By Col. John Swain
The Coastal Patrol began in 1942 as a 90-day experiment. This year, Civil Air Patrol celebrates its 70th year of service to America.
References to the dark, stormy days of March 1942 concern not the weather but rather the dire situation facing the nation back then. America was at war, and its first major battle was raging within sight of thousands on shore as German submarines attacked U.S. shipping close in along the East Coast. There were too few military aircraft and ships available to effectively respond, as cargo ships, especially vital oil tankers, were being sunk at an alarming rate. It was so bad U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshal said the shipping losses off the Atlantic coast and in the Caribbean “now threaten our entire war effort.”
It was at this moment Civil Air Patrol first came to the aid of its country. Urged on by oil companies, whose tankers were routinely being sunk, the military approved assistance from CAP, then known as the Coastal Patrol, as a 90-day experiment. Volunteer civilian pilots, using their own aircraft, equipment and often money, began patrolling the coastal waters to help stop the carnage. Their mission was to report enemy submarines to the military and to drive the subs underwater, where they would be forced to slow down and use their limited battery power.
So many submarines were spotted, however, the decision was soon made to arm CAP’s light aircraft with small bombs and its larger aircraft with 325-pound depth charges. These combat missions were highly unusual, since they involved civilians flying 100 miles or more from shore in all kinds of weather, but they continued for a year and a half until the military took over all patrol duties over water. In the end, CAP sank at least two submarines and attacked another 57. Twenty-six CAP members were killed and 90 aircraft were lost as the Coastal Patrol helped force the German Navy to move further offshore. It was a significant result from a newly formed civilian organization.
During this time CAP also began youth and aviation education programs and established nationwide operations in support of state and federal home front war efforts. These included border patrol, target towing, forest fire spotting, search and rescue, disaster relief and emergency transport of people and parts. Many of these missions were extremely dangerous, sometimes flown in weather that grounded the military. As an example, seven pilots died and 23 aircraft were lost towing targets to train military anti-aircraft gunners and fighter pilots. One CAP pilot found shell fragments in his parachute pack. Behind all of these missions were radio operators, mechanics and administrators who played supporting roles. Records do not completely reflect all of CAP’s flight hours and efforts, but by war’s end CAP had flown more than 750,000 hours with a loss of 64 personnel and 150 aircraft.
CAP’s wartime organization, missions and programs set the stage for the modern Civil Air Patrol that would emerge, along with creation of the new U.S. Air Force.
Lt. Col. Sean Neal of the New York Wing poses with his restored Fairchild 24R World War II Coastal Patrol aircraft.
Fast forward to the present, where a more peaceful “battle” is under way to award our World War II members the Congressional Gold Medal for outstanding and unusual public service. It is the highest honor the U.S. Congress can bestow on an individual or group.
The gold medal dates to March 1776, before the nation had declared its independence, when the Continental Congress awarded Gen. George Washington the first gold medal for his leadership in driving British troops out of Boston. Since then the medal has been awarded more than 300 times to individuals such as Lt. Gen. Ira Eaker, Winston Churchill, Robert Frost and the Wright brothers, as well as to such groups as the American Red Cross, the Tuskegee Airmen and the Women Airforce Service Pilots.
If awarded to CAP, a special gold medal would be designed honoring those who served. One medal would be struck and presented formally in the U.S. Capitol to CAP in a ceremony involving the leadership of the House, Senate, executive branch and Department of Defense, as well as CAP’s leadership and those World War II members and families who could attend. The medal would be given to the Smithsonian Institution for safekeeping, though it could be loaned to CAP for display purposes and special events. Duplicate bronze medals would be struck and purchased for CAP’s World War II members (or their families) who can be identified. CAP members and the public also would be able to buy replica medals.
Your help is essential if CAP is ever to receive a Congressional Gold Medal. Present-day CAP members, in addition to World War II members, their families and friends, all need to contact their senators and representatives to request they co-sponsor legislation that would make this quest a reality. It often takes a large number of requests before many members of Congress will commit to co-sponsoring legislation. Two-thirds of both the House (290 representatives) and the Senate (67 senators) must co-sponsor their respective bills before the relevant committees can take any action. The bottom line is that, without enough co-sponsors, the bills will never be reviewed in committee and enacted.
Moreover, time is of the essence. Many of our World War II-era members, whom this medal would honor, are already deceased. Action is needed now to make sure those still living and the families of those already deceased get the recognition that is so deserved.
Here is what you can do:
Civil Air Patrol flew 24 million miles over water during World War II, spotted 173 subs, attacked 57, damaged 17 and sank two. CAP also located survivors of 363 ships, reported 91 vessels in distress and found 17 floating mines.
One person who has joined the “battle” for cosponsors is Jean McLaughlin, wife of 1st Lt. Francis “Mac” McLaughlin. Her husband joined CAP in April 1942, stationed at Coastal Patrol Base 5 in Daytona Beach, Fla. While there, he and another member were forced to ditch their aircraft in the rough waters of the Atlantic Ocean, where they floated for two hours until the Coast Guard rescued them. After the Coastal Patrol ended, McLaughlin finished out the war, flying with the 22nd Tow Target Squadron in Massachusetts. Both assignments were highly dangerous.
McLaughlin is now ailing and cared for by his wife, who is asking family and friends to help find co-sponsors for the gold medal legislation. She recently wrote, “I’m really on a mission — I have spent the past week or so writing, e-mailing and phoning relatives, friends and acquaintances all over the good old USA. I found it best to use our Christmas card list along with other means to contact each and every one I know to help with getting the bills through the Senate and House … Needless to say, I’m excited about this!”
If enough CAP members and friends get excited, too, the gold medal may be awarded this year, in time for CAP’s 70th anniversary in December.