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WWII-era Civil Air Patrol members awarded Congressional Gold Medal

Air Force's best kept secret honored

On Feb. 17, 1943, Pres. Roosevelt presented the Air Medal to Maj. Hugh R. Sharp, center, Lt. Edmond Edwards, USN, for their heroic rescue of Lt. Henry Cross at Coastal Patrol Base No. 2, July 21, 1942, in the Oval Office. Source: CAP National Headquarters

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ou take off in a small airplane from what was then known as King Field. It's rainy, foggy and, of course, cold. The mission: search for a downed aircraft in the Three Sisters Wilderness (Oregon) area.

Members of the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) were tasked with finding that wreckage. Warren Davis, now 92, was piloting the aircraft.

"We were heavy with ice and knew we were in this mountainous area," he recalled, "and we couldn't see ahead of us or behind us, so we tried a 180-degree out. It turned out we were heading for a mountain cliff. That was exciting."  

Running out of fuel, Davis eventually landed at Arlington Navy Base. "In those times, we didn't have radios," he said, "so we landed and were in all sorts of trouble. They had to call around and finally gave us some fuel and we got out of there. But it was kind of fun."

It's that kind of adventurous spirit that defines members of the Civil Air Patrol. The organization began officially on Dec. 1, 1941 in New Jersey by a group of civilian volunteers who wanted to use their aircraft and flying expertise to help defend the homeland during World War II. Though Congress established CAP as the official "auxiliary of the new U.S. Air Force" in 1948, it is still largely unknown or misunderstood.

"CAP is known as the Air Force's best-kept secret," said 1st Lt. Jessica Jerwa, public affairs officer for the Green River Composite Squadron.  "People hear about it, and they say, ‘Oh, you're like the Boy Scouts.' No, not quite."

During World War II, according to a CAP history fact sheet, more than 200,000 men and women - all civilians and unpaid volunteers - flew more than 750,000 hours while taking part in a variety of critical CAP missions, including flying patrols, warding off U-boat attacks against U.S. shipping and providing escorts for commercial convoys; 150 aircraft were lost and 65 CAP members died in the line of duty.

For more than 73 years, thousands of CAP citizen-heroes from the World War II era have remained anonymous, forgotten. Until now.

Last year, President Obama signed a bill recognizing CAP's contribution and significance during World War II, by authorizing a Congressional Gold Medal. Last December, a gala was held in Washington, D.C. to present many World War II-era CAP volunteers with a bronze replica of that medal.

On Feb. 24, CAP WWII members from Washington state will be receive their replica Congressional Gold Medals during a ceremony at the State Capitol. CAP cadets from many of the state's 26 squadrons will be on-hand, as will a CAP Color Guard, Jerwa said. Sen. Jim Honeyford, a CAP member, and Lt. Gov. Brad Owen will also attend.

Davis, who lives in Seattle, along with James Campbell, from Kirkland, and Richard Hagmann, from Spokane, will be on-hand to receive their medals; the family of Gordon Ebbert (deceased) will take part as well.

The ceremony - and the recognition - was a long time coming.

It wasn't until 2013 that the bill was introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and legislation was passed authorizing the Congressional Gold Medal for CAP; President Obama signed S. 309 into law on May 30, 2014.

What took so long?

"CAP has not been known and understood very well in the public, and also, participants were civilians, so it's hard to verify," Jerwa said. "It's a lot of work."

Determined to fly

Davis, who grew up in Tacoma, always wanted to fly. "My father had been in the Royal Canadian Air Force and had taken me out," he recalled.

During World War II, Davis was deemed to be 4F (unfit for duty) because of an earlier goiter operation, and therefore he was ineligible for service.

However, he did the next best thing - he went to work on McChord Field as an instrument mechanic. It was there that he learned about CAP, which at the time was based at Mueller-Hawkins Airfield in Tacoma. After learning about a pilot training program in Cle Elum, Davis traveled there every weekend on his own dime to take flight instruction.

Once he became part of CAP, "that was the fun part," he said. "I got to do more flying. While I was at McChord, I would go out and do some search light patrols at Gray Field."

After World War II, Davis eventually took a job at Boeing and moved to Seattle. However, he stayed with CAP, joined the Seattle Squadron and, in 1964, became its commanding officer.

During his decades with the organization, Davis had the opportunity to travel to Turkey and Holland as part of CAP's exchange program and participate in a variety of missions.  He is still active with the Renton Squadron, and his wife and two of his four children also were a part of the program.

CAP today

Today, more than 60,000 CAP volunteers around the country continue to serve.  The Air Force supplies CAP with its planes, fuel and training, and its members take part in homeland security, search and rescue and emergency response missions. Sometimes the mission may be as simple as aerial photography. At other times, it may be more serious. For instance, following the devastating landslide in Oso, Washington in 2013, CAP planes were the first to survey the damage.

"That's not uncommon across the U.S.," Jerwa said.

There are two components to CAP - a cadet side (ages 12 to 21) and a senior member side. "Each side has the same opportunities, and the seniors act as mentors to the cadets," Jerwa explained. "We do emergency services, ground search and rescue and aviation search and rescue, and then also aerospace education. The cadet program section is specifically where we offer them military-style leadership and training."

The Congressional Gold Medal recognition is "kind of nice, but I don't really feel that I need it," Davis said. "Gee whiz, I got to fly jets, in all kinds of weather and go on the exchanges. What more could I have wanted? Plus, I got to fly."


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