Magdeburg. Dad and Lawrence were assigned as fellow POWs in Room 12 of the Stalag Luft IV prison camp.

I even more recently was able to connect with Lawrence Newbold’s family in England and his grandson Paul Newbold kindly shared a photo of Lawrence’s Caterpillar Club certificate and pin with me.

Lawrence Newbold’s Caterpillar Club card and pin
Photo by Paul Newbold

Seeing Lawrence’s Caterpillar Club certificate and pin jogged my memory of how important a wonderful invention – the parachute – was to the airmen of WWII and specifically to my dad and to me. If my dad hadn’t been wearing his in his midair collision of September 28, 1944, he would not have survived, married my mother, and had me or my sister.

During WWII, several companies manufactured and sold parachutes to both the American and British military. The Irvin Air Chute Company was one of them, as was the Switlik Parachute Company.

In 1919, Leslie Irvin, a stuntman from California, borrowed a sewing machine and made the first “free drop” parachute, which he demonstrated himself to flying safety experts. He so impressed them that the American and British Air Forces adopted the parachute as standard equipment. Irvin established his first American factory in Buffalo, New York that year and his first European factory in Letchworth, England in 1926. The Irvin Letchworth factory produced a peak of nearly 1,500 parachutes a week during the height of WWII.

Both the Irvin and Switlik companies began Caterpillar Clubs which awarded certificates and pins as testimony to the life saving ability of the parachute. The requirement for each was that the applicant must have bailed out of a disabled or flaming aircraft under emergency conditions.

The name of the club came about because in the early days of the parachute, they were made from pure silk. The clubs used the symbol of the silk worm caterpillar, which descends slowly by spinning a silk thread to hang from.

By WWII, silk could no longer be imported from Japan and the parachutes used by American and British airmen were primarily made of nylon. Regardless of the material used in the construction of their parachutes, after the end of WWII, by late 1945, there were 34,000 members of Irvin’s Caterpillar Club.

Airmen serving in WWII did not receive any training for bailing out or using their chutes other than a set of instructions. Though the Parachute Instructions (full instructions at the end of this article) suggest “It is advisable to have one side of the parachute pack snapped to the harness when in immediate danger,” most airmen didn’t strap them on until they heard an alarm or instructions from their pilot to bail out. Chutes were uncomfortable to wear and got in the way of an airman’s duties.

My dad must have been wearing his chute, which was a chest chute, or at least had one side of the pack strapped on, because I don’t think he would have had time to grab it when, and if, he saw another B-17 in his formation heading straight for him.

In the stories he told me when I was a child of the collision and his time as a prisoner of war, he said the reason he was the only survivor aboard his flying fortress was because he was the only one who “still had on his chute” after dropping the bombs on their target. He was knocked unconscious in the collision and awoke in free fall 5,000 feet from the ground to the sound of his mother’s voice calling his name. After hooking up his chute and taking in the view of the countryside below him, he lost consciousness again and didn’t awaken until he lay injured on the ground, being beaten by an older German woman.

On his parachute ride down, he did not see the B-17 from which he had been thrown burning and spinning into the clouds. He did not see the ball turret knocked from the ship with the helpless gunner inside falling to Earth. The ball turret was too small for most gunners to wear their chutes inside the capsule. Even if my dad’s crew mates had been wearing their chutes, the centrifugal force of the spinning ship likely would have pinned them inside and prevented them from bailing out. They also may have been knocked unconscious in the horrific collision 25,000 feet above the ground, unable to find and strap on their parachutes.

But like Lawrence Newbold, my dad survived, thanks to his parachute, to also become a member of the Caterpillar Club. Dad joined both Irvin’s and Switlik’s clubs.

From the Irvin Air Chute Company…

Dad’s Caterpillar Club card issued by the Irvin Air Chute Company

One of Dad’s Caterpillar Club pins, likely from Irvin

From the Switlik Parachute Company…

Dad’s Caterpillar Club certificate issued by the Switlik Parachute Company

One of Dad’s Caterpillar Club pins, likely from Switlik

George Farrar and Lawrence Newbold endured Stalag Luft IV together, they survived the Black March together, and both became lifetime members of one of the most exclusive clubs in which no one wants to have to face the first requirement to become a member, having to bail out of a disabled aircraft in an emergency to save one’s life.

Parachute Instructions for B-17 Crews as presented at Stalag Luft I Online (link below)

  1. Handle the parachute pack gently and do not allow it to get wet or greasy.
  2. It is advisable to have one side of the parachute pack snapped to the harness when in immediate danger.
  3. Jumping Suggestions
    • Make delayed jumps.
    • Dampen oscillation.
    • Face downwind.
    • Keep feet together.
    • Unhook snaps during descent if over water.
  4. Use static lines to bail out wounded personnel.
  5. Three short rings on alarm signal indicates “Prepare to bail out.” One long ring is the signal for “Bail Out.”

Source:

Stalag Luft I Online

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2018