Civil Air Patrol

All guts, little glory: The intriguing life of a CAP WWII subchaser

What makes a legend? That’s a question probably above my pay grade and beyond my scope. I did, however, this week have a conversation with someone who is part of a legend -- Robert Arn, one of Civil Air Patrol’s legendary World War II subchasers.

A little background
So, what's a subchaser? That I know. These were the CAP aircrews that flew over coastal waters during World War II to search for German submarines. The enemy subs were lurking offshore and successfully sinking many of our cargo ships. CAP established 21 coastal patrol bases along the Eastern seaboard, around the Florida peninsula and along the Gulf Coast. Supported by ground crews and office personnel, the aircrews patrolled almost constantly.

The idea was to have the CAP planes find the submarines and then call in the U.S. Army Air Forces to deal with them. When that plan was shown to eat up too much time, CAP planes were eventually armed.

A broken neck
CAP got Arn as a member by way of a broken neck.

Arn, a resident of Ohio and student at Otterbein University, went through the first phase of the Civilian Pilot Training Program to get his private pilot’s license in a course operated out of Ohio State University. To move on in the CPTP to get his commercial license, however, the requirement was to join the military. He chose the U.S. Navy, and, at the end of his second year of college, he was to report to Florida for active duty.
 
So far, so good.

But two weeks before presenting himself to the Navy, Arn went out to celebrate with his girlfriend, who would later become his wife. They met up with some fraternity brothers and their dates, explained Arn, and soon found themselves passengers in a car. Going over streetcar tracks, the driver lost control, the car crashed, Arn was ejected and his face was the worse for wear.

“There weren’t ambulances then so much as police wagons,” he went on, “and that’s what delivered me to the hospital, where I was patched up and released after three to four hours.”
 
The next morning he was at a local restaurant where he knew the owners. They took one look at him and insisted he see their doctor. X-rays revealed Arn had suffered fractures in the fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae. Goodbye, Navy. He went to the post office to explain why he couldn’t report for duty.

Advised to wear a neck brace for at least three months, Arn was halfway through his recuperation period when he went out to the mailbox. There he saw a notice in the newspaper soliciting members for CAP. Off came the brace and out came his CPTP papers.
 
It was early 1942, not long after the U.S. had entered World War II. Sizing him up, the CAP recruiter told the 19-year-old, “You’re awfully young, but we could use you right away.”

Back in the air
When Arn arrived at CAP Coastal Patrol Base 14, situated on a sliver of shady shoreline near Panama City, Florida, he couldn’t help but notice that “the other guys were so old — at least 40s or 50s!” 
 
“But, even though there was quite the variety of borrowed planes at the base, I knew how to fly them all,” he said. 
 
Over the next 10 months, Arn flew 179 missions, each lasting three to 3½ hours, over the Gulf Coast. “Out of all of CAP’s coastal patrol bases,” Arn said, “ours was unique in that we were not tied in with an existing military base or airfield.” The airstrip they used was one that had been built and abandoned by a land developer. The building structures they needed were moved to the airstrip from another abandoned project down the road. 
 
Just before the base became operational, the Germans were having a field day sinking ships out in the Gulf. The problem, as Arn saw it, was that the ships, traveling in a convoy, were taking a straight route over deep water — a perfect hiding place for the enemy subs — from ports in Texas to Key West, Fla. CAP was instrumental in persuading the shipping companies to alter their routes so the ships sailed over the continental shelf. Water there was shallow, and the CAP planes, from their overhead view, could clearly make out the submarines. This changed everything. 
 
Game on
Now it became a game between CAP and the German sub commanders, and CAP was winning. The little CAP planes — painted red and yellow then — became the bane of the sub commanders’ existence. And then the CAP planes started carrying ordnance.

“We always flew two planes in each mission,” Arn explained. “The slower plane flew a traditional box pattern, while the faster plane did a sweep in and out of the box.” They skimmed over the waves at just 300 feet, the swells hiding their presence. Each pilot was accompanied by an observer. Usually, at least one of the planes was equipped with ordnance.
 
“The military sent a contingent of active-duty personnel who handled the ordnance on the ground and loaded it onto the plane’s bomb racks,” Arn said. There were concerns about how well the racks would hold, as the CAP planes carrying ordnance were never allowed to fly over land. That was because, once the ordnance was dislodged from the plane — whether by design or not — it went live.
 
The BIG questions
Did you ever see a German sub?
 
“Oh, yes,” was Arn’s response. 
 
Did you ever bomb one?
 
