Civil Air Patrol: A Story of Unique Service and Selfless Sacrifice

  • Published
  • By Steve Cox
  • CAP Headquarters

Brave. Heroic

They were the citizen fliers of America’s greatest generation who, propelled by duty, honor and love of country, sacrificed all in defense of America in the earliest, darkest days of World War II.

Their story is extraordinary, for these founding members of Civil Air Patrol — more than 1,500 strong — performed the most amazing feats. They hunted Nazi U-boats and chased them from America’s shores. They searched for the lost. They saved lives. They made a profound difference.

Inspired by the highest sense of patriotism and pride, these fearless aviators relentlessly flew up and down the Atlantic and Gulf coastlines to protect their homeland. Without their coastal patrols during the first 18 months of the war, who knows what might have happened. The marauding Nazi submarines were using torpedoes to sink ships, barges and oil tankers in America’s shipping lanes, almost at will. And the United States Navy and Army did not have the ships, aircraft or manpower to prevent the attacks. From January to March 1942, 52 tankers were sunk, often within sight of civilians on shore.

The economic impact, not to mention the number of lives lost, was quickly adding up, prompting Army General George C. Marshall to say, “The losses by submarines off our Atlantic seaboard and in the Caribbean now threaten our entire war effort.”

Something had to be done to stop the carnage. The stage was set for these civilian founders to come to the aid of their country.

In response to the ever-increasing submarine attacks, the Tanker Committee of the Petroleum Industry War Council urged the Navy Department and the War Department to consider the use of CAP to help patrol America’s sea lanes. While the Navy initially rejected this suggestion, the Army decided it had merit, and the coastal patrols began in earnest in March 1942. By late March 1942, the Navy also began using the services of CAP.

Oil companies and other organizations provided funds to help pay for some CAP operations, including vitally needed shore radios for monitoring the missions. But most of the aircraft and emergency equipment were furnished by the civilians who had taken up the cause of defending America’s shores. Their mission was to report enemy subs to the military and to drive them farther underwater, where they would be forced to slow down and use their limited battery power.

So many subs were spotted that the decision was soon made to arm CAP’s light aircraft with small bombs and its larger aircraft with 325-pound depth charges.

The planes of these “subchasers” — mostly Stinsons and Fairchilds — were painted red and yellow with special markings (a blue circle with a white triangle) to identify them as CAP aircraft. They were equipped with only a compass for navigation and a single radio for communication.

Patrols were conducted up to 60 miles off shore, generally with two planes flying together. Flights were made daily despite the weather, and in all seasons, including the winter, when ditching an aircraft in cold seas could mean certain death to the aircrews.

Emergency equipment was often lacking, particularly during the earliest patrols, where inner tubes and kapok duck hunter vests were carries as flotation devices. At the time, ocean-worthy wet suits, life vests and life rafts were unavailable.

Despite these conditions, the patrols were an immediate success. Renowned subchaser Eddie Edwards was perhaps the first CAP pilot to spot a Nazi U-boat. As instructed, he radioed the sub’s position to naval forces, prompting the vessel to crash-dive and head farther out to sea, where it was less of a menace to the nation’s shipping.

The subchasers flew daily from dawn to dusk, logging more than 24 million miles from 21 Coastal Patrol bases along America’s shores. They hunted U-boats “from Maine to Mexico.” And they were quite successful, reporting 173 suspected subs and attacking 57.

Their effectiveness at deterring coastal U-boat operations was instrumental in eventually making Civil Air Patrol the official auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force. By mid-July 1942, German Adm. Karl Doenitz, commander of all Nazi U-boats, withdrew his last submarines from America’s shores after increasing losses and reduced success against merchant traffic.

Along with his notoriety as one of the very first subchasers, Edwards held celebrity status within CAP as one of the first two Coastal Patrol pilots awarded the Air Medal for heroism during World War II. He and his commanding officer, Maj. Hugh R. Sharp Jr., each received the medal in February 1943 after President Roosevelt heard of their daring rescue of a fellow airman downed in bitterly cold high seas off Maryland.

Edwards, in an interview in 2006, clearly remembered the rescue of 1st Lt. Henry Cross, which earned him the medal and subchaser fame. “I got the call that one of our planes was down, and Maj. Sharp asked me to go with him,” Edwards said. “We had no trouble finding the crash site. We spotted a body, so we made an emergency landing and fished him out. He was alive, but we never found the other guy.”

The rescue on July 21, 1942, required that Edwards and Sharp land their aircraft, a Sikorsky S-39 single-engine amphibian piloted by Sharp, in 8- to 10-foot-high swells, which crushed the left pontoon. So, to get back to Base 2, Edwards accomplished a daring feat by climbing out onto the right wing and using his weight to level the plane. He clung there, half-frozen, through the night until early the next day when a Coast Guard boat water-taxied the unflyable aircraft to shore.

Though Edwards and Sharp were the first civilians to receive the Air Medal, they were joined by others from their own ranks. In 1948, 824 Air Medals were presented to CAP members.

The coastal patrols stood down in Aug. 31, 1943, but the fledgling organization’s other World War II missions continued. While Air Medals were issued for some of those participating in the coastal patrols, little other recognition was forthcoming for the myriad of humanitarian services CAP’s volunteers provided during the war.

“We who served asked for nothing in return and got nothing,” said former U.S. Rep. Lester Wolff, D-N.Y., who commanded a CAP squadron based at Mitchell Field on Long Island, N.Y., during World War II.

Often, “it was a perilous task,” Wolff said, recalling the loss of one of his squadron members. Remember; many of these civilian planes, though not built specifically for the task, had bombs and depth charges strapped to them.

