Civil Air Patrol

CAP can-do

CAP Lts. Addis A. Alston (left) and Paul J. Little hold a practice bomb, incribed "To Adolf's Subs," circa 1942 at Coastal Patrol Base No. 16 in Manteo, N.C..

Photo courtesy of Dare County Regional Airport, Manteo, N.C. 

A fair amount of my time over the past four years has been spent in conversations with 90-year-olds, give or take a birthday candle or two. The thread than connects these octogenarians and nonagenarians is service in the Civil Air Patrol during its infancy, at a time when the U.S. had been drawn into World War II. My part has simply been to tell their stories, and they’ve got some doozies.

There was the guy stationed with CAP along the mid-Atlantic who used his day off to go surfing and had an enemy submarine missile swoosh right past him in the water. And how about the young women who joined CAP because they wanted to fly and could find no other way to do so? Of course, there is the famous story of Eddie Edwards, who demonstrated great endurance and civic responsibility during his World War II CAP service by standing on the strut of a CAP plane in the sea all night long in freezing temperatures to provide the weight and balance needed to taxi a damanged aircraft and successfully carry another downed CAP member back to shore.

Some of these early CAP members literally put their lives on the line, even though they never left the U.S., while others played seemingly more passive parts. But, transcending even patriotism, what I found in all of them was the decision to wring out of life what they wanted, rather than have the life wrung out of them. 

This can-do attitude was, after all, what got CAP off the ground — literally! Before the U.S. actually declared war, CAP’s founders could see the writing on the wall. With a common interest in aviation, they just knew that small planes could play a meaningful role in protecting the homeland. They took their ideas to politicians, and CAP was founded on Dec. 1, 1941, just six days before Pearl Harbor was bombed and America entered the war.

About 120,000 people served in CAP during the World War II years. They flew small planes over America’s coastlines, patrolled the country’s borders, transported supplies and watched the skies for intruders. The CAP can-do attitude was front and center. Focused on protecting America, the organization refused to get caught up in silly obstacles like age, race and gender. A place was found for everyone who wanted to serve. If you could fly, chances are you’d be a pilot. If you knew motors, you would probably be a mechanic. If you knew how to file paperwork, then you did that. And what you didn’t already know, CAP would teach you. 

Television had yet to bring the war into our homes as it did with the Vietnam War, so perhaps the World War II generation was not fully cognizant of the horrors of war. But they definitely wanted to be part of Team America. On the practical side, some men were not able to serve in the regular military due to age or medical condition. Many women, ineligible for military service, were not content just to keep the home fires burning; they wanted to do something they felt would be more meaningful. Those women who knew how to fly a plane were especially compelled to join CAP; not only could they serve their country, they could get up into the air, where they longed to be. CAP had very limited resources in those days, so volunteers were certainly not in it for a paycheck. Instead, the riches CAP had then could be found in the volunteers themselves — with their tremendous sense of duty, improvisational skills and flexibility. When the wind made CAP’s light planes difficult to land in heavy Texas winds, CAP ground crew members raced alongside a landing plane to actually catch it with their bare hands! When the traditional Mae West vests were not available to CAP to keep its pilots downed in the water afloat, CAP members fashioned their own “barracuda” vests from whatever was handy.  

The people who so generously served in CAP during the World War II years were go-getters then, and, for those who yet survive, are go-getters still today. One 95-year-old woman blew me away with her resume. She’d been born to an East Coast family of some means, and public service was the family’s pride. Besides joining CAP, she worked in military intelligence in D.C. during World War II. But she also had been a professional dancer in New York City, wrote a book on economics and married a man who whisked her off to Oakridge, Tennessee, where he was working on nuclear bombs. Another woman demonstrated true CAP aplomb when, though a lifelong resident of the Midwest, she picked up and moved in her old age to Alaska to be near her daughter. But has she wasted away in this strange new environment? Hardly! She remains active in Senior Olympics — she only recently gave up her spot on the basketball team — and has been known to take over the controls from her son-in-law once his plane is airborne.

It won’t be that many more years before all the World War II era CAP members will be gone. That’s why it is so important to honor them with a Congressional Gold Medal for the organization for which they set both the standards and tone. After several years of lobbying members of Congress to support this award, it is finally going to become a reality. Now that Congress has approved the award, an award ceremony is expected to take place at the U.S. Capitol. Such recognition has been a long time coming, but securing it is just another of CAP’s can-do attitudes.

The CAP motto may be semper vigilans — "always vigilant: — but it could just as easily be "CAP never gives up."




Can do

Post Your Comments

Indicates a Required Field
Email Address:
All comments are moderated and will not appear immediately.
Stories Media
History Blog
Bios Contact
Photos Sitemap
Contact Us
CAP National Headquarters
105 South Hansell Street, Building 714
Maxwell Air Force Base, AL 36112

Julie DeBardelaben
Deputy Director, Public Affairs
334-549-2224 (cell)

Steve Cox
Public Affairs Manager
334-296-5881 (cell)
Follow Us
facebook twitter youtube
© 2019 Civil Air Patrol National Headquarters. All rights reserved.
© 2019 Civil Air Patrol National Headquarters. All rights reserved.