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Civil Air Patrol History

Civil Air Patrol was conceived in the late 1930s by legendary New Jersey aviation advocate Gill Robb Wilson, who foresaw aviation’s role in war and general aviation’s potential to supplement America’s unprepared military. Wilson, then aviation editor of The New York Herald Tribune and later NJ Aeronautics Commissioner, first sold the idea to New Jersey’s governor, who created a statewide organization. Wilson then convinced New York mayor (and National Civil Defense Chief) Fiorello La Guardia of the need for a civilian air defense organization. The new Civil Air Patrol was born on December 1, 1941, just days before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

The CAP insignia, a red three-bladed propeller in the Civil Defense white-triangle-in-blue-circle, began appearing on private aircraft everywhere. (The red markings were later deleted for aircraft in combat areas to prevent confusion with enemy insignia.) CAP initially planned only on liaison flying and   interdiction of infiltrators on the East Coast and the southern border, but CAP’s mission grew when German submarines began to prey on American ships.

America entered the war with meager maritime defenses on the East Coast. Gasoline and oil shortages grew and vital war  supplies for Europe were nearly choked off as enemy subs operated with impunity—often within sight of the beach. Tankers and freighters were going to the bottom in record numbers. While the American military frantically geared up to meet the threat, ships were torpedoed in the mouth of the Connecticut River and in the Saint Lawrence. One surfaced sub actually motored right into outer New York harbor on January 15, navigating by reference to a New York City tourist map and visible landmarks like the Ferris wheel at Coney Island. Subs could blast their prey at night as targets became silhouetted against still brightly lit coastal resorts. Usually unopposed, they could attack on the surface using deck guns to conserve torpedoes. Even years later, New Jersey teens termed their secluded romantic interludes on the beach, “Watching The Submarine Races.” As tankers burned, Philadelphia-based Sun Oil (Sunoco), along with other concerned companies, established a “Tanker Protection Fund” to establish civilian coastal patrol bases until government financial support caught up. Volunteers came from everywhere and within months, some 40,000 signed up, ranging from over-age World War I fliers to aviation heroes and Hollywood celebrities.

CAP pilots provided their own airplanes and equipment, and often couldn’t cover expenses on their $8 per flying-day government pay, which often arrived two months late. Civic organizations across the nation chipped in with “Sink-a-Sub Clubs,” staging fund raisers for Coastal Patrol.

The military required an initial 90-day trial in early 1942 to prove civilians could do the job, so Coastal Patrol began as an experiment at the three “hot spots” of the submarine bloodbath: Atlantic City, New Jersey; Rehoboth Beach, Delaware; and Lantana, Florida. Flying up to 200 miles offshore were pilots whose previous over water experience had been crossing the wide part of the Delaware River from below Wilmington over to the South Jersey side. They wore military uniforms and “U.S.” insignia so they would be prisoners of war if captured, not shot as guerrillas.

Atlantic City’s initial flight was out only 15 minutes when it spotted its first torpedoed tanker and started coordinating rescue efforts. The presence of CAP raised tanker crew morale during the war and was even credited with convincing torpedoed tanker men to accept another assignment back at sea. A CAP crew first interrupted a sub attack on a flight out of Rehoboth Beach, saving a tanker off Cape May, New Jersey. Since radio calls for military bombers were often unproductive, unarmed CAP fliers dived in mock attacks to force subs to break and run.

Many CAP aviators earned membership in the “Duck Club” for their numerous engine failures and subsequent ditchings at sea. Radio calls to CAP’s communications network, if made in time on weak one-watt sets, brought CAP twin-engine Grumman Widgeon amphibians to the rescue. The first Air Medals of World War II presented in person by President Roosevelt went to CAP pilots Eddie Edwards and Hugh Sharp for one such rescue, which saved one of two crewmembers down in a bitterly cold wintertime ditching. Edwards had to perch on the Widgeon’s wing to counterbalance the loss of the opposite pontoon, ripped away in the rescuers’ landing. A half-frozen Edwards clung there for 11 hours as the unflyable Widgeon was water taxied all night to shore.

CAP planes got bombs and depth charges after a crew watched in vain as a grounded sub off Cape Canaveral, Florida, escaped before the military arrived. CAP Coastal Patrol flew 24 million miles, found 173 subs, attacked 57, hit 10 and sank two. By Presidential Executive Order, CAP became an auxiliary of the Army Air Forces on April 29, 1943. The military had resisted “those country-club pilots” and their “toy planes,” but 21 CAP Coastal Patrol bases from Maine to Texas had soon deterred close-in submarine operations. By August 31, 1943, it was time for Coastal Patrol to stand down. A German commander later confirmed that coastal U-boat operations were withdrawn “because of those damned little red and yellow airplanes.”

CAP went on to target towing operations, courier service for the Army, liaison and cargo flights between war plants, Southern Border patrol

against enemy infiltrators crossing from Mexico, and air search and rescue. Non-flying CAP members guarded airfields and trained a rapidly growing corps of CAP cadets. CAP searched for many military planes that had gone down on training or ferry missions around the United States. After a B-24 crash landed one winter atop Mount Baldy near Taos, New Mexico, a CAP Taylorcraft made six successful landings at 12,800 feet to deliver survival rations and recover crucial equipment. Nevada CAP actually had its own cavalry of sorts, conducting ground rescue operations in rough territory on horseback, including 24 mounts transferred from the Army’s now-obsolete Cavalry at Ft. Riley, Kansas.

