Civil Air Patrol and its earliest members were honored in December 2014 with the Congressional Gold Medal for their contributions during World War II, when they forged the path the organization and its volunteers still follow today – helping secure the homeland, selflessly and often at great sacrifice.
These days, CAP’s volunteers stand ready to take on such challenges as natural and manmade disasters and searches for missing aircraft or individuals. In CAP’s formative years, during the early days of American involvement in the war, the perils were mostly posed by enemy combatants, in the form of Nazi U-boats threatening U.S. shipping – especially oil tankers – off the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
CAP’s founders flew patrols that discouraged and eventually stopped the U-boat attacks. They also patrolled the country’s borders by air, towed targets for military trainees, spotted forest fires, conducted search and rescue missions, provided disaster relief and emergency transport of people and parts and conducted orientation flights for future pilots.
In many ways, the pioneering members being honored were ahead of their time in devoting themselves to serving their communities and their country as volunteers. And just like their CAP counterparts today, when they risked life and limb to help protect the home front during wartime they weren’t looking for recognition.
Even so, more than 70 years later they received it.
Legislation in both houses of Congress awarded CAP a single Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of its members’ contributions during the war. Many used their own aircraft to conduct volunteer combat operations and other emergency missions under hazardous conditions.
They came from all walks of life. Their ranks, more than 100,000 strong, included not only ordinary men, women and teenagers in communities throughout the country but also such prominent figures as a noted Hollywood director and a world-famous pianist, a Munchkin from “The Wizard of Oz” and a sitting state governor, a storied Wall Street financier and a pioneering African-American female aviator, future Tuskegee Airmen, the head of a major brewery and the founder of a famous doughnut chain.
- Mary Astor, a prominent Hollywood actress best known for her role in “The Maltese Falcon” and for winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1941 for her role in “The Great Lie.” After joining CAP in Los Angeles, she helped set up the operations center at Coastal Patrol Base 12 in Brownsville, Texas.
- John Bricker, who served as Ohio governor from January 1939-January 1945 and then as a U.S. senator from January 1947-January 1959. He was New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey’s vice presidential running mate on the Republican slate in the 1944 national election. Bricker joined CAP in May 1942.
- Willa Brown, the first African-American woman to earn a private pilot’s license and to hold a commercial pilot’s license in the U.S. She and her husband owed the Coffey School of Aeronautics at Chicago’s Harlem Airport, which trained black pilots and aviation mechanics, including future Tuskegee Airmen. She also co-founded the National Airmen’s Association of America in 1939, working to get black aviation cadets into the U.S. military. Brown was CAP’s first African-American officer, receiving the rank of lieutenant in 1942.
- I.W. Burnham II, who in 1935 founded the Wall Street firm of Burnham & Co., which eventually became Drexel Burnham Lambert. Burnham served as commander of CAP’s Coastal Patrol Base 4 in Parksley, Va., and he received the U.S. Air Medal and Distinguished Civilian Service Award Medal.
- Bob Cummings, a noted Hollywood actor who starred in such films as “The Devil and Miss Jones,” “Kings Row” and “Dial M for Murder” and later in the TV situation comedy “The Bob Cummings Show.” Cumming flew missions starting in early 1942 as a charter member of what’s now the California Wing’s San Fernando Senior Squadron 35 before joining the U.S. Army Air Forces.
- Gail Halvorsen, the U.S. Air Force’s “Uncle Wiggly Wings,” famed for dropping chocolate to deprived children on the Soviet-controlled side of Berlin during the 1948 Berlin Airlift. Halvorsen joined CAP’s Utah Wing in 1941, flying search and rescue missions when hikers and skiers went missing, then enlisted in the Army Air Forces in 1943.
- Jose Iturbi, a world-famous pianist and harpsichordist who also appeared in several Hollywood films in the 1940s, playing himself in such movies as “Thousands Cheer” and “Anchors Aweigh.” An experienced pilot, he joined CAP on Jan. 12, 1942, in New York because at 46 he was too old for the Army Air Corps. Iturbi was commissioned as a major and later promoted to lieutenant colonel.
- Henry King Jr., a noted Hollywood director from 1915-1961, helming such movies as “The Song of Bernadette,” “Twelve O’Clock High,” “Carousel” and “The Sun Also Rises.” He was one of the 36 founders of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. King served as deputy commander of Coastal Patrol Base 12 in Texas.
