Civil Air Patrol and its earliest members are being honored with the Congressional Gold Medal for their contributions during World War II, when they forged the path the organization and its volunteers still follow today – helping secure the homeland, selflessly and often at great sacrifice.
These days, CAP’s volunteers stand ready to take on such challenges as natural and manmade disasters and searches for missing aircraft or individuals. In CAP’s formative years, during the early days of American involvement in the war, the perils were mostly posed by enemy combatants, in the form of Nazi U-boats threatening U.S. shipping – especially oil tankers – off the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
CAP’s founders flew patrols that discouraged and eventually stopped the U-boat attacks. They also patrolled the country’s borders by air, towed targets for military trainees, spotted forest fires, conducted search and rescue missions, provided disaster relief and emergency transport of people and parts and conducted orientation flights for future pilots.
In many ways, the pioneering members being honored were ahead of their time in devoting themselves to serving their communities and their country as volunteers. And just like their CAP counterparts today, when they risked life and limb to help protect the home front during wartime they weren’t looking for recognition.
Even so, more than 70 years later, they’re about to receive it.
Legislation in both houses of Congress will award CAP a single Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of its members’ contributions during the war. Many used their own aircraft to conduct volunteer combat operations and other emergency missions under hazardous conditions.
They came from all walks of life. Their ranks, more than 100,000 strong, included not only ordinary men, women and teenagers in communities throughout the country but also such prominent figures as a noted Hollywood director and a world-famous pianist, a Munchkin from “The Wizard of Oz” and a sitting state governor, a storied Wall Street financier and a pioneering African-American female aviator, future Tuskegee Airmen, the head of a major brewery and the founder of a famous doughnut chain.
Most of the early volunteers, unfortunately, are gone. The Department of Veterans Affairs has said the nation’s World War II veterans are dying at a rate of 670 a day. Fewer than 100 CAP members from those days are known to be alive today.
“All the guys who I was with are all gone,” said CAP Lt. Col. Clive Goodwin Jr. “As far as I know, I’m the only one left. It’s a dwindling number.”
Goodwin joined a CAP squadron in Cortland, N.Y., in the fall of 1942 and flew as a mission pilot out of Cortland Municipal Airport. The squadron’s assignment was to fly search and missing aircraft missions for the U.S. Army Air Forces. He remains active as a member of the North Carolina Wing’s Franklin County Composite Squadron and is still a pilot.
With a Congressional Gold Medal on the horizon, “I think it’s great that they’re recognizing CAP,” Goodwin said. CAP was founded Dec. 1, 1941, six days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Early in the war, after supply ships leaving American ports to support the Allied war effort began drawing deadly attacks from U-boats off the East Coast, CAP pilots carried out anti-submarine missions, often carrying bombs to drop by hands on any enemy vessels they sighted. Their vigilance helped discourage and eventually halt the attacks.
Over 18 months, CAP anti-submarine coastal patrols flew more than 24 million miles, spotting 173 U-boats and attacking 57. They also escorted more than 5,600 convoys and reported 17 floating mines, 36 bodies, 91 ships in distress and 363 survivors in the water.
“We who served asked for nothing in return and got nothing,” said former U.S. Rep. Lester Wolff, D-N.Y., who commanded a CAP squadron based at Mitchell Field on Long Island, N.Y., during World War II.
Often, “it was a perilous task,” Wolff said, recalling the loss of one of his squadron members.
“So many people forget that our little effort contributed so much,” especially in terms of providing protection for shipping, he said.
“Time is catching up, and at least there is still time for some of us to smell the flowers,” Wolff added. CAP Col. Robert Arn flew anti-submarine missions out of Coastal Patrol Base No. 14 in Panama City, Fla., from September 1942-June 1943.
Of the 12 original pilots he served with at Panama City, “we lost six of them,” said Arn, who flew 179 missions totaling 557 hours of flight time over the Gulf of Mexico.
“I think with the aircraft we had, which weren’t built to go out over the Gulf of Mexico, we were able to do a job and do it well,” he said.
“To be recognized by the government would be wonderful,” said Col. Steve Patti, who joined CAP in January 1942 and was stationed at Vail Field in Los Angeles. For five months he was assigned to the 12th Task Force Anti-Submarine Patrol in Brownsville and San Benito, Texas, as an aircraft mechanic. He also flew as a replacement observer on convoy escort, anti-submarine, beach and border patrols, and later served at bases in Marfa and El Paso, Texas.
“It’s a great honor to be bought into the limelight of recognition,” said Patti, who like many of his CAP colleagues subsequently served in the U.S. Army Air Corps. At the time, “there was no thought of recognition; there was only the thought of getting the job done.”
“I personally never gave it any more thought after the war,” he said. “We did our job every day and we asked for nothing. We had to buy our own special tools or make our own tools.”