In celebration of the Civil Air Patrol’s 75th Anniversary, I sat down and read From Maine to Mexico: With America’s Private Pilots in the Fight Against Nazi U-Boats* written by Louis E. Keefer. What I read totally blew me away. My respect for these courageous men and women was just ratcheted up a number of levels. While I was aware of the basic history of this group because of my membership with Civil Air Patrol (CAP), I did not fully realize the sacrifices and risks they took. From Maine to Mexico sheds light on a piece of history very few people know about.
In 1942, Nazi submarines were sinking two to three ships a day along the shores that stretched from Maine to Mexico. To make matters worse, the military was stretched so thin that they could not adequately respond to the threat. As a grand 90-day experiment, a group of volunteer aviators was asked to patrol the shores. This experiment has lasted 75 years.
In Keefer’s book, he interviewed 270 of these men and women who dropped everything to serve. This book spans 535 pages across 21 chapters. Each chapter represents one of the coastal patrol bases that were set up to push back on the Nazi attack. Here is a list of those bases:
- Atlantic City, NJ
- Rehoboth Beach, DE
- Lantana, FL
- Parksley, VA
- Flagler Beach, FL
- St. Simons Island, GA
- Miami, FL
- Charleston, SC
- Grand Isle, LA
- Beaumont, TX
- Pascagoula, MS
- Brownsville, TX
- Sarasota, FL
- Panama City, FL
- Corpus Christi, TX
- Manteo, NC
- Riverhead, NY
- Falmouth, MA
- Portland, ME
- Bar Harbour, ME
- Beaufort, NC
There were so many wonderful stories shared in From Maine to Mexico. Many of these individuals quit their jobs in order to volunteer for their nation. In many cases, being part of the coastal patrol was a stepping stone to active duty in the military. In other cases, individuals were volunteered for Civil Air Patrol because they were otherwise unqualified for active duty.
Keefer highlighted the initial conditions of the bases as members showed up to fly patrols. In a number of cases, the members had to build the base while maintaining a full flying schedule. This meant that they would fly their patrol and return to help build or build before they flew. A typical flying day would be dawn to dusk flights broken up in morning, afternoon, and evening shifts. In many cases, they were flying in small single engine aircraft. Initially, they did not have any survival gear on board to include rafts, life vests, and cold weather gear. Over time, they acquired this equipment.
The patrols were extremely hazardous. They were flying 30-40 miles off the shore looking for submarines in every type of weather from the sunny days of the Florida to the freezing waters off of Maine. Virtually each base contributed men to the “Duck Club.” Membership to the Duck Club was accomplished by ditching in the ocean and surviving. Unfortunately, not everyone who ditched survived. These stories riveted me. I was humbled by the courage that these men exhibited each day. They knew that ditching was a strong possibility when they took off.
When members arrived at a base location, they were also responsible for finding a place to live, often on the economy. One of the challenges they experienced was that their government pay was frequently delayed so they had to purchase on credit. I appreciated the stories of their day-to-day experiences both on and off duty.
Most of the patrols were uneventful; however, some of the members recounted stories of seeing a submarine. Some of the submarines were stuck on a sandbar, and the CAP planes circled helplessly waiting for the military to arrive. In most of these cases, the submarines got away. Because the enemy was getting away, CAP planes were eventually loaded with bombs. According to our historical records, CAP sunk two enemy submarines.
Each plane had at least a pilot and an observer, and each sortie typically had two planes assigned to it. However, these were not the only positions assigned to a base. Some of the members had additional responsibilities such as being a commander, operations officer, intelligence officer, etc. Also, members worked as guards, radio operators, bomb loaders, teletype operators, and plotting board technicians. Members were reimbursed for their daily work. A member who worked on base earned $5 per day and a pilot would earn $8 per day.
When a base closed, members would be reassigned to other duties such as flying courier duties, border patrol, and target towing. Courier duties simply meant flying people and items from one point to another. Border patrol consisted of flying along the U.S.-Mexican border looking for individuals who were sneaking across the border. A number of German spies were intercepted because of this patrol. Perhaps one of the more dangerous duties was target towing. CAP planes would tow a target a thousand feet behind their plane so that military units could practice anti-aircraft gunnery practice. Not all shooters were accurate.
Not many people know that Nazi submarines were patrolling our shores and sinking ships. These submarines were also entering our harbors. In addition to sinking ships, the Nazis were sneaking ashore to act as saboteurs. They also mingled with the locals in bars to learn more about military operations and shipping schedules. On different occasions, CAP planes intercepted suspicious boats that were supplying submarines with fuel and supplies.
Because of the Civil Air Patrol, the Nazis stopped submarine warfare along our coast. In historic interviews with German submariners, they specifically indicated they stopped because of the little yellow planes in the sky.
From Maine to Mexico was a book I had on my shelf for many many years and I never read it. In part because of the Modern Mrs. Darcy reading challenge and because it was Civil Air Patrol’s 75th anniversary, I choose to read this book. I am terribly sorry that I did not read it sooner. If you are a fan of American history especially WWII history, you will want to read From Maine to Mexico.
Learn more about the Civil Air Patrol.
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