The Civil Air Patrol made use of pilots unable to qualify for military service during World War II.
By C.V. Glines
In 1936, just three years before Adolf Hitler launched World War II by storming into Poland, Gill Robb Wilson visited Germany, witnessed the Nazi war preparations and returned to the United States with an idea that developed into the Civil Air Patrol (CAP).
Then serving as New Jersey’s director of aviation, Wilson realized that there were many men and women pilots who owned small aircraft but who, for one reason or another, would never be accepted as fliers by the military. Wilson thought it was a shame to waste their aerial talents and experience. The civilian pilots he had contact with knew the New Jersey coastline and were used to flying in limited visibility conditions. Those civilians could be used to spot enemy submarines and perform other vital services in wartime, freeing military pilots and aircraft for combat duties. Wilson had the credentials to sell the idea–as a World War I pilot, aviation writer and former president of the National Aeronautic Association–and sell it he did.
Wilson contacted other state aviation directors, and the idea grew into the concept of “Flying Minutemen.” A dynamic speaker, he gained the support of powerful private citizens, members of Congress, and General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, chief of the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF). The Civil Air Patrol was created as an official auxiliary of the USAAF on December 1, 1941, under the Office of Civil Defense, then directed by Fiorello H. La Guardia, former mayor of New York.
Private pilot Louis E. Keefer, a transportation planner for public and private agencies, has sought out the stories of those who flew the CAP’s coastal patrol missions. Keefer has incorporated these stories and other material into a 535-page account of the CAP’s service during World War II, From Maine to Mexico: With America’s Private Pilots in the Fight Against Nazi U-Boats (Cotu Publishing, Reston, Va., 1997, $32.95).
During 86,685 missions, the CAP pilots flew an estimated 24 million miles, found 173 subs and dropped bombs or depth charges on 57 of those. They located 363 survivors from sunken ships, spotted 17 floating mines and reported 91 ships in distress. But these gutsy volunteers, civilians in uniform, paid a price. Ninety planes were lost and 26 men gave their lives serving their country. More than 800 pilots were awarded the Air Medal in 1948 for flying 300 or more hours on patrol.
From Maine to Mexico covers CAP coastal bases from Bar Harbor, Maine, to Brownsville, Texas. Each of the 21 chapters tells the story of a CAP member. Included are the memories of former pilots, observers, mechanics, radio and plotting-board operators, linemen, guards and office workers. The result is a fascinating view of life at a time when German submarines were taking a fierce toll on Allied shipping off the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
George E. Haddaway, former magazine publisher and founder of the History of Aviation Collection at the University of Texas at Dallas, was the CAP base commander at Beaumont, Texas. He wrote to a friend in late 1942 vividly expressing the conditions and the spirit of the times: “We are flying all sorts of ‘clunkers’ from old SMA-7A Stinsons to late model Howards. I’ve got paupers and millionaires in my command–all volunteers, of course. We are neither swan nor goose; we are perhaps ‘swooses.’ We are civilians working for the Army on anti-submarine patrol, yet in uniform and have commissions. All of us are sacrificing–and love it. And we are giving the Nazi subs hell!…I’ve seen these pilots with their canvas hangars and tools and spare parts stored in wooden boxes in which canned milk had been shipped to them. Dust, rain, mud, hastily cooked chow and cots and water-barrel shower baths. But the CAP lads go off on schedule–their little planes burdened with bombs and radio sets. Planes of 90 to 340 horsepower just edging over the trees at the end of the runway to hours of patrol far out over the sea.”
General Arnold paid tribute to those volunteers after the war. Growing out of the urgency of the time, “the CAP,” he said, “was set up and went into operation almost overnight. It patrolled our shores and performed its anti-submarine work at a time of almost desperate national crisis. If it had done nothing beyond that, the Civil Air Patrol would have earned an honorable place in the history of American air power.”
But the wartime CAP members did more than that. They towed targets for anti-aircraft batteries, tracked for searchlight crews, flew courier missions, spotted forest fires, made aircraft identification flights for the Ground Observer Corps, flew search-and-rescue missions, and helped the Mexican government, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the FBI and the Army thwart illegal border crossings. They flew 4,720 border patrol missions and reported 176 unidentified aircraft and 6,874 suspicious sightings.
So much more of the Civil Air Patrol story remains to be told before the Flying Minutemen fade away. Since the author has given us this much interesting material to ponder, he should now tell us the rest of the CAP’s war story.