Frank A. Blazich Jr. An Honorable Place in American Air Power: Civil Air Patrol Coastal Operations, 1942-1943. Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 2020. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pbk. xvi + 239 pp.
Reviewed by Bryant Macfarlane
As a much younger man, I participated in the United States Air Force’s Civil Air Patrol (CAP) cadet program like many other young Americans. Along with emergency services and aerospace education, the CAP cadet program teaches valuable life skills and cementing a nascent airmindedness into its members. Given the important role, the publication of Frank A. Blazich, Jr.’s An Honorable Place in American Air Power: Civil Air Patrol Coastal Operations, 1942-1943 is an important addition to the literature on the role of American air-power during the Second World War.
Blazich, Curator of Modern Military History at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History and Director of the Colonel Louisa S. Morse Center for Civil Air Patrol History, is uniquely suited to the task of writing the history of CAP’s important role at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic. An Honorable Place in American Air Power recounts the exploits of volunteer American civil airmen combating U-boats off the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts and patrolling the American-Mexico border in the critical opening months of American involvement in the Second World War. Though not the first to tackle the subject, Blazich’s effort is undoubtedly the most complete accounting of how American – air-minded civilians found a way to help their nation in a time of dire need. Blazich challenges the hagiographic treatment of William Mellor, Andrew Ten Eyck, and Robert E. Neprud by arguing that the CAP had significant safety, organisational, and funding issues until Congress created federal legislation in 1948. While most works produced since the 1950s have been tertiary works, Blazich supports Clair Blair’s conclusion in Hitler’s U-Boat War (1998). Blair and Blazich argue that U-boats were not a decisive weapon of war in the Atlantic but did significantly delay the total mobilisation of American assets towards operations in Africa. Blazich’s original research builds upon the archival work of Michael Gannon and the capture of oral history by Louis Keefer to fully explore the historiographical gap left in the official histories of the US Army and US Navy.
While the work is aimed at incorporation into professional military education venues, Blazich’s writing is very accessible to general readers and military professionals while retaining academic rigour. Blazich’s presentation and enthusiasm allow the narrative to unfold cleanly across the page while easily allowing the interested reader to understand his methodology and sources in endnotes and appendices. Researchers and academics are rewarded by including deep endnotes and rich appendices that provide a wealth of resources for further work on the CAP and interested in exploring aspects of the Second World War, air power, civil-military relations, security studies, and general American aviation history. In so doing, Blazich definitively puts to rest the myth of CAP aircraft destroying or damaging enemy submarines and clarifies the challenges surrounding the CAP and its participation in the American anti-submarine campaign from March 1942 to August 1943.
Blazich effectively demonstrates how, with tentative agreement from the US Navy and US Army Air Forces, an organisation of volunteer private pilots, mechanics, radio operators, and administrators freed military personnel and equipment for operations outside of the continental United States. Using professionalism, dedication, resourcefulness, and small civil aircraft, the CAP surmounted formidable geographic, legal, and logistical obstacles in establishing a series of 21 air bases from the Maine-Canadian border to the Texas-Mexico border. This was conducted through volunteer efforts with minimal state or federal support. Further, Blazich demonstrates that, despite support from the Office of Civil Defense (OCD), many military officials were sceptical of the potential for effective inclusion of the CAP into their national defence responsibilities. Nevertheless, despite the reorganisation of military commands and interservice squabbles over responsibilities, the CAP proved to be an effective and timely solution to the nation’s needs in securing the American eastern sea frontier and freeing uniformed forces for operations in Africa and the Pacific.