“That I’m not allowed to say,” he said. (I guess that falls under the category “if I tell you, I’ll have to kill you.”)
 
Weren’t you afraid?
 
“At the beginning we were about as green as grass,” Arn recalled. “We must have been crazy.” He recalled how their life preservers were inner tubes tied to the back of the plane with a 25-foot rope and how, to fend off sharks, they were outfitted with a hunting knife. “When the military visited and saw our ‘safety equipment,’” he said, “we eventually were supplied with Mae West vests and shark repellent.
 
“As for being afraid,” he continued, “we were too dumb to be afraid.”
 
Personally, I think I would replace “dumb” with “courageous.” Courage, in my book, is when your desire to do the right thing is stronger than your fear. There was no shortage of courage from the members of Coastal Patrol Base 14. Of the 12 pilots assigned there, six were killed while serving CAP, five of them from Ohio.
 
Epilogue
While at the CAP coastal patrol base in Florida, he found out he could go to a Navy doctor and get an X-ray that didn't extend high enough to show the broken vertebrae. Using this physical, he was accepted into the U.S. Army Air Forces as a service pilot, and later flew missions in the China Burma India Theater.
 
Between CAP and the Army Air Forces, Arn can now toss out, like confetti, the names of geographic spots around the globe — cities, land formations, airstrips, beaches, lighthouses — and the tags of countless types of aircraft he flew over and to those locations.
 
At first, the Army Air Forces kept him busy flying aircraft for delivery to both the East and West coasts. Then, in an effort to establish a flying service for its own personnel with a schedule similar to commercial airlines, an effort dubbed Military Air Transport Service, the Army sent him to classes in blind flying at Adams Field in Little Rock, Arkansas.
 
Arn then went on to fly the “hump” overseas. That’s how the Army Air Forcies pilots referred to the Himalayas. Arn often flew over the mountain range — an area where the Japanese would have great difficulty finding them — into China. During his military service, he was recognized with three Air Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
 
But he did not make a career of the military. His wife wanted a family life with him at home, and his father wanted him to complete his college education. He acceded to both of their wishes. Now 92, he still lives in Ohio. His wife passed away in 2006, after they’d had 63 years together.

 
Col. Frank Blazich, CAP national historian, contributed to this article.

 
 
Name dropping
Funny who you can run into in times of war. 
 
While Arn was stationed at CAP Coastal Patrol Base 14 in Florida, his roommate was a fellow named Cleeve Morrison. Morrison came from a Hollywood family; he himself had flirted with a career in acting; his father, Charles, was a set decorator; and his sister, Colleen Moore, became very well known as an actress in both silent films and talkies — she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — as well as for her dollhouses.
  
It was Christmas Eve, and Arn had volunteered to take triple shifts so those CAP members who were married with children could spend the holiday with their families. Morrison was also at the base, with his wife coming down from Georgia. “Come have dinner with us,” he said to Arn. “I have someone I want you to meet.”
  
And that is how it happened that Arn had dinner that night with Clark Gable.
  
Not long after Gable’s third wife, Carole Lombard, was killed in a plane crash as she was returning from a War Bond drive, the grief-stricken megastar left his film career to join the U.S. Army Air Forces. Though he was noted for flying combat missions in Europe, this dinner caught Gable when he was stationed stateside.
 
During the meal, Morrison mentioned that Arn was a crack shot. That led to later visits between Gable and Arn where they shot skeet.
 
“I counted Gable as a friend,” Arn said.



(1)
This is the chart provided to Lt. Robert Arn when he arrived at Coastal Patrol Base 14 in Florida He later added his “logo” for the base. This is just one of 287 framed mementoes on the walls of Arn's den. He regularly lectures small groups of area high school and Otterbein University students about his World War II experiences.

Photo by Col. Frank Blazich, CAP National Headquarters 

(2)
Arn in his CAP uniform. The officers’ hat badge had not yet been issued when this photo was taken, so Lt. Robert Arn substituted a pair of CAP pilot wings.
Photo courtesy of Robert Arn

(3)
Arn is credited with creating this patch for Coastal Patrol Unit 14 Self-described as “crazy about Disney,” he outfitted Donald Duck with an umbrella to signify a parachute and the roller skates to denote landing gear.
Photo by Col. Frank Blazich, CAP National Headquarters
  
(4)
Using an old existing airstrip as a basis, Coastal Patrol Base 14 was fashioned by moving in nearby abandoned buildings.
Photo courtesy of Robert Arn
 

 
 
 

 

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