Inland operations were typified by the flying of Liaison Pilot Bill “Pappy” Madsen, operations officer for the “Mountain Boys” flying from Peterson Field in Colorado Springs, Colorado. CAP’s operations in the Rockies actually pioneered many routes and mountain flying concepts still in use today. Colorado-based courier pilots operated 100 scheduled flights a day over 50 routes, carrying 3.5 million pounds of cargo to military bases in 17 states. Seven courier pilots died in the mountains of the West, with a like number perishing in the East on flights between war plants.

Women were actively recruited by CAP. In addition to support duties at Coastal Patrol bases, women pilots flew inland liaison, forest fire patrol and other missions. By war’s end, women made up 20 percent of the Civil Air Patrol. These women were not immune to duty’s dangers. Margaret Bartholomew, commander of the Cincinnati courier station, was lost in the western Pennsylvania mountains after departing Williamsport, unaware of a surprise storm ahead. Departing just as new weather information reached Williamsport, Bartholomew did not hear the tower’s desperate attempts to recall her flight.

In all, Civil Air Patrol flew a half-million hours during World War II and 64 CAP aviators lost their lives. CAP’s role after the war was much in question, and it was widely expected to fade away along with most other wartime institutions. But military and political leaders rose to praise CAP’s unusual commitment and accomplishment. At a special dinner in Washington, DC in March, 1946, President Harry Truman, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, and no less than 300 members of Congress and 50 AAF generals gathered to praise its work. President Truman later signed a bill granting CAP a national charter, placing the organization in a unique status similar to the American Red Cross. The United States Air Force was created as an independent armed service in September, 1947, and the Civil Air Patrol was permanently designated as its official auxiliary the following year.

Since air search and rescue had been one of CAP’s primary missions during the war, it was obvious there was no other organization with the equipment and training to continue this vital job in the post-war years. Even though there were plenty of military aircraft available, they cost far too much to operate and flew too fast for accurate spotting of downed planes and personnel. Military pilots were expensive to train as well, and mission requirements limited their availability for search and rescue work. Civil Air Patrol, with its proven record of volunteer service using light aircraft, was put to work. By 1954, CAP was flying over 50 percent of the search and rescue hours flown in the country and according to the Air Force Air Rescue Service, was saving the country $46 million a year the cost equal to the military and flight pay of the 12,000 fliers that would have been needed to fly the missions had CAP not been available.

In October 1954, Navy pilot Joe Meder became one of the many crash survivors who owe their lives to CAP. Flying at night at 40,000 feet in stormy skies, he was forced to eject from his burning Banshee jet fighter. Falling almost 30,000 feet as he wrestled with his ejection seat, he was able to separate from it and get his parachute open, only to have it rip and begin to lose air. He slammed into the ground, breaking both ankles and numerous other bones, and puncturing a lung. He crawled 150 feet before collapsing in a rain drenched bean field. Nearing death, Meder was spotted at first light by CAP pilots Vince Causmaker and John Zonge who were part of a two-state air and ground search team.

When floods ravaged Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia in 1957, CAP ground, air and radio teams swung into action. CAP planes flew vital serum and vaccines to forward areas unreachable by heavier military aircraft. Ground teams helped in the evacuation of cities and towns. In the Hazard, Kentucky area, the CAP radio net handled most of the traffic for the emergency agencies, coordinated the activities of Army rescue helicopters, controlled CAP activities in the area, and broadcast weather advisories from the U.S. Weather Bureau. By the 1960s and ‘70s, CAP was logging over 75 percent of the search and rescue hours flown each year. The burgeoning civil aircraft fleet was the primary impetus for the continued need for a growing CAP organization, but the CAP’s parent organization, the U.S. Air Force, sometimes had to use Civil Air Patrol’s search and rescue skills as well. When an F-111 fighter-bomber went down in the southwest, CAP members from six states were called up in a 15 day search and rescue operation. CAP pilots flew over 80 percent of the 1,400 sorties flown.

On May 18, 1980, Mt. St. Helens in Washington exploded, devastating approximately 150 square miles and triggering massive mud flows, floods and ashfalls. When the county sheriff asked the Civil Air Patrol for help, CAP members were quickly on the scene, establishing a 24 hour headquarters, plotting leads, aiding search and rescue missions, and updating weather advisories. CAP teams assisted in several out-lying command centers and worked in ash cleanup crews.

Civil Air Patrol continues it’s service to our country with three primary missions. Aerospace Education, Cadet Programs and Emergency Services.

As you can see from CAP’s proud history, the volunteer men, women, and young people from every state, Puerto Rico, and our nation’s capital have dedicated themselves to performing Civil Air Patrol’s “Missions for America.” We would love to have you on the team!

Want more CAP history?  Chick HERE to visit the National History Program of the Civil Air Patrol on the web.