U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, commander of CAP's Congressional Squadron, speaks to his colleagues about members' service during World War II. The presentation on S. 418, proposing a Congressional Gold Medal recognizing that service, was broadcast live on C-SPAN 2.
A pair of CAP subchasers, Maj. Hugh R. Sharp Jr. (center) and 1st Lt. Edmond I. "Eddie"’ Edwards (second from right), receive the first two Air Medals ever awarded by the U.S. from Franklin D. Roosevelt 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, CAP members had received 800 Air Medals.
Photo courtesy of CAP Historical Foundation
WASHINGTON, D.C. – A major step in the campaign to secure a Congressional Gold Medal recognizing Civil Air Patrol members’ service to the country during World War II was taken today when the U.S. Senate unanimously approved S. 418, introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.
“This legislation will offer long overdue recognition to a small group of people who answered the call to duty at our nation’s time of maximum danger,” Harkin, commander of CAP's Congressional Squadron, told his colleagues during his floor statement.
In the U.S. House of Representatives, where an identical measure, H.R. 719, is pending, well over half the 290 co-sponsors needed to guarantee passage have been secured. Additional co-sponsors are sought, and those interested in helping with the effort can contact can contact their congressional representative.
The measure, if also approved by the House, will authorize creation of a single gold medal to honor CAP’s pioneering members for their contributions in helping safeguard the nation’s shores and shipping early in the war. Those members, often using their own aircraft, displayed 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 Gold Medal will honor the brave sacrifice of early CAP members from throughout the United States. Anyone who served as an adult member of CAP during the war, or a relative of such a member, is invited to contact Holley Dunigan at National Headquarters with information about their service.
“These members from our earliest days as an organization helped save lives and preserve our nation’s freedom,” said Maj. Gen. Chuck Carr, CAP national commander. “They were truly unsung heroes of the war, using their small private aircraft to not only search for enemy submarines close to America’s shores, but also to tow targets for military practice, to transport critical supplies within the country and to conduct general airborne reconnaissance."
Today, more than 70 years after America’s entry into World War II, only a few hundred of the roughly 60,000 CAP volunteers who served during that era are still alive.
Established as part of the federal Office of Civil Defense a week before the U.S. entered World War II, Civil Air Patrol quickly became involved in combat operations off the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Within weeks of the U.S. involvement in the war, German submarines began sinking vital shipping within sight of the East Coast.
Because the military lacked the necessary ships and aircraft to respond and the attacks were so numerous and successful, the entire early war effort was threatened. At the insistence of the oil industry, the military decided to use CAP’s civilian assistance as a 90-day experiment.
Beginning in March 1942, after 52 oil tankers had been sunk, for 18 months CAP members flew 24 million miles in search of the enemy. Patrols were conducted up to 100 miles off shore, generally with two aircraft flying together, in planes often equipped with only a compass for navigation and a single radio for communication. Personal emergency equipment was lacking, particularly in the beginning, and inner tubes and duck hunter’s kapok vests were used as flotation devices.
After CAP repeatedly discovered submarines that got away, members’ small personal aircraft were armed with bombs and depth charges. The combat operations were often flown in weather conditions that grounded the military. CAP was ultimately credited with sinking two submarines, attacking 57 and reporting 173 to the military.
This wartime Coastal Patrol service was considered highly unusual because these “subchasers” were civilian volunteers flying combat missions at great personal risk. 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.
Since the war, CAP has become a valuable nonprofit, public service organization chartered by Congress. It is the auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, charged with providing essential emergency, operational and public service to communities and states nationwide, the federal government and the military. Under the congressional charter, CAP’s core missions are emergency services, aerospace education and cadet programs.
Its more than 61,000 members fly some 112,000 hours annually, performing 90 percent of inland search and rescue in the U.S. – as tasked by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center and other agencies – and carrying out aerial reconnaissance for homeland security, providing aerial imagery to document the effects of natural or manmade disasters and assisting federal law enforcement agencies in the war on drugs.
The organization’s support for aerospace education in the schools and the community includes providing support for educational conferences and workshops nationwide and developing, publishing and distributing, without charge, national academic standards-based aerospace education curricula for kindergarten through college classrooms.
CAP’s 27,000 members in the cadet ranks, ages 12 through 20, receive training in four main program areas -- leadership, aerospace, fitness and character development – and each year the organization’s cadets account for about 10 percent of the new class entering the U.S. Air Force Academy.
The Congressional Gold Medal commemorates distinguished service to the nation and is considered by many to be the highest form of congressional recognition. Since 1776, only about 300 such awards have been given to a wide range of military leaders and accomplished civilians, including President George Washington, Col. John Glenn, poet Robert Frost and Gens. Douglas MacArthur and Colin Powell. Foreigners awarded the medal have included Winston Churchill, Simon Wiesenthal and Mother Teresa.
The award to CAP would be unusual in that a single medal would be awarded for the collective efforts of all World War II adult members. Other organizations that have been recognized by Congress for their wartime contributions include the Navajo Code Talkers, Tuskegee Airmen and Women’s Airforce Service Pilots.
