As observances began for the Civil Air Patrol's seventieth anniversary, a bid to honor its earliest members who flew as civilian defenders of the nation's coastlines during World War II was making its way through Congress.
House Resolution 719, which would award a Congressional Gold Medal in honor of the World War II members of the CAP, had 108 co-sponsors as of late November. Similar legislation in the Senate, S. 418, had acquired 44 backers. The CAP is tracking the progress of the legislation on its website.
After being awarded, the gold medal would be given to the Smithsonian Institution for display.
“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,” said a CAP announcement on the status of the effort on Nov. 28.
The pilots, flying missions for the Coastal Patrol, as it was then named, at the request of the Office of Civilian Defense were credited with helping to stop U-boat attacks on supply ships outbound from U.S. ports.
In all, 90 CAP planes were forced to ditch at sea. Of 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,” the CAP said. “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.”
CAP's national commander, Major General Chuck Carr, considers the pilots “unsung heroes” of World War II.
“They provided selfless service, without fanfare, in defense of their homeland,” he said.
Three profiles offered by CAP capture the spirit of the pilots for whom the award would be dedicated. Charles Compton, now 94, was in his twenties when he left two jobs to join the flight staff of Coastal Patrol Base 1 in Atlantic City, N.J. He sought out subs and escorted convoys along the east coast.
World War I pilot Wylie Apte Sr. returned to the skies and searched for enemy subs off the Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts coasts in his own Waco YKS-7 biplane. He died in 1970.
Joseph W. Leonard joined CAP literally on Day One, and remained a member until his death in March 2011. He flew from Coastal Patrol Base 2 at Rehoboth Beach, Del. In a personal journal entry he related how, while surfing on a day off, he had to dodge a German torpedo.
Today, with only a few hundred of the roughly 60,000 pilots of the era still living, Carr stressed the importance of winning recognition for the group's heroism. CAP is urging members to contact their House members and senators to urge support for the bills. CAP also asks that anyone with information about CAP members who served the organization during World War II to add the information to this database.
The nonprofit CAP remains the official auxiliary of the Air Force, with more than 61,000 members. CAP performs 90 percent of continental U.S. inland search-and-rescue missions. In fiscal 2011, CAP was credited by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center with saving 54 lives, the organization said. CAP members also play a leading role in aerospace education, and serve as mentors to nearly 27,000 young people in CAP cadet programs.
In June, the CAP was awarded a World Peace Prize by the World Peace Corps Mission in a ceremony in Washington, D.C.