- Zack Mosley, the famed comic strip artist best known for the long-running feature “The Adventures of Smilin’ Jack” from 1933-1973, which frequently featured CAP and the Coastal Patrol in strips. Mosley flew CAP anti-submarine missions while serving at Coastal Patrol Base 3 in Lantana, Fla., receiving the U.S. Air Medal. He also served as Florida Wing public affairs officer.
- Ruth Rowland Nichols, a pioneering female aviator who set world records for speed, altitude and distance and was the first woman licensed to fly a seaplane and as a commercial airline pilot and the first woman to fly nonstop from New York to Miami and to attempt a solo transatlantic crossing. Nichols joined CAP during World War II, eventually attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel.
- Vernon Rudolph, the founder of Krispy Kreme Donuts Inc. in 1947 in Winston-Salem, N.C. Rudolph flew for CAP’s Coastal Patrol Base 16 in Manteo, N.C.
- Lester L. Wolff, who served as a U.S. representative for New York in the House from 1965-1980, co-founding CAP’s Congressional Squadron in 1966. Wolff served in the New York Wing as a squadron commander and subchaser.
- Richard L. Yuengling Sr., the fourth co-president and manager of D.G. Yuengling and Son, the oldest brewery in the U.S. that’s still active today. Yuengling flew for Coastal Patrol Base 4 in Virginia, receiving the Air Medal for service from July 28, 1942-Aug. 31, 1943.
Most of the early volunteers, unfortunately, are gone. The Department of Veterans Affairs has said the nation’s World War II veterans are dying at a rate of 670 a day. Fewer than 100 CAP members from those days are known to be alive today.
“All the guys who I was with are all gone,” said CAP Lt. Col. Clive Goodwin Jr. “As far as I know, I’m the only one left. It’s a dwindling number.”
Goodwin joined a CAP squadron in Cortland, N.Y., in the fall of 1942 and flew as a mission pilot out of Cortland Municipal Airport. The squadron’s assignment was to fly search and missing aircraft missions for the U.S. Army Air Forces. He remains active as a member of the North Carolina Wing’s Franklin County Composite Squadron and is still a pilot.
When the Congressional Gold Medal was on the horizon, “I think it’s great that they’re recognizing CAP,” Goodwin said. CAP was founded Dec. 1, 1941, six days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Early in the war, after supply ships leaving American ports to support the Allied war effort began drawing deadly attacks from U-boats off the East Coast, CAP pilots carried out anti-submarine missions, often carrying bombs to drop by hands on any enemy vessels they sighted. Their vigilance helped discourage and eventually halt the attacks.
Over 18 months, CAP anti-submarine coastal patrols flew more than 24 million miles, spotting 173 U-boats and attacking 57. They also escorted more than 5,600 convoys and reported 17 floating mines, 36 bodies, 91 ships in distress and 363 survivors in the water.
“We who served asked for nothing in return and got nothing,” said former U.S. Rep. Lester Wolff, D-N.Y., who commanded a CAP squadron based at Mitchell Field on Long Island, N.Y., during World War II.
Often, “it was a perilous task,” Wolff said, recalling the loss of one of his squadron members.
“So many people forget that our little effort contributed so much,” especially in terms of providing protection for shipping, he said.
“Time is catching up, and at least there is still time for some of us to smell the flowers,” Wolff added.
CAP Col. Robert Arn flew anti-submarine missions out of Coastal Patrol Base No. 14 in Panama City, Fla., from September 1942-June 1943.
Of the 12 original pilots he served with at Panama City, “we lost six of them,” said Arn, who flew 179 missions totaling 557 hours of flight time over the Gulf of Mexico.
“I think with the aircraft we had, which weren’t built to go out over the Gulf of Mexico, we were able to do a job and do it well,” he said.
“To be recognized by the government would be wonderful,” said Col. Steve Patti, who joined CAP in January 1942 and was stationed at Vail Field in Los Angeles. For 15 months he was assigned to the 12th Task Force Anti-Submarine Patrol in Brownsville and San Benito, Texas, as an aircraft mechanic. He also flew as a replacement observer on convoy escort, anti-submarine, beach and border patrols, and later served at bases in Marfa and El Paso, Texas.
“It’s a great honor to be bought into the limelight of recognition,” said Patti, who like many of his CAP colleagues subsequently served in the U.S. Army Air Corps. At the time, “there was no thought of recognition; there was only the thought of getting the job done.”
“I personally never gave it any more thought after the war,” he said. “We did our job every day and we asked for nothing. We had to buy our own special tools or make our own tools.”