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Civil Air Patrol Protected Border During World War II
Article first published in Vol. 13, 1995.
By Gilbert Cedillo
In 1938, with the eventuality of war in Europe becoming a reality, an American airman and writer, Gill Robb Wilson, visited Nazi Germany to compare its military strength to that of the United States. He saw that the United States was in a poor state of preparedness both in military and civilian defense and aviation.
Wilson returned to the United States with the idea of using the civil air fleet to aid the country's military forces. His plan was approved and it became known as the New Jersey Civil Air Defense.
On May 20, 1941, the Office of Civilian Defense (OCD) was formed with Fiorello H. LaGuardia, former mayor of New York and World War I flying ace, as its national director. The OCD was responsible for overseeing civilian efforts in National Defense.
On December 1, 1941, a few days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor LaGuardia signed a formal order creating the Civil Air Patrol. Upon its creation, the CAP consisted of 90,000 civilian pilots, 90,000 students pilots and 23,000 aircraft which operated out of the nation’s 2,000 private airports. An additional 100,000 civilians volunteered for CAP duties as mechanics, ground observers and radio-operators. The CAP assisted in coastal and border area patrols, search and rescue missions, courier services and other duties for the military.
William E. Mueller, owner of Southwest Air Rangers, commanded El Paso’s first CAP, established in 1942. He enlisted several volunteers in the CAP to help patrol the border between El Paso and Mexico. Federal agents advised Major Harry K. Coffey, coordinator of the CAP border patrol, that ground surveillance by itself could not protect the border from enemy penetration.
Southern Liaison Patrol (SLP) No.2 began operations on October 11, 1942 and was based at Biggs Field in El Paso. Joe Myers, El Paso’s CAP Coordinator, remembers that the pilots flew every day over the toughest terrain at low altitudes, in poorly conditioned planes and in all kinds of weather.
CAP pilots and observers were highly effective in search and rescue operations. They had three distinct advantages over the military’s pilots and planes. CAP planes flew lower and slower, the pilots were more familiar with the terrain and they could recognize plane wreckage easier.
El Pasoan Bill Favor, a B-25 bomber pilot in the Pacific during World War II, says the CAP pilots in El Paso used their flight skills for search and rescue efforts over the desert to look for downed civilian and military airplanes and pilots.
According to Robert E. Neprud, in his book Flying Minute men: The Story of the Civil Air Patrol, one of the first search and rescue for lost military aircraft involving the El Paso CAP was conducted by Captain Mueller. A P-47 military plane, which had taken off from Biggs Field, went down in the Guadalupe Mountains. After three weeks of unsuccessful attempts to locate the wreckage, Captain Mueller enlisted area hunters to help.
Mueller had pilots fly over the area, dropping some 100 notes attached to rocks asking the hunters to be on the lookout for any signs of airplane wreckage. Soon afterwards, a hunter notified Biggs Field of the location of a piece of aluminum he had sighted. The wreckage was in such a heavily wooded area that only a ground team could find it. A patrol plane flying at treetop level was unable to see either the ground team or the wreckage underneath.
According to Myers, the purpose of the SLP mission was to look out for unusual activities along the Rio Grande, such as suspected spies or saboteurs entering or leaving the country, and report these activities to the FBI. Historian Kenneth Ragsdale reports that CPA pilots searched for footprints, hoof prints, tire tracks and any indication of human movement across the border, searchers that required specialized skill in low-speed, low-altitude maneuvers, a specialty of these aviators.
To prevent accurate prediction of SLP patrols, Myers says that flights were staggered every day, and the small aircraft never passed over the same area at the same time or altitude.
According to CAP memos, the SLP operated throughout the war with and outstanding record. The group observed and reported 109 suspicious aircraft, 240 suspicious signals or markings, and 3,311 unusual activities.
The CAP was also a courier service for the military. Pilots delivered rush shipments of repair parts to military bases and plasma and medical supplies to disaster areas. They also airlifted Red Cross and military personnel from one location to another.
The El Paso CAP set up a courier service from Biggs Field to Pyote Air Force Base, Texas. The main items that Captain Mueller and his staff transported were false teeth and eye glasses for the troops. According to Myers, they also carried the mail and flew crippled children to the Crippled Children’s Camp in Kerrville, Texas.
The CAP, an official auxiliary of the United States Air Force, is still very active today and serves three main functions: aerospace education, cadet training and emergency services; its primary commitment, however, is to search and rescue efforts and disaster relief.
CAP volunteers significantly contributed to the war effort in the 1940s, saving the U.S. military millions of dollars. Volunteers got little recognition for their dangerous missions. Because of the secret status of most missions and strict censorship of reports by the military, the rest of the United States knew very little, if anything, of CAP activities.
Moreover, CAP pilots rarely saw the results of their work. SLP members, for instance, were never told whether their observations involved the enemy. Patricia Trenner, writing in the September 1977 issue of Flying magazine, says CAP members were "born of desire and patriotism…and … set a standard of dedication still stressed today." Joe Myers agrees that CAP members share a common ground : love of country and love of flying. This certainly was true of the CAP during World War II, nationally and locally.