By Steve Cox
Renowned subchaser was the first Civil Air Patrol pilot to spot a Nazi U-boat and radio its position to U.S. naval forces during World War II; he later received the Air Medal from President Franklin D. Roosevelt for rescuing a fellow airmanPresident Franklin D. Roosevelt presents the first two Air Medals ever awarded by the U.S. to Coastal Patrol Base 2 subchasers Maj. Hugh R. Sharp Jr., center, and 1st Lt. Edmond I. ʻEddieʼ Edwards, right, for the heroic rescue of 1st Lt. Henry Cross. Looking on is James M. Landis, wartime chief of the Office of Civilian Defense. By the end of World War II, Coastal Patrol (later Civil Air Patrol) members had received 800 Air Medals.
With the recent passing of Col. Edmond I. “Eddie” Edwards, Civil Air Patrol has lost one of its enduring cornerstones. Edwards, who died at age 96 in his home state of Delaware, was central to the formation of CAP nearly 70 years ago. He was widely known as the first and most famous of the World War II “subchasers,” honored for heroism by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for a daring rescue of a fellow anti-sub comrade at sea.
“Eddie was probably one of the first subchasers to see the enemy,” said 2nd Lt. Roger Thiel of the Maryland Wing, an independent historian with CAP. Edwards’ sighting of a Nazi U-boat on March 10, 1942, only a few months after the U.S. entered World War II, helped propel a brave generation of citizen fliers to take up the cause of defending America’s shores. That day, Edwards radioed the German sub’s position to U.S. naval forces, prompting the vessel to crash-dive and head farther out to sea, where it was less of a menace to the nation’s shipping.
Based at Coastal Patrol (later Civil Air Patrol) Base 2 in Rehoboth Beach, Del., Edwards flew sub-hunting patrols offshore in Delaware and Maryland, safeguarding oil tankers headed for Delaware Bay. The patrols were important because enemy U-boats were common along the Atlantic shoreline, sinking ships, barges and oil tankers almost at will in the early days of the war. The Navy and Army did not have the manpower to prevent the attacks. In one month alone, 52 ships were sunk.
Edwards and the more than 1,500 others who actively flew with him became known as subchasers. They painted their light aircraft — mostly Stinsons and Fairchilds — red and yellow. They flew daily from dawn to dusk, logging more than 24 million miles from 21 Coastal Patrol bases along America’s East and Gulf coasts. They hunted U-boats “from Maine to Mexico.” And they were quite successful, finding 173 subs, attacking 57, hitting 10 and sinking two. (CAP planes eventually carried bombs and depth charges while on patrol.)
|"Eddie never considered himself special for the high-profile personal recognition by President Roosevelt, often saying of the rescue for which his Air Medal was awarded, ‘Anyone could have done it.’ His accomplishments and humility indicate the heroic capabilities of regular U.S. citizens,
especially in Civil Air Patrol." — 2nd Lt. Roger Thiel, a CAP historian and friend of Col. Edmond I. “Eddie” Edwards
Their effectiveness at deterring coastal U-boat operations in 1942 and early 1943 was instrumental in eventually making Civil Air Patrol the auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force. A German naval commander later confirmed that the Uboats had been withdrawn from the Atlantic Ocean because of those “damned red and yellow (CAP) planes.”
In a Delaware Aviation Hall of Fame symposium on aerial actions, the feisty Edwards — a 2002 inductee — was asked how many missions he flew with Civil Air Patrol. “Missions! Heck, we flew every day!” he quipped. The frequent flights added up to some 300 patrols. In fact, records revealed that early Coastal Patrol pilots flew even on days when weather grounded military aviation.
Along with his notoriety as one of the very first subchasers, Thiel said Edwards held “celebrity status” within CAP as one of the first Coastal Patrol pilots awarded the Air Medal for heroism during World War II. He and his commanding officer, the late Maj. Hugh R. Sharp Jr., each received the medal after Roosevelt heard of their daring rescue of a fellow airman downed in bitterly cold high seas off Maryland.
Edwards, in an interview for Civil Air Patrol Volunteer in 2006, clearly remembered the rescue of 1st Lt. Henry Cross, which earned him the medal and subchaser fame. “I got the call that one of our planes was down, and Maj. Sharp asked me to go with him,” Edwards said. “We had no trouble finding the crash site. We spotted a body, so we made an emergency landing and fished him out. He was alive, but we never found the other guy.”
