Legislation Would Honor Civil Air Patrol's World War II-Era Members
A major step in the campaign to secure a Congressional Gold Medal recognizing Civil Air Patrol members’ service to the country during World War II was taken today when the U.S. Senate unanimously approved S. 418, introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin, (D-IA). “This legislation will offer long overdue recognition to a small group of people who answered the call to duty at our nation’s time of maximum danger,” Harkin, commander of CAP’s Congressional Squadron, told his colleagues during his floor statement.
In the U.S. House of Representatives, where an identical measure, H.R. 719, is pending, well over half the 290 co-sponsors needed to guarantee passage have been secured. Additional co-sponsors are sought, and those interested in helping with the effort can contact their congressional representative.
The measure, if also approved by the House, will authorize creation of a single gold medal to honor CAP’s pioneering members for their contributions in helping safeguard the nation’s shores and shipping early in the war. Those members, often using their own aircraft, displayed heroism that discouraged and eventually stopped deadly German U-boat attacks on supply ships leaving American ports headed to support the Allied war effort. The Gold Medal will honor the brave sacrifice of early CAP members from throughout the United States. Anyone who served as an adult member of CAP during the war, or a relative of such a member, is invited to contact Holley Dunagin at National Headquarters with information about their service. “These members from our earliest days as an organization helped save lives and preserve our nation’s freedom,” said Maj. Gen. Chuck Carr, CAP national commander. “They were truly unsung heroes of the war, using their small private aircraft to not only
search for enemy submarines close to America’s shores, but also to tow targets for military practice, to transport critical supplies within the country and to conduct general airborne reconnaissance.”
Today, more than 70 years after America’s entry into World War II, only a few hundred of the roughly 60,000 CAP volunteers who served during that era are still alive.
Established as part of the federal Office of Civil Defense a week before the U.S. entered World War II, Civil Air Patrol quickly became involved in combat operations off the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Within weeks of the U.S. involvement in the war, German submarines began sinking vital shipping within sight of the East Coast. Because the military lacked the necessary ships and aircraft to respond and the attacks were so numerous and successful, the entire early war effort was threatened. At the insistence of the oil industry, the military decided to use CAP’s civilian assistance as a 90-day experiment.
Beginning in March 1942, after 52 oil tankers had been sunk, for 18 months CAP members flew 24 million miles in search of the enemy. Patrols were conducted up to 100 miles off shore, generally with two aircraft flying together, in planes often equipped with only a compass for navigation and a single radio for communication. Personal emergency equipment was lacking, particularly in the beginning, and inner tubes and duck hunter’s kapok vests were used as flotation devices. After CAP repeatedly discovered submarines that got away, members’ small personal aircraft were armed with bombs and depth charges. The combat operations were often flown in weather conditions that grounded the military. CAP was ultimately credited with sinking two submarines, attacking 57 and reporting 173 to the military.
This wartime Coastal Patrol service was considered highly unusual because these “subchasers” were civilian volunteers flying combat missions at great personal risk. Of the 59 CAP pilots killed during World War II, 26 were lost while on Coastal Patrol duty, and seven others were seriously injured while carrying out the missions.
Since the war, CAP has become a valuable nonprofit, public service organization chartered by Congress. It is the auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, charged with providing essential emergency, operational and public service to communities and states nationwide, the federal government and the military. Under the congressional charter, CAP’s core missions are emergency services, aerospace education and cadet programs.
Its more than 61,000 members fly some 112,000 hours annually, performing 90 percent of inland search and rescue in the U.S. – as tasked by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center and other agencies – and carrying out aerial reconnaissance for homeland security, providing aerial imagery to document the effects of natural or man-made disasters and assisting federal law enforcement agencies in the war on drugs.
CAP’s 27,000 members in the cadet ranks, ages 12 through 20, receive training in four main program areas – leadership, aerospace, fitness and character development – and each year the organization’s cadets account for about 10 percent of the new class entering the U.S. Air Force Academy.
The Congressional Gold Medal commemorates distinguished service to the nation and is considered by many to be the highest form of congressional recognition. Since 1776, only about 300 such awards have been given to a wide range of military leaders and accomplished civilians, including President George Washington, Col. John Glenn, poet Robert Frost and Gens. Douglas MacArthur and Colin Powell. Foreigners awarded the medal have included Winston Churchill, Simon Wiesenthal and Mother Teresa.
The award to CAP would be unusual in that a single medal would be awarded for the collective efforts of all World War II adult members. Other organizations that have been recognized by Congress for their wartime contributions include the Navajo Code Talkers, Tuskegee Airmen and Women’s Airforce Service Pilots. (Lower image: Maj. Hugh R. Sharp Jr. (center) and 1st Lt. Edmond I. "Eddie"’ Edwards (second from right), receive the first two Air Medals ever awarded by the U.S. from Franklin D. Roosevelt for the heroic rescue of 1st Lt. Henry Cross. Looking on is James M. Landis, wartime chief of the Office of Civilian Defense. By the end of World War II, CAP members had received 800 Air Medals. Photo courtesy of CAP Historical Foundation.)