Pilots Recall Dangerous World War II Service
Time, instead of a German submarine, is now the enemy of Civil
Air Patrol volunteers from World War II, and as the numbers of
these 60,000 unsung heroes, whose ages range from the late 80s to
more than 100, dwindles rapidly, legislation has been introduced in
both houses of Congress that would award CAP 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.
Established on Dec. 1, 1941, CAP quickly 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.
Charles Compton, age 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.
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