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An Ulster Log: How did war hero's medal end up in a Belfast yard?

By Eddie McIlwaine

Published 19/09/2015

Collector Lafferty has stumbled on a mystery surrounding that first precious Caterpillar pin presented to young Baker
Collector Lafferty has stumbled on a mystery surrounding that first precious Caterpillar pin presented to young Baker
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It was in this month 70 years ago, that Fleet Air Arm pilot Leslie George Baker, then 21, managed to bail from his fighter Seafire, the naval version of the Spitfire, shot out of the skies over Sumatra as the Second World War neared its end.

It was the second occasion on which Londoner Baker owed his life to a parachute - he had bailed out of a Seafire a few weeks earlier and been picked up by friendly boatmen after his brush with death.

But the second time, Leslie's luck ran out. He was taken prisoner by the Japanese, and after being interrogated and refusing to answer questions was ruthlessly beheaded. I learned about his horrific death from 82-year-old retired coachbuilder George Lafferty, of Moira, whose hobby is collecting wartime badges, especially those awarded to hero airmen.

Young Baker had already been admitted to the ranks of the Caterpillar Club that is open only to flyers who cheat death by parachuting out of a disabled plane. But Leslie didn't live to pick up his pin - unlawfully murdered as a POW against all the rules of war.

Now, collector Lafferty has stumbled on a mystery surrounding that first precious Caterpillar pin presented to young Baker.

"A friend was digging in his garden in the Silverstream district of Belfast and turned up airman Baker's Caterpillar pin with his spade," reveals George Lafferty. "It bore the correct Baker number, which I checked out in a book called The Carrier Pilot, written years ago by the late Norman Hanson, a former Second World War pilot."

So how did the special badge of this young Fleet Air Arm hero end up in a Belfast garden? That question baffled Hanson who never found an answer before he died. Did Baker bring his medal to town to show to friends or a sweetheart while he was on leave and lose it in a flower bed?

"I doubt we will ever know the answer," says Lafferty, who is now attempting to track down the Baker family.

The Caterpillar Parachute Club was founded by Leslie Irvin of the Irvin Airchute Company of Canada in 1922, and his company's parachutes saved the lives of airmen in both world wars. And it is still awarded to this day to flyers who owe their lives to parachute jumps.

Caterpillar Club recognises the debt owed to the silkworm.

"Life depends on a silken thread" is the club's motto.

Superstar Nicole is set for a Titanic visit to city

My favourite actress Nicole Kidman, who is winning rave reviews for her performance in the drama Photograph 51 at the Noel Coward Theatre in the West End in London, will make a whistle-stop visit to Belfast when the run comes to an end in November.

The gossip is that Nicole will be sizing up the facilities here for film-making with a view to shooting a movie, but the real reason for the visit is that she wants to see the set where Game of Thrones is produced.

And she will take time out to have a look at Titanic Belfast — Nicole, like many other celebs, is fascinated by the Titanic story. Will she appear in yet another movie about that tragic liner? I hope not — there have been enough films on that subject already.

Still, while she is in town I hope to catch up with Nicole.

Day a young Bernadette Devlin took on Maudling

A young female backbencher has suggested in the Assembly that it’s time for the old-timers to hand over to the younger set at Stormont in a bid to get Northern Ireland working.

I’ve a better idea — why don’t the lot of them hand over to an Assembly of robots? Artificial intelligence could be the answer. Mind you, there are a few robot lookalikes in the Assembly already.

However, we shouldn’t be surprised at what goes on in the Big House today. I can remember it was the same when Northern Ireland had its own Parliament and Lord Brookeborough was Prime Minister. Back then there was a debate going on about dog licences (too high or too low) while outside a protest march by a couple of thousand men complaining on the steps about unemployment was being ignored.

And I’ll never forget the day in the House of Commons when 21-year-old Bernadette Devlin crossed the floor to slap Home Secretary Reg Maudling because she didn’t like remarks he had just made. Bernadette, now 68, livened up the place, but got herself suspended for six months.

Cruel ending for our brave POWs

Here's another sad story about the cruel way the Japanese treated prisoners of war in the Second World War.

Aviation historian Ernie Cromie's research has determined how a Lieutenant Evan John Baxter (23), a pilot from New Zealand with Fleet Air Arm Squadron, 1833 was shot down in his Corsair during an attack on oil refineries at Palembang, Sumatra, in January 1945.

He survived the crash, but was held in Outram Gaol, Singapore, until July 31, when he was beheaded along with eight other Fleet Air Arm crew. A few days later the Japanese also beheaded a fellow prisoner of Baxter, Petty Officer Ivor Barker (21), a member of the crew of an Avenger aircraft from HMS Victorious.

Not the vinyl countdown just yet

There's an old saying that what goes round, comes around, and it applies right now to the printed book and the vinyl record.

Both seemed to have been put in the shade forever by the emergence of the Kindle for readers and the CD for music listeners.

But look at what is happening: the book and vinyl are making a comeback and the other two, while not disappearing, are taking their places down the pecking order of popularity. The wind-up gramophone will be back next, just wait and see. And I'm certainly not parting with my typewriter. Anyone got a good old-fashioned washboard?

My regret is that I disposed of my collection of vinyl 78s and albums when the CD arrived. The lesson is, never throw anything out.

The wrong mummy kissing Santa

With the death of big sister Joy at 91, it has been claimed that the Beverley Sisters had a huge hit with I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.

But the real No 1 with the kissing song belonged to an artist called Jimmy Boyd (right), who was only 13 when he had it top of the pops in 1952 for 10 weeks, selling two million.

Joy and the twins Babs and Teddie recorded a cover version that never compared to Jimmy's verson, which was a one-hit wonder for him. Jimmy, who was 70 when he died in Santa Monica in 2009, grew up to become a respected actor.

Joy Beverley married Billy Wright, the former captain of the England football team, who died in 1994.

Belfast Telegraph

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