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History of the Civil Air Patrol

A CAP airplane chasing a Nazi U-Boat

Our history dates back to World War II, when civilian pilots flew their private aircraft from the Atlantic coast, patrolling America's shores for German U-boats.

With most of the Army Air Corps aircraft deployed in Europe, Africa, and the Pacific, only the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), established just 6 days before Pearl Harbor on Dec. 1, 1941, was left to search for enemy subs.

When a U-boat was found, CAP pilots called in air strikes against the subs. German U-boat commanders quickly recognized the threat of these tiny, civil, aircraft.

U-boats would crash-dive upon sighting a CAP aircraft. Many German sub crews would try to shoot down CAP aircraft. As a result, the Army Air Corps began arming CAP planes with bombs. 

But victory was not without its price. CAP aircraft that were shot down left their crews with little chance of survival in the cold Atlantic waters. As a result, CAP quickly learned the art of search and rescue, taking care of their own in the process. These early CAP pilots came to be known as the Flying Minutemen. These civilians, with no formal military training, would leave their homes and families in the morning, go to fight in war, and return home for supper. They were the only men to do this since the revolutionary war.

After the German surrender, one of Hitler's high-ranking naval officers was asked why the Nazi U-boats had been withdrawn from U.S. coastal waters early in 1943. The answer was exploded in a curt guttural: “It was because of those damned little red and yellow planes!”

—From Robert E. Neprud's The Flying Minute Men

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy gave the following remarks to a group of Civil Air Patrol Cadets:

I WANT to express my thanks to all of you for coming this morning, and for this award. I was invited to this affair by General Spaatz, who was of course the Commander of the Air force in Europe in World War II, later Commander of the United States Air force, who emphasized to me the very vital role which the Civil Air Patrol plays in supplying future cadets for the Air force—supplying assistance to fliers who may be downed. I understand that at least one of you has participated in a rescue operation of a downed flier.

This is a very valuable service which you render to our country. There is still a tremendous need for manned aircraft. The exhibition we saw down at Eglin Air force Base on Friday of manned aircraft indicates that even though we are, on the one hand, moving into the missile age, there is still need for fliers and will be for many years to come.

Our experience in Southeast Asia using old planes indicates the kind of difficulties that we may be faced with in many areas of the world, and the particular kind of flying talent which is necessary.

So I do want to emphasize that even though we may be interested and at times stimulated by the movement into the missile space age, the need for manned aircraft is going to continue—certainly for the future that we can see ahead—and will serve a very vital national interest.

I am particularly glad to have you ladies here and participating in this program—I'm sorry I wasn't in it when I was younger.

Source: American Presidency Project