Civil Air Patrol

It wasn't just pilots ...

While most of glory of World War II Coastal Patrol is focused on the men in the air, the people who “kept ‘em flying” were also renowned.

The prototypical quote honors Ev Smith, Base 2’s “Maintenance Wizard” (as each chief mechanic was known.) In praise of the Delaware base’s “Wizard,” Base 2 pilots said they flew “by the Grace of God and Smitty!”

Not every legend was a chief mechanic. In fact, one of CAP’s more famous and devoted veterans was, in 1942, a kid just out of high school. He helped out with maintenance at Coastal Patrol Base 3 near Palm Beach, Florida.

Owen Gassaway was bit by the bug early, flying model airplanes near Morrison Field -- today’s Palm Beach International Airport. Intrigued with fixing things, he started at a bicycle shop. At age 17, he was out at the Coastal Patrol base in Lantana repairing airplanes. He saw his Base 3 heroes flying out daily to spot (and later bomb) Nazi subs.

In fact, it was Marshall “Doc” Rinker and Tom Manning at Base 3 who cornered a grounded sub off Cape Canaveral. Its escape before military bombers arrived resulted in the arming of Coastal Patrol aircraft. Base 3 pilots would later attack 14 subs on their own, dropping 20 bombs.

Gassaway’s role was more pedestrian. “I was glad to see ‘em go and I was glad to see ‘em come back, ‘cause that meant I did something right,” he recalled.

In 1943 as the Coastal Patrol mission was ending, Gassaway enlisted as a tank mechanic. He served in Patton’s 3rd Army as it tore through Germany. But by late 1945, he was right back at the Lantana airport. And there he stayed for more than 60 years.

“Owen Gassaway’s name is synonymous with Palm Beach aviation,” said a 2000 tribute to his stewardship and development of Lantana Airport and local aviation. He built his Florida Airmotive Inc. into one of the nation’s largest fixed base operator, aircraft service and supply, flight school and air charter operations. At its peak, his fleet of 25 DC-3s --largest in the nation -- covered Florida and the Caribbean like a blanket.

As airport manager, he pioneered imaginative ways to grow the airport while keeping tenants and local politicians in line. (Among them were the wealthy and famous of Palm Beach, including outspoken lawyer and aviation entrepreneur F. Lee Bailey.) By the 21st century, Gassaway’s redubbed Palm Beach County Airport hosted 35 businesses, including many not expected at an airport. Among them was a video production studio.

Gassaway navigated the complicated politics of Palm Beach County for decades and won the respect of all. There were always issues, from noise complaints and safety concerns (from encroaching suburban sprawl) to questions of priority between Lantana and the big airline hub at Palm Beach International. Lantana grew to host 400 based aircraft and 115,000 flight operations annually. Florida media called him “one of the most prominent figures in Palm Beach-area aviation.”

Those he worked with respected his “perseverance, energy and huge vision.” His life, one said, “was about hard work, character, delivering on promises, understanding and No Nonsense!” For his legendary career in aviation maintenance, the FAA awarded him the prestigious Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award, named after the Wright brothers’ mechanic.

All this would have made a career, but Gassaway is best remembered for his community service -- and an almost single-handed effort to honor his Coastal Patrol Base 3 heroes. He helped recover, preserve and promote local CAP history. Near the end, he worked with the Historical Society of Palm Beach County on Base 3 history in a museum exhibit and a public TV documentary. His personal Stinson 10A, done up in wartime Coastal Patrol livery, is on display at the New England Air Museum.

Gassaway was tireless in promoting aviation as a route to youth education and character-building. Beyond supporting a CAP squadron at his airport, he gave hundreds of young people their first job in aviation. And it’s estimated he was responsible for some 10,000 EAA Young Eagles rides. (He painted his own Cessna 172 in a special Young Eagles paint scheme to promote the program.)

Upon his death in 2007, these now-adults checked in. He was “a father figure, mentor and motivator,” one said. Another called him “one of the most important influences of my life.”  Through his support of Scouting, Aviation Explorers, the CAP cadet program and high school work programs and scholarships, he helped some 40,000 young people get started.

He was honored on his passing as “an educator, motivator and historian.” I wish I had known him decades earlier, back when I really wanted to co-pilot a DC-3! But it was a privilege to know him in his 70s, still full of energy and getting things done.

Maintenance at Coastal Patrol Base 3.
Photo courtesy of  the Historical Society of Palm Beach County, Fla.

 

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© 2018 Civil Air Patrol National Headquarters. All rights reserved.
© 2018 Civil Air Patrol National Headquarters. All rights reserved.