Harkin’s floor statement
I rise today to speak about S. 418, a bill to award a Congressional Gold Medal to the World War II members of the Civil Air Patrol. I introduced this legislation last year and it currently has 85 cosponsors.
This legislation will offer long overdue recognition to a small group of people who answered the call to duty at our nation’s time of maximum danger. Seventy years ago, during the height of World War II, Civil Air Patrol members in small aircraft began searching for German U-boats off the Atlantic Coast. This was a time of great peril for the nation when over 400 ships were sunk in U.S. waters, many in view of Americans on shore, and the military did not have enough aircraft and ships to stop the carnage.
That’s why the Civil Air Patrol had to answer the call. Their mission was highly unusual because these pilots were civilian volunteers flying their own aircraft on combat operations; often at their own expense.
The mission was for CAP aircraft to force the U-boats below the surface of the water, making their attacks on shipping much more difficult and time consuming. As soon as CAP pilots took to the air, they spotted so many U-boats that the military quickly armed their aircraft with small bombs and depth charges. From Maine to Texas, CAP aircraft flew these missions in pairs, up to 100 miles offshore, in all seasons and often in bad weather.
CAP pilots put themselves at great risk, flying over water at low levels with only a compass, one radio and minimal survival gear to help them if they got in trouble. Many pilots had to ditch in the water. Twenty-six pilots lost their lives and 90 aircraft were lost.
During an 18-month period, CAP flew over 24 million miles on its anti-submarine coastal patrols. It spotted 173 U-boats, attacked 57 with bombs or depth charges, and possibly sank or damaged two. It also escorted over 5,600 convoys and reported 17 floating mines, 36 bodies, 91 ships in distress and 363 survivors in the water.
Most importantly, CAP’s constant presence over the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico was a major factor in pushing enemy operations away from the coast and protecting vital shipping and cargo.
In 1943, German U-boat attacks ceased off the Atlantic coast of the United States. One high-level German naval officer credited CAP with being the primary reason for withdrawal, saying, “It was because of those damned little red and yellow planes!”
As the U-boat threat ended, CAP expanded its homeland security and emergency operations to include search and rescue, border patrol, forest fire patrol and disaster relief in every state in the nation.
By war’s end, nearly 60,000 members had participated in CAP and flew 75 million miles over 750,000 hours in support of critical home front missions. Its volunteers ranged in age from 18 to over 80.
Many served for the entire war, while others, most of whom later joined the military, served for shorter periods. A substantial number received “belligerent” certificates indicating that they had participated in combat-related operations on active duty with the Civil Air Patrol.
The individual accounts of CAP pilots’ performance and heroism are too numerous to recount, but just a few examples can illustrate the valor with which they served.
For instance, Maj. Hugh Sharp and Lt. Eddie Edwards, from Rehoboth, Del., landed their Sikorsky amphibian in high seas to rescue two other CAP airmen who had to ditch their plane. They found one crew member who was badly hurt, but they were unable to take off due to a pontoon damaged during a rough landing on 10 foot swells.
Making a decision to taxi the aircraft back to land, they quickly discovered that the damaged amphibian listed too far to the left to make any progress. Eddie volunteered to climb out to the end of the right wing to keep the plane in balance.
The next day, when a Coast Guard ship met the aircraft, Eddie had to be carried from the wing after holding on tightly for eleven hours in freezing and wet conditions. Both pilots were awarded the first Air Medals of the war by President Roosevelt.
Capt. Francis “Mac” McLaughlin flew Coastal Patrol missions from Daytona Beach, Fla., for 17 months. During that time he, along with Albert Crabtree, ditched a Fairchild 24 aircraft in the Atlantic and floated in a life raft for several hours until the Coast Guard picked them up.
They quickly became members of the “Duck Club,” an exclusive organization that recognized those who survived a CAP ditching. There would soon be many in that club.
When the Coastal Patrol ended, Mac went to Massachusetts to tow aerial targets, CAP’s second most dangerous duty after the Coastal Patrol. Seven CAP pilots and observers would be shot down and killed during gunnery practice. Mac, who served the entire war on active duty with CAP, passed away near the end of 2011.
Another CAP veteran is Lt. Charles Compton, who flew from Coastal Patrol Base 1 at Atlantic City, N.J., on anti-submarine and convoy escort missions. He recently noted that “convoys could be attacked at any time. We had a war going on and the threat of German submarines off the east coast. Our job was to make it less easy for the German submarines to surface without being detected.”
Charles, who lives near Chicago and turned 95 last summer, remembers that during these dangerous missions, pilots often used sunken ships as points of reference to help navigate when over water. He added that, unfortunately, sunken ships were plentiful at that time.
Recently recognized for his service with CAP’s Distinguished Service Award, he credits the exceptional efforts of his fellow Atlantic City squadron members for the honor he received.
These three stories are illustrative of CAP’s many World War II heroes. More importantly, these stories serve as a powerful reminder of the dedication and service that all gave the nation.
When the war ended, CAP members did not receive the recognition they deserved. Their story, over time, was lost to much of the nation.
This Congressional Gold Medal will ensure that this story is told over and over again for future generations, and it recognizes CAP and its World War II members for their critically important service to our nation.