Sunday, May 26, 2013

Civil Air Patrol Anniversary Evokes Memories of a Boy in Blue

On May 26, 1948 Congress passed a bill re-chartering and organizing the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) as a voluntary civilian auxiliary to the United State Air Force.  

The organization had its roots in ramp up for Civil Defense on the eve of the U.S. entry into World War II.  New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was acting in his capacity as national Director of Civilian Defense when he signed an Administrative Order creating CAP on December 1, 1941.  The idea was to engage the large body of civilian “general aviation” pilots and planes in support of the war effort.  The pilots were mainly over-aged, disqualified for medical reasons, or exempt from military service on other grounds.  Most of their aircraft would have been grounded for the duration to conserve fuel if not enrolled for service.

Flying mostly single engine private planes, CAP pilots served the cause by acting as couriers and occasional transportation of individual personnel, flying border surveillance, and participating in search and rescue missions for the many military planes that went down in accidents over the U.S.  But its most memorable role came in anti-submarine patrol and warfare.  CAP costal patrol pilots flew 24 million miles, located 173 enemy submarines, attacked 57, hit 10 and sank two. Sixty-four members of the CAP, mostly pilots and observers, were killed on duty during the war.

Despite the success of the program and the eagerness of war time volunteers to continue service, the Defense Department was reluctant to continue the program.  They worried about civilian pilots coming under the jurisdiction of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and liability for civilian losses. 

The renewed charter made CAP more explicitly civilian and forbad future use in combat roles.  Despite the civilian nature, it came under the authority of the Air Force and was led by a three star general.  Units were arranged in regional command, 52 Wings—one for each state, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia—and local Squadrons and Flights.  Members are organized on a military basis with rank and uniforms, but are un-paid, and must pay annual dues and provide their own uniforms, essentially identical to those worn by the USAF.

So, you may ask, why am I spending valuable blog time on such a relatively obscure organization?  Because during my last two years in Cheyenne, Wyoming  the CAP was a big part of my life.  I was a Civil Air Patrol Cadet, and damn proud of it.

The image of me in any sort of militaryesque uniform will undoubtedly stun and confound many who know me.  But I grew up the son of a decorated World War II veteran.  The homes of almost every one of my friends prominently featured framed photos of dads, uncles, brothers, and occasional mothers in uniform.  I was consumed with old war movies on the afternoon TV movie matinee and plowed through my father’s large collection of paperback war novels an memoirs starting with Audie Murphy’s To Hell and Back.  I had played war in the back yard and in the school yard as often as cowboys and Indians.  I yearned for glory.  I wanted to be a hero.  I wanted more than anything else to wear a uniform in my own framed portrait.

I was not a likely recruit.  In ninth grade I was pudgy, flabby, unathletic, a bookish kid with thick glasses and few friends.  I had quit the Boy Scouts barely making Tenderfoot.  But I wanted to belong to something other than the Dudes and Dames Square Dance Club.  I wanted to be in ROTC, but it was only offered at Cheyenne Central High and I was destined to go to East where they offered the opportunity to wear the blue jacket of the Future Farmers of America instead.  Sorry, but not interested.

Then I caught sight of a smart looking unit of CAP cadets in the Frontier Days Parade.  It was a natural.  Cheyenne, after all was an Air Force town, home to Frances E. Warren AFB, the first ICBM base in the country.

Later that summer I prevailed on my Dad to take me to Tuesday night Flight meeting.  That meant going on base. 

Warren had been an Army Cavalry post until World War II.  We drove down the long parade ground lined on each side by sturdy red brick buildings.  Deep in the base we took a left and after a bit arrived at a run down two story building that the Air Force had no better use for.  It doubled as Wyoming Wing Headquarters and home of the Cheyenne Squadron and Cadet Flight.  As unpromising as I was I was allowed to sign some papers, told where to buy a summer suntan uniform and patches, and to come back next week to be sworn in.

At my first official meeting I was thrilled when during inspection the Senior Member in charge told me not to come back without shaving the downy fuzz from my cheeks.  Never felt so grown up. 
Meetings consisted of an inspection, a little close order drill, orders of the day, and classes to prepare us cadets to move up through the ranks as we passed a series of tests.  Basic flight theory, Air Force history and structure, advanced aerospace technology, radio procedures, search and rescue procedures, “leadership” and such.  Occasionally a Chaplin would show up and exhort us to “remain pure,” whatever that meant.

