Legislation has been introduced in both houses of Congress that would award Civil Air Patrol a Congressional Gold Medal for its World War II service. It will be a diminished victory, however, if none of the World War II-era CAP members are alive to see this law’s passage, CAP officials said, noting many of those to be honored are in their late 80s and older.
Established on Dec. 1, 1941, CAP distinguished itself by using small private aircraft to search for enemy submarines close to America’s shores, towing targets for military practice, transporting critical supplies within the country and conducting general airborne reconnaissance.
CAP officials shared some stories from those volunteers:
Charles Compton, 94, was in his early 20s when he left dual jobs in Chicago — one as an advertising salesman for the Daily News, the other working in a plant that manufactured aircraft parts — to go to the East Coast as a CAP citizen volunteer based on “a desire to be more actively engaged in the war effort.” There he was part of the flight staff of Coastal Patrol Base 1 in Atlantic City, N.J., flying missions to search for enemy submarines or to provide an escort for American convoys as they sailed along the Eastern Seaboard. The duty was dangerous, he recalled. “There was nothing like GPS,” he said, as he told about using partially sunken American merchant ships, which were plentiful, as a navigational tool. Compton will be honored this month with CAP’s Distinguished Service Medal, the organization’s highest award for service, for his service during World War II.
Wylie Apte Sr., who died in 1970, was a seasoned pilot, having flown with the Army Air Corps during World War I and later owning and operating White Mountain Airport in North Conway, N.H. As a CAP member, Apte was assigned to a unit of the Coastal Patrol based in Portland, Maine, to search for enemy German submarines off the coasts of Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts; during the war, CAP operated 21 such units up and down the Eastern Seaboard and into the Gulf of Mexico. Flying his own Waco YKS-7 biplane, Apte trailed an antenna, longer than 100 yards, for communication back to his land base, which would in turn be used to notify the military to dispatch fighters and bombers in the event a sub was spotted. Subchasers like Apte flew at great personal risk. In all, 90 CAP planes were forced to ditch at sea. Of the 59 CAP pilots killed in World War II, 26 were lost on Coastal Patrol duty.
In the South, Trent Lane with the Louisiana Wing’s Baton Rouge squadron also served his country through CAP at Coastal Patrol Base 9. Operating from a makeshift base on Grand Isle, La., the base’s assignment was to patrol along the shores of the Gulf between Grand Isle and the mouth of the Mississippi River. While Lane said most flights in their tiny yellow Stinson were made memorable by a dazzling array of birds and marine life, on one trip a CAP observer noticed something in the river near Plaquemine, La. The pilot circled overhead several times until the crew was satisfied they were seeing a German U-boat. They radioed in the position to Baton Rouge. In the end, this sighting was never confirmed by the War Department. Today, Lane, a senior Olympian, remains active at more than 100 years old.
Propelled by duty and love of country, Joseph W. Leonard joined CAP the day it was established, six days before Pearl Harbor. Leonard, who passed away this March, was a member of the Pennsylvania Wing’s Chester Squadron; he flew out of Coastal Patrol Base 2 at Rehoboth Beach, Del. Base 2 was populated by such CAP heroes as Eddie Edwards, who received the first Air Medal of World War II from President Franklin D. Roosevelt for his daring all-night rescue of a downed CAP pilot from the Atlantic waters. In a journal he left behind, Leonard wrote: “On my day off I was in the habit of going surfing. There I had a close encounter with a torpedo that was fired at a convoy a few miles offshore and missed. I was about a half mile beyond the breakers, watching a convoy heading north. I was focusing on the ships and didn’t notice the bubble trail approaching me until it was pretty close. I rolled the surfboard to one side, and the German torpedo slid by me.” Leonard remained a CAP member until the day he died.
How you can help
Those interested in supporting the legislation to honor CAP with the Congressional Gold Medal should contact their federal legislators, both senators and representatives, to ask for their support for the pending bills – S. 418 and H.B. 719. In both houses, two-thirds of the membership must sponsor a bill before it can be brought up for a vote. Sample letters and other details are available at www.capmembers.com/goldmedal. Meanwhile, anyone with information on adult CAP members who served the organization during World War II is encouraged to upload their information into the World War II Congressional Gold Medal database