The term “Mae West” – slang for the inflatable life jacket issued to Royal Air Force aviators during the Second World War – comes from American film actress Mary Jane ‘Mae’ West, renowned for her generous bust.
On the night of 27 April 1942 Australian-born Wing Commander Donald Bennett of No. 10 Squadron RAF, was shot down over Norway. His Halifax bomber had attempted to roll sea mines under the German battleship Tirpitz, but was hit by anti-aircraft fire in the starboard wing, which caught fire. Bennett ordered his crew to abandon the aircraft. Jumping just as the wing broke off, when Bennett reached the ground he quickly removed his “Mae West” lifejacket and parachute harness, covered them in the parachute, and buried them under snow. Bennett and one other crewman, wireless operator Sergeant Forbes, then made a gruelling three-day journey on foot to Sweden.
After a brief internment, Bennett arranged a flight back to Britain, where he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and given command of the newly-formed Pathfinder Force within Bomber Command. Pathfinder squadrons marked targets for the rest of the bombers using target indicator bombs, greatly improving the effectiveness of Bomber Command.
Bennett’s buried package was dug up by a local villager, Redier Fordal. The parachute material was used for making clothes, while Fordal hid the lifejacket in his home.
Don Bennett died in 1986. Bennett's widow, Mrs Ly Bennett, visited Trondheim in Norway on the 50th anniversary of the raid in 1992. There Mrs Bennett was presented with this Mae West by Redier Fordal, who had kept it safe in the hope he could present it to Don Bennett. It was donated to the Pathfinder Force Association (Queensland) upon her death in 2000, and was offered to the Australian War Memorial in 2006.