Sixty-eight CAP members died — 26 of them lost at sea — as a result of the war effort.

CAP Col. Robert Arn flew anti-sub missions out of Coastal Patrol Base No. 14 in Panama City, Fla., from September 1942 to June 1943. Of the 12 original pilots he served with at Panama City, “we lost six of them,” said Arn, who flew 179 missions totaling 557 hours of flight time over the Gulf of Mexico.

“I think with the aircraft we had, which weren’t built to go out over the Gulf of Mexico, we were able to do a job and do it well,” he said.

“So many people forget that our little effort contributed so much,” especially in terms of providing protection for shipping, said Wolff.

The coastal patrol service helped force the German Navy to move further offshore. It was a significant result from a newly formed civilian organization.

The success of the coastal patrols spawned other missions on behalf of the war effort with thousands more joining the cause. Forest fire patrols, disaster relief, medical evacuation, radar training missions and observation flights to check the effectiveness of blackouts, industrial camouflage and smokescreens were but a handful of the other operations completed by the CAP. 

Nationwide, CAP quickly established itself as a vital resource to the military and communities across the nation. These included 20,500 missions involving towing aerial gunnery targets for live-fire antiaircraft gunnery training and nighttime tracking missions for searchlights.

Along the Rio Grande, CAP aircraft flew 30,000 hours to prevent illegal border crossings and report any unusual activities. A courier service serving three major Army Air Forces commands carried over 3.5 million pounds of cargo, flying more than 20,000 miles daily. A search and rescue service used CAP air and ground units to searching isolated mountains and forested terrain for lost military aircraft.

The citizens who served in CAP came from all walks of life. Some were rich, bringing along their own planes. Others were not, but they all had a common thread: They were all volunteers eager to serve their country.

Their ranks, more than 200,000 strong at war’s end, included not only ordinary men, women and teenagers in communities throughout the country but also such prominent figures as a noted Hollywood director and a world-famous pianist, a Munchkin from “The Wizard of Oz” and a sitting state governor, a storied Wall Street financier and a pioneering African-American female aviator, future Tuskegee Airmen, the head of a major brewery and founder of a famous doughnut chain.

Notably, Civil Air Patrol served as a pioneering opportunity for the nation’s women to serve the nation in uniform. Through CAP, countless women wore a uniform on behalf of their nation, representing a catalyst for increasing female participation in civil aviation. More than half of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) served in CAP during some part of the war. So did many of the members of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) and the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve.

By 1944, one in four members of Civil Air Patrol was a woman, and they were flying important inland missions.

Beginning in October 1942, a CAP cadet program allowed young men and women from 15 to 18 to serve in the organization. The cadet program extended the benefits of the senior program and prepared many young men and women through CAP training for military service. In 1943, CAP worked with the Army Air Forces to recruit aviation cadets and allowed 17-year-old members of the Air Corps Enlisted Reserve to receive CAP training while awaiting call-up to active military duty.

By war’s end, over 80,000 young Americans had served in CAP, providing the Army Air Forces with a pool of pilots and aircrew for the latter stages of the war and the postwar military. 

CAP’s success with coastal patrol and other military-supported operations contributed to its transfer by executive order in April 1943 from the Office of Civilian Defense to the War Department. As the auxiliary force of the Army Air Forces, CAP flew more than 750,000 hours with a total loss of 68 members and about 150 aircraft — a credit to the organization’s emphasis on organization and safety. 

So hats off to Civil Air Patrol! Well, not exactly.

That recognition would come later — 70 years, to be exact.

“I personally never gave it any more thought after the war,” said Col. Steve Patti, who joined CAP in January 1942 and was stationed at Vail Field in Los Angeles. For five months he was assigned to the 12th Task Force Anti-Submarine Patrol in Brownsville and San Benito, Texas, as an aircraft mechanic. He also flew as a replacement observer on convoy escort, anti-sub, beach and border patrols, and later served at bases in Marfa and El Paso, Texas.

 “We did our job every day and we asked for nothing,” he said. At the time, “there was no thought of recognition; there was only the thought of getting the job done.”

Patti and the other CAP volunteers who performed this highly unusual and extraordinary service, during a time of great need for the United States, just carried on with their lives after the war, not really expecting payback.

At least until 2014, when the U.S. House of Representatives followed the Senate’s lead and approved legislation to present the Congressional Gold Medal — the country’s highest civilian honor — to Civil Air Patrol for its World War II service.

“Time is catching up, and at least there is still time for some of us to smell the flowers,” said Wolff.

“It’s a great honor to be brought into the limelight of recognition,” said Patti.

Wolff made the trip to Washington, D.C., where the medal was presented. If fact, he was on stage with the leaders of Congress and CAP’s national commander, Maj. Gen. Joe Vazquez, accepting on behalf of the men and women of CAP who served during World War II. Unfortunately, a lot of their colleagues from CAP’s earliest days were not. Most of them have passed, and less than 100 are still living today.

Regardless, their mission continues, even today. Because they were such an incredible force, their story will not be forgotten. These pioneering members of CAP forged the path of an army of today’s volunteers that now serve as one of the nation’s premier humanitarian service organizations.

As the Air Force auxiliary, CAP provides essential emergency, operational and public service to all 50 states and more than 1,500 communities nationwide, as well as the federal government and the military. And, like their CAP counterparts, today’s members are equal to any task, willing to risk life and limb in their missions for America. They, too, are courageous. And, they also perform amazing feats, much like their forefathers — saving lives, finding the lost, helping in times of disaster and working to keep the homeland safe.

The legacy of those brave, heroic subchasers from World War II lives on.

(Col. Frank A. Blazich Jr., CAP’s chief national historian, and countless others contributed to this article.)