Of all the work performed by women in uniform, packing parachutes — those complicated contraptions of silk and leather — meant the difference between life and death for a man plunging from the sky.
Here’s a photo of some very smart-looking Canadian women carefully laying out a parachute on a long table, checking that every fold is in place.
(Photo Credit: Canadian War Museum).
There was a tremendous need for parachutes in World War Two.
Fliers not only needed them during training (especially then) but every time they went out on operational flights. During the six-year conflict, hundreds of thousands of parachutes were sewn, packed and distributed. Twenty thousand parachutes were opened in a single mission, dropping paratroopers into France on D-Day.
And for the most part, parachute packing was women’s work.
In the book We Serve That Men May Fly, the story of the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division, author Mary Ziegler quotes one officer, explaining why women were particularly suited to the job.
“Take parachute packing. To a man it’s a dull, routine job. He doesn’t want to pack parachutes. He wants to be up there with one strapped to his back. But to a woman it’s an exciting job. She can imagine that someday a flier’s life will be saved because she packed that parachute well. Maybe it will be her own husband’s life or her boyfriend’s. That makes parachute packing pretty exciting for her, and she does a much more efficient and speedy job than an unhappy airman would.”
Perhaps there was even some truth to this outdated attitude!
Foothill Fliers was the station newsletter of No. 3 Service Flight Training School in Calgary, and in the October 1943 issue, it published an article titled: “Temptations of a ‘Chute Girl.”
Although the article was written by a woman, Corporal Muriel Ellis, she kept the tone light. Here’s an excerpt:
“Ever miss those nice sheer pre-war silk stockings, girls? When you work all day with enough silk to make stockings aplenty for the next eight years, wearing cotton stockings, it’s a great temptation to whip out the scissors. Particularly now, when real $1.50 chiffons are as scarce as beefsteak in Berlin.
“That’s what the girls in the parachute section, packing six to eight chutes a day, and thinking of the dear, dead days of silk-legged delight, are up against. The silk from one chute would make no less than 160 pairs of stockings, and if you like Nylons, there’s 200 pairs of them in one of the big umbrellas.
“Chute rigging has been one of the chief activities of the Women’s Division since Ottawa decided that there were hundreds of jobs in the air force that could be done by the ladies. And, as you can see, one of the most ironical jobs.”
The photo below shows AW1 A.S. Olive packing a parachute at Wolseley, Saskatchewan. Behind her you can see the individual cubbyholes, where each parachute was kept until checked out before a flight.
In spite of this humorous approach, packing a parachute was far from simple. Here’s one description of how it was done:
“The main canopy is 56 square yards of silk and is 24 feet in diameter. Fastened to the pack are two rings known as the D rings. From the right ring run 12 rigging lines up the right side of the canopy and down the left side and then fasten on the left ring. These lines measure 52 feet apiece and total 700 feet. The canopy and lines are stowed in a small pack 11 inches by 16 inches in concertina fashion. The placing of such a large quantity of silk and lines in such a small space is a very intricate operation and well worth witnessing. The weight of the parachute complete with harness is 25 pounds.”
Sounds pretty complicated, doesn’t it?
Before the parachute was packed, it had to be minutely examined for flaws. Here’s a group of civilian women inspecting a parachute.
(Photo Credit: Bettmann and Corbis)
It was also examined in a hanging position. According to the article in Foothills Fliers: “Each fold must be exact, all rigging or shroud lines must be in the pockets straight and true. The metal fittings have to be kept free from rust, and a dozen other things checked to insure the fast opening of a parachute. For a chute must not only open, it must open fast!”
Then came the tricky business of folding it correctly, so the delicate lines wouldn’t get tangled and caught up when the silk unfurled. Once again, the racks containing the packed parachutes are visible in the background.
The below photograph of Beatrice Jennox was copied from the book We Serve That Men May Fly, the story of the RCAF Women’s Division, by Mary Ziegler.
Women of all nationalities and branches of the armed forces performed this vital task. Here an American WAVE (short for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) demonstrates parachute packing techniques. Later this branch became known as the U.S. Naval Reserve (Women’s Reserve), but the nickname WAVE stuck.
The lettering on the parachute bag indicates that the location is Naval Air Station, New York. Note her Parachute Rigger rating badge, and framed prints of navy life on the wall behind her.
(Photo Credit: U.S. Navy, now in the collection of the National Archives.)
The care of the parachute was also of great importance. Records were kept to ensure parachutes were tested regularly.
The chute was opened and hung up for 48 hours to enable it to air; weather permitting, the parachute was taken outside and aired by nature, ballooning with the wind. It was then well shaken to get rid of any insects.
At periodic intervals, the women also went up in an aircraft and “drop-tested” the chutes, attached to 180-pound dummies. According to the Foothill Fliers: “The girls feel like bombardiers as they circle the drome at 100 miles per hour, hefting the dummies out!”
Here’s a group of WRENS (Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service) checking to see that a parachute is filling correctly, by opening it in the wind.
If a tiny hole or weak spot was noted, the parachutes had to be carefully mended. This painting by Paraskeva Clark, who was appointed by the National Gallery of Canada to record the activities of the women’s branches of the armed forces during wartime, shows the process of sewing the parachutes.
