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.