On weekends we sometimes had fatigue duty around the building or special assignments.  We were victims in a Civil Defense drill once, another time we tested a new fallout shelter in the State Highway department by staying in it all weekend while pretending the Ruskies had nuked town—an event local expected at any minute.  We did training to provide ground support for search and rescue missions. 

We were shown the Senior Squadron’s only plane—a flimsy looking L-5 observation plane from World War II, a military version of a Piper Cub.  Some of the Cadets got to go up in it.  I never did.   I did, however, take a ride with the rest of the flight in a Wyoming Air National Guard C-47, a military DC-3 with the cabin stripped down to haul cargo or passenger on uncomfortable jump seats and benches. 

The best part, of course was the uniforms.  You had sun tans—open collar with short sleeves for summer or long sleeve with a tie.  “Class A’s” were Air Force blue blouses and trousers worn with a blue overseas cap.  My Class A’s had an Eisenhower style short jacket.  Fatigues were olive drab worn with high top black boots and the kind of rigid kepi that went out of style with the U.S. forces when Fidel Castro wore them.  But there were plenty in the surplus stores where we cadets shopped for our uniforms.  I thought I looked sharp in all of the uniforms—except the  fatigues.  No one in the history of the military has looked sharp in fatigues.

Despite my shortcomings, I advanced through the ranks.  Near the end of my second year I had made staff sergeant.  And then because all but one of our Cadet officers transferred out with their parents on active Air Force duty, I was made temporary second lieutenant and appointed Flight Adjutant.  I fairly burst with pride when I pinned the round pips of rank to the epaulets of a brand new full length Class A blouse.

The summer after my sophomore year, I was sent to a weeklong Encampment at Lowry AFB in Denver for advanced training with Cadets from several western Wings.  My CO did not want to send down a contingent without a more senior officer, so I was made a temporary captain—two pips on the summer collar.

For a week, we lived the life of Basic Airman recruits.  Housed in barracks were  roused at 5 A.M. to shower, make our beds and report to P.T.  following which we marched to mess.  There were classes morning and afternoon plus fatigue duty around the barracks and grounds.  We were taken to a jet fighter flight line and allowed to sit in a flight simulator.  But the highpoint—which had been built up to us all week a test of our endurance—was being put in a pressure chamber and then exposed to the equivalent of sudden loss of cabin pressure at 50,000 feet.  As predicted several of us got sick.  My ears popped painfully and I didn’t get back full hearing for days.  But I felt like a he-man.

At this point I was actually considering a career in the Air Force.  I knew my eyesight would prevent me from ever becoming a pilot and that my deficiencies in math and physics would preclude any of the many technical jobs in that most technical of all of the services.  I decided I might become a public information officer.  I spent some Saturday mornings at the Base Public Information Office.  I even typed up some short articles on CAP activities for the Base newspaper and my first press releases for the local newspapers.

Not long after returning from Denver, I was given yet another un-earned temporary promotion to Cadet Major and was designated as Cadet Wing Adjutant for the coming year.  But before I could even buy the three pip insignia, my dreams of glory were dashed.  My father announced that we were moving to ChicagoSkokie actually.

Although I had planned to transfer to the Illinois Wing, I would have had to revert to my real rank—staff sergeant.  Somehow I never got around to it.  Skokie offered new opportunities for a bookish kid.  Within a year I was marching against the Viet Nam War and beginning to think about resisting the Draft when I turned 18.

But somewhere there is a photo taken by our neighbor Bill Miranda.  I’m fully decked out in my Class A’s.  It was taken in my staff sergeant stripes instead of officer pips.  But I smiled at the camera from behind thick horn rim glasses.  Just like those pictures of my Dad’s generation.  Only I had a giant zit on my chin.  Oh, well.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the article. I have stayed in CAP since I was cadet.

    Have a great day,

    Chief of Staff
    Rocky Mountain Region

    Skype: skrabut
    skype: 307-222-4858
    Cell: 307-287-8147