The military had its “Caterpillar Club” of airmen who had “hit the silk” parachuting from their crippled aircraft. During World War II, Civil Air Patrol’s Coastal Patrol pilots had no option but to ditch their planes at sea should their single engine quit. Those who survived joined CAP’s famed Duck Club.
In a gesture typical of the bravado and humor of the World War II generation, members adopted a popular cartoon character to celebrate that status. The Duck Club patch earned by survivors boasted a proud but dazed Donald Duck, his eyes glazed not by the “x” of a dead cartoon duck but rather by glowing CAP red propellers.
Coastal Patrol pilots flew up to 50 miles off-shore with light plane engines that could quit at any time. Some 90 CAP aircraft were ditched at sea. Of some 59 CAP pilots killed during the war years, 26 were lost at sea.
In colder weather, CAP pilots flew in rubberized “Zoot Suits” to protect them if they were forced into the water. Each Coastal Patrol base had a rescue amphibian to recover downed airmen should the worst happen. Inevitably, some rescue amphibians themselves were eventually lost. From there on, as at Base 10 in Beaumont, Texas, no CAP rescue planes were available.
CAP’s most famous rescue at sea was the Hugh Sharp-Eddie Edwards mission out of Base 2 in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. One flier of a two-man crew was located and pulled from the Atlantic. Base 2’s Sikorsky flying boat was damaged water-landing to make the pick-up. To counterbalance its broken pontoon, Edwards clung to the opposite wing for hours as the crippled Sikorsky water-taxied towards shore.
For this rescue, Base 2 commander Sharp and pilot Edwards were honored with the first Air Medal of World War II presented by the president to any American flier.
Accounts of the rescue said Edward’s frozen hands had to be pried from the Sikorsky’s wing strut when the aircraft reached safety. A famous photo later in 1942 featured another grip – Edwards shaking President Franklin Roosevelt’s hand in the Oval Office upon presentation of his Air Medal.
Edwards was on hand again in the late 1990s at the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, when that Base 2 flying boat – lovingly restored by Sikorsky employees – was installed in the NEAM collection. Flashbulbs popped as Edwards adopted his perch on the amphibian where he had grasped that cold wing strut more than 50 years before.
It was a cold ocean out there. And joining the Duck Club was no laughing matter.
(1) The Duck Club pin.
(2) Coastal Patrol members in their cold-weather rubberized “Zoot Suits."
(3) Eddie Edwards receives his Air Medal from President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Oval Office. Standing beside Edwards is fellow CAP member and Air Medal recipient Hugh Sharp.