Presented in five chronologically focused chapters, with an introduction and concluding chapter on how volunteer civil-auxiliary assets can be exploited for future needs, An Honorable Place in American Air Power is a highly accessible and vital work. Some may take historical umbrage with Blazich’s argument (p. 1) that within the context of the era, ‘CAP members became the first American civilians to actively engage with enemy forces in defense of the United States.’ However, as Blazich (p. 1) clearly outlines across the five chapters that make up the core of this book that for approximately 18 months, the volunteer civilian airmen of the CAP became a de jure ‘fourth arm of the nation’s defense.’ While volunteering for CAP missions did not preclude Selective Service selection, and members had to provide their uniforms, aircraft, equipment, and facilities, it offered the only path for a private citizen to maintain the ability to ‘own, operate and service any aircraft and radio equipment.’ (p. 89)
While Blazich rightly argues that the formation of the CAP was a synchronicity of people and events that was put into motion in the late 1930s, what is unquestionably clear is that the organisation would not have been taken as seriously by the War Department had it not been for the positive relationships air-minded leaders. These included people such as Fiorello LaGuardia, of the OCD, shared with well-placed Army officials, like Chief of the Army Air Forces ‘Hap’ Arnold, in the War Department. Arnold, like Giulio Douhet, understood the need to educate political leaders on the critical link between military and civilian aviation. Arnold also understood that America was soon to be desperately needed a ready supply of skilled pilots and maintainers. Because of this, argues Blazich, Arnold became ‘one of the CAP’s biggest supporters’ from within the War Department. (p. 150) While Blazich clarifies that CAP operations occurred concurrently with the increased convoy and military force projection that had effectively created wide-area security for American sea frontiers, the argument is clear that the CAP provided an evident success in effectively adopting civilian volunteers and equipment into the National Defense Strategy.
A prime example of synchronicity was the November 1941 decision of the OCD to place Army Major General John F. Curry, a retired Commandant of the Air Corps Tactical School, as the CAP National Commander. Thus, building trust between the fledgling CAP and the War Department as unarmed CAP patrols began in January 1942. Blazich (p. 56) argues that despite the early support by the War Department, by March 1942, the US Navy felt the CAP would ‘serve no useful purpose except to give merchant ships the illusion that an adequate air patrol is being maintained.’ However, this did not go far in impressing Admiral Ernest King, who opined (p. 57) that CAP aircraft ‘would not be productive in sufficient degree to compensate for the operational difficulties to be encountered in coordinating and controlling the flying involved by inexperienced personnel.’ Despite these expressed feelings by the US Navy, civil leaders expressed further trust in the CAP’s ability, under the operational jurisdiction of Naval sea frontier commands to extend the safety of merchant shipping through the American littorals and beyond from U-boats operating along American waters.
On 29 April 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9339, which transferred the CAP from the OCD to the War Department. By the summer of 1943, trust in the CAP as an asset to the nation’s defence in freeing military human resources for combat and providing overflight services had measured a success. The CAP bought time for the Navy to build force capacity to conduct land-based, long-range offensive operations across the American sea frontier. Admiral King registered accolades as the CAP stood down its continuous volunteer air services to America’s eastern sea frontiers. According to Blazich (p. 150), ‘King, never one to offer accolades except when appropriate, his praise represented the highest compliments’ to the demonstrated professionalism, bravery, and sacrifice of the volunteer members of the CAP.
The final chapter of An Honorable Place in American Air Power argues that the retention of the CAP after the national defence emergency demonstrates that innovative solutions to strategic problems can be found when Americans work collaboratively. Here, Blazich urges key leaders to use the legal and social foundations laid by the CAP to be extended into more routine use in an emergency, or civil relief situations. Blazich, arguing that the CAP has expanded to include cyber and small unmanned aerial system operations, sees an underutilised functional capacity in the CAP. ‘For a future conflict with an unknown enemy, [and] the improbability of a conventional enemy land force invading the continental United States,’ argues Blazich (p. 175), ‘physical CAP assets will assist the Air Force along the nation’s borders, in cyberspace, and throughout the interior.’
In conclusion, An Honorable Place in American Air Power is a tremendously important work that expands our understanding of the American home front in the opening months of the Second World War. While, as Blazich argues (p. 164), ‘deterrence is a nebulous matter to objectify into metrics,’ An Honorable Place in American Air Power conclusively demonstrates the effectiveness of the CAP through the actions of the brave men and women of the coastal patrol stations that motivated legislative designation of the CAP as the auxiliary of the United States Air Force. Moreover, the CAP is ‘available for noncombat programs and missions with taxpayer funding and resources’ (p. 170) to continue providing education, emergency rescue, and other support to continually build strength for a capable air presence for the American people.
Bryant Macfarlane served in the United States Army from 1997 to 2019 and is a PhD student at Kansas State University studying vertical flight and its effect on military culture. He can be found on Twitter @rotary_research.
Header Image: A variety of Civil Air Patrol-operated aircraft, including a Sikorsky S-39 in center frame, parked at Coastal Patrol Base 17 between July 1942 and August 1943. The base would eventually become Francis S. Gabreski Airport in New York State. (Source: Wikimedia)