Volunteers in the sky: Civil Air Patrol maintains mission that began before WW II

LEWES — When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the United States began preparing for possible involvement in what became the bloodiest conflict in world history.

More than 150,000 American volunteers, with a love for aviation, argued for an organization to put their planes and flying skills to use in defense of their country.

U.S. leaders feared German submarines would soon begin patrolling off the eastern coast and Delaware Bay targeting ships bound for Europe with supplies needed to stop the Nazi expansion.

As a result, the Civil Air Patrol was created one week prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The first coastal patrol squadron was established in Atlantic City, New Jersey, with Coastal Patrol Base Two in Delaware at the Rehoboth Beach airport.

Several types of planes were used for coastal patrols. The most popular plane at Rehoboth was the Fairchild 24, one of which was owned by Lt. Henry H. Wilder.

Delaware pilot Maj. Hugh Sharp and observer Lt. Eddie Edwards became the first civilians ever to be awarded the U.S. Air Medal after performing a daring rescue when a CAP plane had engine trouble and went down off the coast with a crew of two.

One crew member, Lt. Charles Shelfus, was lost when the plane went down and his body was never recovered. Lt. Henry Cross survived the ditching but sustained several fractured vertebrae.

Sharp and Edwards got the call and departed in the Sikorsky S-39B amphibian and managed to land in the rough seas to pick up survivor Cross. The plane’s left pontoon was damaged during landing and started taking on water making take-off impossible.

Lt. Edwards crawled out on the opposite right pontoon to balance the plane while Short taxied the plane taking about seven hours before they reached the shore. Cross recovered, but wouldn’t be able to fly again.

Delaware also had a coastal defense artillery fort located near the mouth of the Delaware Bay.

As the United States was drawn into WW II, another more strategically located fort was being built closer to the entrance of the Delaware Bay.

CAP was assigned to the war department under the jurisdiction of the Army Air Corps. Pilots around the nation logged more than 500,000 flying hours, mostly in their own small planes, performing coastal patrols searching for enemy ships and submarines. They were credited saving hundreds of crash victims and, after they were lightly armed, sinking two enemy submarines.

The Civil Air Patrol continued on after the war ended and became a congressionally charted, federally supported non-profit corporation that serves as the official civilian auxiliary of the United States Air Force. It is a volunteer organization with membership that includes people from all backgrounds, lifestyles and occupations.

CAP now has the largest fleet of single-engine piston aircraft in the world. It has approximately 550 planes, mostly Cessna 172s and 182s, equipped with a variety of advanced communication, navigation and photography equipment.

Volunteers nationally perform missions including search and rescue, disaster relief, and aerospace education for youth and the general public. The also assist various governmental and private agencies such as local law enforcement and the American Red Cross averaging about 120,000 flying hours a year.

Milford resident Everett Bennett, former commander of the Civil Air Patrol squadron at Dover Air Force Base, researched and documented Delaware’s CAP squadron’s role in WW II and created a multiple panel display seven feet high and 21 feet long. It is now available for the public to view at the Ft. Miles Historical Societies museum at Ft. Miles near Lewes.

Gary Emeigh writes special reports for the Delaware State News

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