Civil Air Patrol

The Way We Were | 70th Anniversary

As Civil Air Patrol celebrates its 70th anniversary, CAP’s earliest members recount

In addition to looking for German submarines, CAPʼs Coastal Patrol was also responsible for reporting cargo ship and oil tanker sinkings and helping coordinate the rescue of survivors. Some tanker crews refused to go back to sea until they were assured CAP could be there to help in case of attack.

Those who piloted Civil Air Patrol’s trademark single-engine aircraft laid their lives on the line every time they flew, not only ready to do battle with enemy submarines but often also facing treacherous weather, the prospect of having to ditch at sea, spotty communications with their bases, limited equipment and even friendly fire.

Here are some of their stories:

Wylie Apte Sr., inset, joined a CAP Coastal Patrol base in Maine after traffic at his White Mountain Airport in New Hampshire was diminished by World War II. A seasoned pilot, Apte searched for German submarines off the coasts of Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts in his own Waco YKS-7 biplane.

Wylie Apte Sr.

Wylie Apte Sr., who died in 1970, was a seasoned pilot, having flown with the Air Service, U.S. Army, during World War I and later owning and operating White Mountain Airport in North Conway, N.H. In service to CAP, Apte was assigned to a unit of the Coastal Patrol, CAP’s initial incarnation, based in Portland, Maine, to search for enemy German submarines off the coasts of Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts; during the war, CAP operated 21 such units up and down the Eastern Seaboard and into the Gulf of Mexico. Apte flew his own Waco YKS-7 biplane, trailing an antenna longer than 100 yards for communication with his land base, which would in turn be used to notify the military to dispatch fighters and bombers in the event a sub was spotted.

Subchasers like Apte were told not to expect to actually see an enemy submarine; the mission’s true purpose was to maintain a presence that would prevent U-boats from surfacing to recharge their batteries, forcing them away from patrol zones. CAP pilots nevertheless flew at great personal risk. Light aircraft at the time were not equipped with navigational equipment, and pilots depended on dead reckoning, using only a clock and compass over the ocean, where they were often out of sight of land.

Ninety CAP planes were forced to ditch at sea. Of the 59 CAP pilots killed in World War II, 26 were lost in Coastal Patrol. Those who survived, however, were inaugurated into the “Duck Club.”

A pilotʼs license like this one belonging to Walter Soule was a common credential during World War II.

Walter Soule

One of Apte’s fellow subchasers at Coastal Patrol Base 19 was Walter Soule, who was in his early 20s then, young enough to be Apte’s son but a fellow enthusiastic pilot. Still a Maine resident at 90, Soule recalled flights at both dawn and dusk in the worst weather the state could offer — rain, snow, sleet, sea smoke and high winds.

The Maine Wing honored Soule, left, with a Distinguished Service Medal earlier this year, which was presented by Maine Wing Commander Col. Dan LeClair. Pending legislation to recognize CAP for its World War II service with a Congressional Gold Medal has prompted CAP to renew its efforts to locate members who served at that time.

He smiled as he recollected the “safety equipment” CAP crews were required to wear. In addition to the traditional “Mae West” safety vest, they were supplied with the “Barracuda Bag,” which Soule described as a poorly designed sort of personal life raft that encased the legs, presumably to protect from shark attacks. “It ranked right up there with the ‘zoot suits,’ an all-rubber suit,” he said.

Trent Lane, a pilot who served at Coastal Patrol Base 9, is a senior Olympian and still active at age 101.

Trent Lane

Across the nation, in the Louisiana Wing’s Baton Rouge squadron, Trent Lane also served his country through CAP at Coastal Patrol Base 9. “The home front wasn’t quite as peaceful as one might think,” Lane said. He remembers the Army Air Corps firmly controlling CAP during the first part of the war, with secrecy of their missions a top priority. Operating from a makeshift base on Grand Isle, La., their assignment was to patrol along the shores of the Gulf between Grand Isle and the mouth of the Mississippi River.

While Lane said most flights in their tiny yellow Stinson were made memorable by a dazzling array of birds and marine life, on one trip an observer noticed something in the river near Plaquemine, La. The pilot circled overhead several times until the crew was satisfied they were seeing a German U-boat. They radioed the position in to Baton Rouge and were told not to discuss their discovery. In the end, this sighting was never confirmed by the War Department.

Today, Lane, a senior Olympian, remains active at 101 years old.

Each base was ideally equipped with a rescue amphibian craft used to recover downed pilots

Charles Compton

Charles Compton, age 94, was in his early 20s when he left dual jobs in Chicago — one as an advertising salesman for the Daily News and one working in a plant that manufactured aircraft gears — to go to the East Coast as a CAP volunteer, based on “a desire to be more actively engaged in the war effort.” There he was part of the flight staff, serving as either the pilot or observer on missions to search for enemy submarines or to provide an escort for American convoys as they sailed along the Eastern Seaboard.

The duty was dangerous, he recalled. “There was nothing like GPS,” he said, describing the use of partially sunken American merchant ships, which were plentiful, as a navigational tool and which were marked on charts. He armed himself with humor for his CAP duty. Serving at a time when CAP aircraft were allowed to carry bombs, he remembered the aircrews’ struggles to distinguish between enemy submarines and whales to avoid any ridicule for attacking marine life. And he told about dangerous night duty on base when someone patrolling the perimeter encountered a sentry. “Both you and the sentry needed to know the correct password, or it would mean a ‘tense moment,’” he said.

Compton bought one of the Coastal Patrol planes, a Grumman G44-A amphibian, which he used for both business and pleasure for several years following the war. 

Charles Compton is circled in red in this photo taken shortly before CAP closed Coastal Patrol Base 1 in Atlantic City, N.J.

Joseph W. Leonard

Joseph W. Leonard joined CAP the day it was established and remained a member until the day he died. In his memoirs of his World War II squadron, he wrote, “I still remember them all – they are a part of my life that I can never forget.”

Propelled by duty and love of country, Joseph W. Leonard joined CAP the day it was established. Leonard, who passed away in March, was a member of the Pennsylvania Wing’s Chester Squadron. He flew out of Coastal Patrol Base 2 at Rehoboth Beach, Del. Legendary in CAP history, Rehoboth is known today for its annual reunion of members who served there. During World War II it was populated by such CAP heroes as Eddie Edwards, who received the first Air Medal of World War II from President Franklin D. Roosevelt for his daring all-night rescue of a downed CAP pilot from the Atlantic, and Louisa Morse, the first female to command a CAP wing.

Leonard’s son, Mike, said, “It was always America first” with his father, who instilled patriotism in his five children. He recalled his father’s accounts of sitting on the Delaware beach on days he was not flying for CAP and seeing bodies washed up on the sand, the result of German submarines attacking American troop transports that had just departed for England. In a journal he left behind, Leonard wrote: “On my day off I was in the habit of going surfing. There I had a close encounter with a torpedo that was fired at a convoy a few miles offshore and missed. I was about a half mile beyond the breakers watching a convoy heading north. I was focusing on the ships and didn’t notice the bubble trail approaching me until it was pretty close. I rolled the surfboard to one side, and the German torpedo slid by me.”

Leonard, who remained a CAP member until the day he died, left Coastal Patrol Base 2 to serve with the U.S. Navy Reserve, but in his memoirs he said of his World War II CAP squadron: “I still remember them all — they are a part of my life that I can never forget.”

Majs. Lois Hopwood and Douglas E. Jessmer, Capt. Mary Story and 1st Lts. Dana E. Hylen and William Lovett contributed to this story.

 

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© 2017 Civil Air Patrol National Headquarters. All rights reserved.