CAP?has long history of protection and support

  • Published
  • By CAP 2nd Lt. Howdy Stout
  • Oklahoma Wing Civil Air Patrol Public Affairs
Established a week before the U.S. entered World War II, Civil Air Patrol quickly became involved in combat operations off the Atlantic and Gulf Coast. Within weeks of the U.S. involvement in the war, German submarines began sinking vital shipping within sight of Americans standing on 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.

For 18 months, CAP members flew 24 million miles in search of the enemy. 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 is only part of the story of CAP's wartime service. It quickly established itself as a vital resource to the military as well as communities across the nation, and its missions included search and rescue, border patrol, forest fire patrol, target towing, courier/cargo flights and other essential tasks. These critical missions supported the war effort and freed up personnel needed elsewhere. By war's end CAP had flown more than 750,000 hours with a total loss of only 64 members and 150 aircraft - a credit to the organization's emphasis on organization and safety.

CAP was established as part of the Office of Civil Defense one week before the attack on Pearl Harbor. During much of the war it was under control of the Army and flew anti-submarine coastal patrol missions for the Navy. Many of its volunteers were too young, too old or otherwise unqualified for regular military service.

Its most critical role came early in the war when German submarine attacks, often within sight of land, were being conducted against essential war shipping in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts. CAP began anti-submarine coast patrols in March 1942 after 52 oil tankers had been sunk. 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.

CAP operations were conducted in bad weather as well as good, often when the military was unable to fly, and in all seasons including the winter, when ditching an aircraft would likely mean certain death. The idea was CAP aircraft would report submarines they spotted and request assistance from the military to attack them.

There were too few armed military aircraft to assist, but many opportunities arose for CAP pilots to attack submarines. As a result CAP aircraft were equipped with 50-, 100- and 325-pound bombs or depth charges. The arming of CAP aircraft meant these civilian aircrews were now conducting missions. During the coastal patrol, CAP reported 173 submarine sightings and found 325 survivors of submarine attacks.

While the Coastal Patrol was ongoing, CAP established itself as a vital wartime service to communities. These included 20,500 missions involving target towing (with live ammunition) and gun/searchlight tracking. It also involved a courier service, including three major Air Force commands over a two-year period, carrying more than 3.5 million pounds of vital cargo and 543 passengers, and southern border operations flying more than 30,000 hours, with 7,000 reports of unusual sightings including a vehicle (which was apprehended) with two enemy agents attempting to enter the country.

During the war roughly 60,000 civilians were CAP members. CAP's war service was extraordinary in scope, especially since it involved civilian volunteers conducting combat operations in their own aircraft.

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 services to communities and states nationwide, the federal government and the military.