Seventy years ago civilian pilots from across the country signed up to perform their own homeland security from above. Dec. 1 marked the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Civil Air Patrol, which was established by Congress.
Luverne Kraemer, 94, of Nemo was one such pilot who signed up on that day back in 1941, just days before the Japanese attack on the Hawaiian naval base Pearl Harbor.
"At the time, everybody knew we were going to wind up being in the war. The question was probably when, not if," said Kraemer's wife, Norma Kraemer, who is a historian and has written about aviation history in South Dakota.
Mike Beason of Rapid City, a past commander of the South Dakota Wing of the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary Civil Air Patrol, said the reason the Civil Air Patrol, known at the time as the Coastal Patrol, was created was twofold.
"Aviation enthusiasts saw that war was looming, and they felt as soon as it did break out that aircraft would be grounded in the United States," he said. Those pilots' concerns were correct. Six days after the attack on Pearl Harbor all civilian flying was canceled in the United States. If a private plane did not have a use to help the government, the owner was required to remove its wings and hang it up for the duration.
Secondly, pilots who were most likely too old to be a part of the Army, saw this as an opportunity to serve their country. Civilian pilots, whose private planes were painted yellow, were dispatched primarily to the East Coast to search for German submarines. Amazingly, Beason said, they actually did sink a submarine. In all, 90 CAP planes were forced to ditch at sea. Of the 59 CAP pilots killed during World War II, 26 were lost while on coastal patrol duty, and seven others were seriously injured while carrying out the missions.
Kraemer's actions and the actions of other pilots who flew back then are heralded as aviation pioneers and national heroes.
"These members from our earliest days as an organization helped save lives and preserve our nation's freedom," said Maj. Gen. Chuck Carr, CAP's national commander. "They were truly unsung heroes of the war, using their small private aircraft to search for enemy submarines close to America's shores, towing targets for military practice, transporting critical supplies within the country and conducting general airborne reconnaissance. They provided selfless service, without fanfare, in defense of their homeland."
Legislation has been introduced that would award the civilian group a Congressional Gold Medal for its World War II service.
The CAP, which is the official auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force with 300 members across the state, has squadrons in Sioux Falls, Yankton, Brookings, Pierre, Rapid City, Aberdeen, Philip, Spearfish and Custer.
David Small of Piedmont, squadron commander in Spearfish, said even though the mission has changed, CAP is still very relevant in the community. He said there are basically three missions of CAP -- airspace education for both adults and kids; cadet programs for children between the ages of 12 and 21; and community emergency services, which includes search and rescue and photo missions.
"I can't say enough positive things about how good Civil Air Patrol is for the young people."