Some history on The Civil Air Patrol.
The civilian sub-chasers.
In the 1930s, American aviators noticed a disturbing trend: whenever Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan extended their influence to a new part of Europe or Asia, they always put a stop to local civil aviation to improve the security of the regime. American fliers became concerned that a war with the Axis might see similar bans in the United States, instituted by the nation’s own government. They realized that the best way for civilian aviation to avoid similar fate was to prove its usefulness to the government in wartime.
By 1938, the idea of a civilian auxiliary service started taking shape and several groups were founded around the country. At the same time, training programs for new pilots and refresher courses for already licensed ones were introduced by the U.S. Army Air Corps and the Civilian Aeronautics Administration to ensure there would be enough pilots for the war.
Officially becoming active on December 1, 1941, the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) immediately had its task cut out for it. Entering the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. immediately became the target of German submarines. Oil tankers and freighters became vulnerable targets to U-boats prowling the Atlantic seaboard during what the Germans called the “Second happy time” or “American shooting season.”
One of the CAP’s first jobs was submarine chasing. Civilian pilots in civilian aircraft patrolled coastal waters in any weather, at any time of day, in any season, to spot lurking submarines and report their position by radio.
n May 1942, a plane spotted a U-boat off Cape Canaveral. The German captain thought the spotter was armed, tried to flee and subsequently ran aground on a sandbar. By the time actual bombers arrived, however, the submarine had been freed and made its getaway. As a result of this incident, the civilian planes of the CAP were equipped with bombs and depth charges so they could attempt the attack themselves. Only two submarines were ever confirmed destroyed by the CAP, but they still reported 173 U-boats and made 57 attacks before the end of coastal patrol in August 1943. They made the East Coast unsafe for German vessels at a time when the Navy and the Army were struggling to secure the seaboard. The Patrol also reported 91 ships in distress and played a role in rescuing 363 survivors of U-boat attacks.
Another CAP operation was the Southern Liaison Patrol along the Mexican border, looking for hostile spies and saboteurs who might try to enter the country from the south. CAP pilots often flew low enough to read the license plate numbers on cars.
The CAP also flew inland search and rescue missions looking for lost Army and Navy aircraft. At this job, they even had an advantage over military pilots, since local civilian aviators knew the certain areas much better and their planes allowed them to fly lower and slower.
Other, less glamorous missions for the CAP included towing targets for aerial and flak target practice (several tow planes were accidentally hit by flak, but fatalities were miraculously avoided), courier service, cargo transportation, pilot training (including cadets 15 to 18 years of age), blood bank flights, forest fire patrols and mock raids to test blackout. In the Northwestern states, CAP pilots flew with shotguns in hopes of intercepting Japanese balloon bombs. In the southwest, the CAP flew “wolf patrols” and shot predators from the air to help out farmers whose cattle were being preyed on and inflicting great financial loss in the midst of wartime beef rationing.
The Civil Air Patrol was also a cornerstone in introducing women into aviation. More than half of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), many of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) and Marine Corps Women’s Reserve served in the CAP first. Prominent CAP members, pilots or ground crew, included actress Mary Astor, best known for her role in The Maltese Falcon, Willa Brown, the first African-American woman to hold a private pilot’s license, world-famous pianist and harpsichordist Jose Iturbi, Vernon Rudolph, founder of Krispy Kreme donuts, and actor Meinhardt Raabe, who played the Munchkin coroner pronouncing the Wicked Witch of the East dead in The Wizard of Oz.
While CAP pilots were no soldiers, their job was far from safe. They often flew with no more than a compass and a radio and, early on, coastal patrol pilots only had an inner tube or a duck hunter vest as a floatation device. Around 60 aviators died during the war, 26 of them on coastal patrol.
The Civil Air Patrol still serves proudly and with honor today. It was rededicated in 1946 as an organization “solely of a benevolent character,” never again participating in combat operations.