The rescue on July 21, 1942, required that Edwards and Sharp land their aircraft, a Sikorsky S-39 single-engine amphibian piloted by Sharp, in 8- to 10-foot-high swells, which crushed the left pontoon. So, to get back to Base 2, Edwards accomplished a daring feat by climbing out onto the right wing and using his weight to level the plane. He clung there, half-frozen, through the night until early the next day when a Coast Guard boat water-taxied the unflyable aircraft to shore.
Edwards, third from left, second row, was among the former and current Civil Air Patrol leaders and cadets who participated in the Rehoboth Beach Historical Marker ceremony held in 2006 in Delaware. The marker, which commemorates CAP volunteers and their efforts in World War II, was erected in memory of four subchasers who died during the war.
More than a half-century later, the rescued amphibian was restored by retired Sikorsky Aircraft employees and placed in the New England Aviation Museum near Hartford, Conn. Edwards attended the museum’s installation of the S-39 in 1996. Flashbulbs popped as he posed on the wing strut he had occupied for hours at sea in 1942. Modestly, the quick-witted Edwards told the museum audience he was “only out there to escape the screams of the badly injured flier inside.”
Roosevelt conferred the Air Medal on Edwards and Sharp in a White House ceremony in February 1943. By that time, Edwards had joined the U.S. Navy, where he served as a flight instructor and later piloted Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers on patrols out of Hawaii.
“I was ushered into the Oval Office and decorated by FDR,” Edwards said in the 2006 interview, used for a story to commemorate CAP’s 65th anniversary. “Of course, I was honored to receive the medal, but I was also so impressed with FDR.”
Though Edwards and Sharp were the first civilians to receive the Air Medal, they were soon joined by others from their own ranks. By the end of World War II, 800 Air Medals had been presented to CAP members.
Edwards served in the Navy for three years, attaining the rank of senior-grade lieutenant. He served 27 years in the Navy Reserve, during which time he pursued an active role in Delaware civil aviation. For a number of years, he ran the fixed base of operation and served as an instructor at Weimer Airport in Newark, Del., now the site of a DuPont facility.
Thiel, a longtime acquaintance of Edwards who frequently visited with him during annual Coastal Patrol Base 2 reunions in Rehoboth Beach, said Edwards often downplayed his notoriety. “Eddie never considered himself special for the high-profile personal recognition by President Roosevelt, often saying of the rescue for which his Air Medal was awarded, ‘Anyone could have done it,’ ” Thiel said. “His accomplishments and humility indicate the heroic capabilities of regular U.S. citizens, especially in Civil Air Patrol.”
Brig. Gen. Richard L. Anderson, Civil Air Patrol’s national commander from 1993 to 1996 and now a member of CAP’s Board of Governors, also regularly attends the annual Base 2 reunions and, like Thiel, cherishes time spent with Edwards. “Throughout my years as a member and senior leader in Civil Air Patrol, knowing Eddie Edwards is one of my personal best memories,” Anderson said. “I knew him well for the last 15 years of his life and looked forward to attending the reunions every year because I knew that Eddie — along with his Base 2 colleagues — would be present with their infectious grins and contagious enthusiasm.”
This artwork was painted on a Stinson used by subchasers with the Coastal Patrol.
Edwards stayed active long after his retirement. Until age 85, he flew his own plane out of Summit Aviation in Middletown, Del. He remained a volunteer for Meals On Wheels and donated time to the Perry Point VA Medical Center. He also was a member of the Rotary Clubs of Middletown and Newark, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, Scottish Rite of Freemasonry (Stephenson Lodge No. 135), OX5 Aviation Pioneers, Quiet Birdmen and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and he was an early supporter of the Delaware Agricultural Museum and Village in Dover.
In 2006, Edwards was present for a ceremony unveiling the Rehoboth Beach Historical Marker, erected in memory of four Base 2 subchasers who died during World War II. He was a regular at such events, said Col. Russell Opland, former Delaware Wing commander. “It was remarkable for all our members, but especially our cadets, to see and speak to a man who was literally a living legend,” Opland said. “Most everyone learns about Eddie and Hugh when they first learn about CAP’s origins, as they were the first recipients of the Air Medal during War World II.” Opland said Edwards donated his medal to the Delaware Wing. “We held it reverently, along with Hugh Sharp’s.”
In 2007, Civil Air Patrol promoted Edwards and his colleagues to the rank of colonel and presented them with CAP Distinguished Service Medals for their wartime service. “I was privileged to preside at the ceremony,” said Anderson, adding, “Nothing can compare to standing in the long shadows that they continue to cast.”
Edwards died in December 2009 following a long illness. His passing represents yet another loss from perhaps CAP’s greatest generation of fliers. Just a few of Edwards’ Base 2 anti-sub comrades are still alive, and less than 60 subchasers remain nationwide.