MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. – On Dec. 1, Civil Air Patrol, the official auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, observes 70 years of vigilant service. But the celebration won’t be complete until CAP’s earliest members – now in their eighties and nineties – are “rightly honored” with the Congressional Gold Medal.
CAP, an all-volunteer service of more than 61,000 members, was founded 70 years ago on Dec. 1, 1941, less than a week before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor led to America’s involvement in World War II. Known at the time as the Coastal Patrol, members soon proved their worth by conducting aerial missions at the request of the Office of Civilian Defense, displaying heroism that discouraged and eventually stopped deadly German U-boat attacks on supply ships leaving American ports headed to support the Allied war effort.
The “subchasers” flew at great personal risk. In all, 90 CAP planes were forced to ditch at sea. Of the 59 CAP pilots killed during World War II, 26 were lost while on Coastal Patrol duty and seven others were seriously injured while carrying out the missions. Their wartime service was highly unusual because they were civilian volunteers flying combat missions in their own aircraft at a time when the military could not adequately respond to the U-boat threat. The military decided to arm their aircraft soon after the patrols began and, all told, they sank or damaged two or more submarines and attacked 57.
Legislation has been introduced and is pending in both houses of the U.S. Congress, H.R. 719 and S. 418, that would award CAP a Congressional Gold Medal for its World War II service. It will be a diminished victory, however, if none of the World War II-era CAP members are alive to see this law’s passage.
“These members from our earliest days as an organization helped save lives and preserve our nation’s freedom,” said Maj. Gen. Chuck Carr, CAP’s national commander. “They were truly unsung heroes of the war, using their small private aircraft to search for enemy submarines close to America’s shores, towing targets for military practice, transporting critical supplies within the country and conducting general airborne reconnaissance. They provided selfless service, without fanfare, in defense of their homeland.”
Time, instead of a German submarine, is now the enemy of the roughly 60,000 CAP volunteers from World War II. Only a few hundred of them are still alive today.
“Each week, each month, others are lost,” said Carr. “We want to make sure those who remain, and those who have passed, are rightly honored for their great service to America.”
These early CAP heroes included men like 94-year-old Charles Compton, the father of ABC News Radio White House correspondent Ann Compton. He was in his early 20s when he left dual jobs in Chicago — one as an advertising salesman for the Daily News, the other working in a plant that manufactured aircraft parts — to go to the East Coast as a CAP citizen volunteer based on “a desire to be more actively engaged in the war effort.” There he was part of the flight staff of Coastal Patrol Base 1 in Atlantic City, N.J., flying missions to search for enemy submarines or to provide an escort for American convoys as they sailed along the Eastern Seaboard.
During the war, CAP operated 21 such units up and down the Eastern Seaboard and into the Gulf of Mexico. The duty was dangerous, Charles Compton recalled. “There was nothing like GPS,” he said, as he told about using partially sunken American merchant ships, which were plentiful, as a navigational tool.