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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Sunday Ship History: The Anti-Submarine Warriors of the Civil Air Patrol

Last week, in a comment to a Sunday Ship History post on the Coast Guard Auxiliary, Robert Langland briefly mentioned the "other" Auxiliary, the Air Force's Civil Air Patrol. Connection with the Maritime Services? As set out below, the CAP was very active in anti-submarine patrols off the U.S. coasts during WWII - sinking a couple of U-boats...

It all began with one man's idea generated by events in Europe just before the U.S. shooting part of WWII started...
In the mid to late 1930’s, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan created an alliance called the Axis, and were taking over much of Europe, North Africa and Indochina. Their actions were beginning to threaten America’s allies and vital interests. A by-product of the Axis’ aggressions was the stifling of civil aviation in conquered countries. Also, in those countries not yet threatened by Axis power, civil aircraft flight was either drastically curtailed or eliminated as authorities realized the need to better control air traffic through restriction to military flights only.
During the period 1938-41, United States civilian aircraft pilots, aviation mechanics and aviation enthusiasts became increasingly concerned about the international situation. They began to understand – as many Americans did – that if the Axis powers were even marginally successful in their plans for conquests, America would be forced to intervene. If so, they concluded that the government would most probably severely limit aviation in an attempt to reduce the risk of sabotage.
These air-minded Americans realized that the United States – and the aviation community – would be better suited if civil aviation could be put to use when hostilities opened instead of being restricted by the government. During that period, there were approximately 25,000 light aircraft, 128,000 certified pilots, and over 14,000 aircraft mechanics in America. Fearing these repercussions, many of these aviation enthusiasts searched for ways to both serve their country and preserve civil aviation’s strength. While many pilots and mechanics entered the Royal Air Force or the Royal Canadian Air Force to “get on with it,” others joined the US armed
services. Those who could not join a military service because of age, physical condition or for other reasons still had the desire to help. They were prepared to endorse any plan whereby they and their aircraft could be put to use when the time came in defense of the nation.

The concept of a national civil air patrol was first envisaged in 1938 when Mr. Gill Robb Wilson, a noted aviation writer of the time, returned from a writing assignment in Germany. While there, he noticed Germany’s aggressive intentions first-hand. Upon his return to his home state of New Jersey, he reported his findings to Governor Edison and pleaded that New Jersey organize and use its civil air fleet as an augmentive force for the war that he was convinced would come.
Not only did Mr. Wilson go to the governor of New Jersey, he got others on board:
Wilson then convinced New York mayor (and National Civil Defense Chief) Fiorello La Guardia of the need for a civilian air defense organization. The new Civil Air Patrol was born on December 1, 1941, just days before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

The CAP insignia, a red three-bladed propeller in the Civil Defense white-triangle-in-blue-circle, began appearing on private aircraft everywhere. (The red markings were later deleted for aircraft in combat areas to prevent confusion with enemy insignia.) CAP initially planned only on liaison flying and interdiction of infiltrators on the East Coast and the southern border, but CAP’s mission grew when German submarines began to prey on American ships.
Wait? Submarines?
After Nazi U-boats began disrupting deliveries of gasoline and oil to the United States, and threatening the transport of vital war supplies being rushed to Europe, the new organization found a new mission--coastal patrols and submarine spotting.

Sponsored by oil companies such as Sunoco (Sun Oil) and civic organizations, 40,000 people from all walks of life volunteered to serve in civilian coastal patrols and the Civil Air Patrol. Private pilots supplied their own aircraft and equipment, but their operating expenses often exceeded the $8 per day flight reimbursement provided by the government. Civic groups held fundraisers and established "Sink-a-Sub Clubs" to provide financial assistance to the coastal patrol and Civil Air Patrol pilots.
Seems the idea was that the CAP would patrol the littoral and report any sightings to the Army Air Corps and a war plane was to be dispatched to follow up on the sighting. See here.

However, one day things changed because of "the one that got away"...
About the middle of May, 1942, "Doc" Rinker and his observer, Tom Manning, spotted a Nazi submarine stuck in the sand in shallow water just offshore from Cape Canaveral, Florida. "Doc" frantically radioed our West Palm Beach base to contact any military base that had a bomber with bombs, and dispatch it immediately. West Palm Beach, a Ferry Command base, didn't have any bombers with bombs. "Ike" Vermillya, our West Palm Beach base commander, got on the phone and called Banana River Naval Air Station and Tampa. Neither had a plane with bombs available at the time. The United States was truly caught short and unprepared. Most armed military aircraft were in Europe and Africa, fighting the Nazi Axis, or in the Pacific fighting the Japanese.

A bomber with depth charges was finally located at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station and dispatched to Cape Canaveral. But several hours had elapsed since the Nazi sub had been located, and by the time the Navy bomber arrived, the sub had freed itself from the sand in the shallow water and had disappeared in to the deep sea.