The intense expression on three of the women’s faces draws attention to their tasks of cutting, folding, and securing the lines of the parachutes. This 1947 oil painting is part of the Beaverbrook Collection of War Art at the Canadian War Museum.
Here’s a photo of women mending chutes at No. 38 Wing RAF & Airborne Division Headquarters. You can see by the volume of fabric and the number of lines that this was a fairly cumbersome job.
Mary Purdue, whoever she was, was named in this advertisement for an American brand of cereal as a Champion Parachute Maker.
The parachute-packing women were intensely aware that their activities were of the utmost importance.
A sign on the wall behind these members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force reads: “REMEMBER, A MAN’S LIFE DEPENDS ON EVERY PARACHUTE YOU PACK!” I doubt very much if the sign was necessary.
Parachute records noted when it was packed, and by whom, so every parachute could be traced back to its packer.
Many men died no matter how well their parachutes were packed. And in each fatality investigation, the parachute had to be inspected to see whether it was a factor.
Anna Dundas (née Mayer) of Winnipeg enlisted in the RCAF Women’s Division in January 1942 and served at No. 10 Service Flight Training School in Dauphin, Manitoba.
Here she describes one sad but memorable incident :
“There were three of us in that section. We had to inspect parachutes for rips or tears and hang them in a well to air them for 48 hours, and then repack them.
“The only time I was nervous inspecting a parachute was where they brought it in after a crash and it had burned. And we had to go through it. We, when I say we, I had to. I was the only one that worked on it, to make sure there were no body parts in it. And the smell of that burnt silk was very, very strong, it was nauseating. And it was kind of a daunting job. But we had to do it, that was part of the ritual, before they could throw it out.”
Another woman named G.D. Martineau wrote an eloquent poem about her feelings, describing her anxiety at the importance of her work.
The Parachute Packer’s Prayer
When they posted me here to the section,
I was free as the pitiless air,
Unashamed of confessed imperfection,
Having no sort of burden to bear.
I was not an incurable slacker;
Neat, not fussy – I fancied of old,
But today I’m a Parachute Packer,
And my heart takes a turn with each fold.
When I think how I snugly resided
In the lap of this land we could lose,
I believe if I left one cord twisted,
I would place my own neck in a noose.
So I lay the fine silk on the table
And I lift each pale panel in turn.
They have said that my folding is able
But it took me a long time to learn.
For the cords must come free for smooth flowing
And the webbing attachment be stout,
For the brute of a breeze will be blowing
If the aircrew have to bale out.
‘Cos the flyer must float unencumbered,
Come to earth to complete the design,
See, the ‘chute has been carefully numbered,
And the name in the log book is mine.
So is conscience awakened and care born
In the heart of a negligent maid.
Fickle Aeolus, fight for the airborne,
Whom I strive with frail fingers to aid.
Give my heroes kind wind and fair weather,
Let no parachute sidle or slump,
For today we go warring together
And my soul will be there at the jump.
(I found the last two lines very moving: “Today we go warring together, and my soul will be there at the jump.”)
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Here is the best story of all, and one that I located after much diligent searching of the internet. It comes from a small town newspaper in Watkins Glen, New York called The Watkins Express, dated July 7, 1943.
This man, RCAF Flying Officer J.R. Delaney, had managed to bail out of his burning plane and was saved. In gratitude, he sought out the parachute packer, a young woman named L.A.C. Irene Camken, who worked in a parachute packing station in Rockcliffe, near Ottawa. Flying Officer Delaney was from Mount Vernon, New York.
And because the old clipping is a little blurry, here is a transcript:
BRINGS HIM BACK ALIVE
“When a flier has to bail out of his aircraft, he not only appreciates the parachute that does the trick of saving him, but looks on its packer as the person who threw a life preserver when he started to sink.
“Flying Office T.R. Delaney of Mount Vernon, New York, who recently jumped from a flaming aircraft, landed safely and went to the parachute section of the Royal Canadian Air Force Station at Rockcliffe to thank the airwoman who “brought him back alive.”
“She is Leading Airwoman Irene Camken, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Camken of Belleville. Formerly a fabric worker at the Cooey Metal Works, Brighton, Ont., LAW Camken enlisted in the Women’s Division of the Royal Canadian Air Force fourteen months ago, and has been packing parachutes ever since. In her estimation, that is a real war job.
“You can never let yourself forget how important your work is when you’re packing ‘chutes,” she said. “It isn’t your life that depends on them. It’s somebody else’s, and your best is the only job that’s good enough.”
“Now transferred to another station of the RCAF, LAW Camken took along evidence of how good her “best job” can be. It is a new identification bracelet, one shining side bearing the RCAF crest, her name and Women’s Division number. The other is the side she prefers That reads: “With sincere thanks, T.R. Delaney.”
On behalf of all those men who fell safely from the sky — not to mention their mothers, sisters, and wives — I want to send a big Cheers to the Chute Girls, wherever they are now. Happy Landings!
(Note: Parachute packing was just one of the many jobs performed by airwomen during the war. You may see photographs of some other trades here: What Did You Do in the RCAF, Grandma?)
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STAR WEEKLY AT WAR
The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. I couldn’t find an image of a parachute packer, but I love this cover of a “Rosie the Riveter” being saluted by two servicemen. To see my entire collection of Star Weekly covers, click: Star Weekly At War.