Everyone was furious to think that the trapped enemy "water snake" had escaped simply because of a lack of fire-power.
Shortly thereafter, ways were found to jury rig bomb cradles onto the little aircraft and the CAP was in the ASW and SAR business*.
By 1943, Civil Air Patrol coastal patrols had flown 244,600 hours totaling 24 million miles (38.6 million kilometers), summoning help for 91 ships in distress and aiding in the rescue of 363 survivors of submarine attacks. CAP patrols spotted 173 enemy submarines, attacking 57 with bombs or depth charges, damaging 10 and sinking two. In recognition of its effectiveness, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an Executive Order on April 29, 1943, establishing the Civil Air Patrol as the auxiliary of the U.S. Army Air Forces. At the time of its transfer to the AAF, the Civil Air Patrol ranks had swelled to more than 75,000 volunteers.
The offshore work was not easy:
Submarine patrol was hazardous duty. Few of the pilots had any overwater flying experience, but their patrol areas lay from 20 to 100 miles offshore. They flew at 300 feet, too low to use parachutes. Patrols often were carried out in weather below Army and Navy minimums. Their light planes were not designed to survive ditching, which could be fatal, especially in winter. Because of these perils, female CAP pilots were not allowed to volunteer for submarine duty, but they flew in other capacities.
As the U.S. ramped up for war, the mission of the CAP changed again:
Largely in reaction to the Civil Air Patrol's activities, enemy submarine close-in operations along the East Coast were withdrawn and, on August 31, 1943, Civil Air Patrol coastal patrols were ordered to stand down (cease operations). In the ultimate compliment, a Nazi submariner later admitted that the U-boats were pulled back "because of those damned little red and yellow airplanes" of the Civil Air Patrol.

Its coastal patrol mission no longer needed, Civil Air Patrol members, both men and women, continued to support the war effort--guarding airfields, towing aerial targets, flying military courier and liaison missions, and of course, air search and rescue. By war's end, Civil Air Patrol volunteer pilots had flown over 500,000 hours, but many also paid the ultimate price--more than 90 CAP aircraft were lost and 64 of its volunteer members died in their country's service.

In 1946, President Harry S Truman, in acknowledgement of the Civil Air Patrol's dedication and achievements, signed a bill granting the Civil Air Patrol a national charter. The U.S. Air Force was established as a separate armed service in 1947 and the Civil Air Patrol soon followed, designated as the Air Force's permanent civilian auxiliary in May 1948. On July 1, 1976, the Civil Air Patrol was transferred to U.S. Air ForceĆ­s Headquarters Command, and placed under the command of Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.

By the 1960s and 1970s, Civil Air Patrol pilots were flying more than 75 percent of all search and rescue missions in the United States, and that primary mission continues to this day. CAP members are always ready to serve in any capacity, performing such vital roles as delivering critical supplies, establishing command posts, and providing radio communications during natural disasters and emergencies.

The promotion of air power to the public, as well as providing aerospace education and training for its adult and youth members, remains of paramount importance to the Civil Air Patrol as it begins a new century of providing volunteer services to benefit the public good. Those "little red and yellow airplanes" and their civilian crews remain one of the military's best investments.
Of course, whether the CAP chased away the German subs all by themselves or perhaps as part of other factors (convoys, better escorts, more military aircraft for patrols) is probablly a bar argument that will never be resolved. One could even quibble about whether one or two U-boats wer sunk by the CAP... but why?

These were brave men who rose to meet the need of their country at a very dangerous time and who did a damned fine job for virtually no money and very little glory. In many ways, it is a classic American tale rising to a challenge in an innovative fashion.

In the post-9/11 world, the CAP is still with us, performing valuable missions:
CAP's emergency services include air and ground search and rescue, disaster relief, counterdrug, and an increasing role in homeland security. Its members fly more than 95 percent of the inland search and rescue missions directed by the Air Force Rescue and Coordination Center at Langley Air Force Base, Va. The Civil Air Patrol flew more than 3,000 search and rescue missions and was credited with saving 73 lives in 2005.
CAP provides extensive support to the nation's Gulf coast following natural disasters. During Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, CAP serviced dozens of locations across the region – more than 1,500 CAP members volunteered to provide support ranging from aircraft missions such as search and rescue, transportation of critical personnel and supplies, and aerial imagery of flood damaged areas for civil authorities to ground team missions such as house to house searching of neighborhoods and passing out emergency supplies. In total, the CAP flew nearly 1,000 aircraft missions in support of the hurricane relief efforts.
The CAP is moving into Homeland Defense duties as recognized by a unique benefit:
Due to CAP's expanding role in the 21st century to include increased homeland security work, Congress in February 2003 amended the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 to make members of the Civil Air Patrol eligible for Public Safety Officer death benefits.

Under this bill, Civil Air Patrol members who lose their lives in the line of duty will become eligible for the same federal death benefit provided to other public safety personnel. The bill, entitled the Civil Air Patrol Homeland Security Benefits Act (H.R. 3681)applies to the members of CAP who lose their lives or become permanently disabled while engaged in active service in support of operational missions of the U.S. Air Force.

You might be interested in the National Museum of the Civil Air Patrol on the Web.

*Gen Hap Arnold's version of arming the CAP:
From "Global Missions", by H.H. Arnold, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York 1947
Pages 301-302

"One time, a C.A.P. pilot saw a submarine cruising inside the shallow water area, but the sub paid no attention to the harmless little plane overhead. The pilot said he flew low enough to throw a rock or a wrench and hit the submarine, yet the U-boat in shallow water went moving along just like a cabin cruiser. When it was ready, the sub went out through a gap in the shoals and sank a ship.

I asked Gill Wilson if he thought the C.A.P. pilots, dressed in civilian clothes and having no military status, would object to carrying bombs on their puddle-jumpers. As usual, Wilson was enthusiastic and asked, "Where do we get them?"

Accordingly, I had special bomb racks built at one of our depots bomb racks that could be attached to these small planes in a very short time. We also built a cheap bombsight, and thereafter most of the C.A.P. planes carried bombs-fifty pounders the pilots could drop on the submarines, knowing full well that if they were taken prisoner in civilian clothes, they would not be considered part of our armed forces, but guerillas.

UPDATE: As provided in the first comment, here's a link to the CAPBlog.

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