The Civil Air Patrol on the WWII Home Front

This post is by Colonel Bob Mosley, (b. 1924) a three war veteran aviator and brother of Zach Mosley, the creator of the popular aviation comic strip “Smilin’ Jack.”

The Civil Air Patrol (CAP) had been given a mission by the  US Army Air Forces to perform shore patrol duties off the Fla. coast from Palm Beach up north to Cape Canaveral (about 130 miles of coast) and then there was another CAP unit out of Miami for the area south of us and others on up the north coasts, all the way to Maine (as I remember it). German submarines by that time were sinking many cargo ships along the east coast. The Gulf Stream is a current of water about 50 miles wide (just a guess) and moves at about 10 to 15 knots and flows around the bottom of Fla. out of the Gulf of Mexico and north along the coast and then on out into the Atlantic.

The US ships moving south would often get in very close to shore, to get inside the Gulf Stream and avoid the current so as to not lose that 10 to 15 knots of speed. At this time the  Army Air Forces were short on planes and could not provide much in the way of patrol coverage. And if a submarine was spotted by some other source, a call would have to be made through channels and a very slow observation plane could then be dispatched, but  if the observation plane did not happen to be in that particular area at that, it might have to come all the way down from Savannah Georgia. This was obviously no threat to the Germans so they were having a field day out there sinking  merchant ships.—- When the ships were in so close to land, inside the Gulf Stream, the Germans would silhouette them against the lights of Palm beach at night and blaze away at them (this led to more strict blackout rules). They were in so close we were awakened several nights (living in West Palm Beach) by torpedo explosions sinking ships. Some of the broken hulls stayed around for a long time; one in particular off of Vero Beach was visible for as much as 20 years later. These sinkings led to a bunch a things; one being a lot of oil on the beaches, one being a total black out at nights (we had to tape up the head lights of our cars and leave only a little slit of light for night driving, but with gas rationing there wasn’t all that much driving going on anyhow) and another thing it brought about was the change in the mission of the CAP being upgraded from an observation/rescue role to a more aggressive role, to try to help out with the German submarine menace. The idea was to put 100 pound bombs on the little Stinson 10 A, 90 HP planes we flew. Now we really did not expect to do a lot of damage with those little planes, although they could possibly inflict some damage. But, mainly it was figured that the Germans had  some kind of electronic gear to detect an airplane was over head, and it might deter an attack.

With the advent of the beginning of the war, that sleepy little airport in West Palm Beach that I had fallen in love with when I arrived in West Palm Beach in 1940, became Morrison Field and a bee hive of activity with military planes of all sorts parked everywhere. Thus, there was no room for any civilian operations like there had been for the original Florida Air Patrol and early CAP operations, so the CAP operations had to be moved to the new Lantana airport, about 5 miles to the south of West Palm Beach.

It was at this time, thanks to my brother, Zack, that I got into the CAP as a pilot because I had my pilots license. I went from a grunt working 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, for $10 dollars— washing, fueling and hangaring airplanes— to a  Second Lieutenant in the CAP, where they paid me $8 dollars a day and I could get all of the flying time I wanted. They called that pay Per Diem; a word I came very familiar with later on in my career. I had definitely moved up in the world and I was beginning to realize that my decision to become a military pilot; i.e. work for the Government, was not a bad idea from a monetary stand point as well as getting to fly their beautiful airplanes.

I really loved that CAP experience. For as mentioned before, nearly all of those  Civil Air Patrol pilots were of Zack’s age or older (a couple of them had even been in World War One). They were successful people by my standards in that they had made enough money to buy their own planes, and also they were very experienced pilots. I had enormous respect for them and it was an honor to get to fly with such men. They seemed to respect me also even though I had done nothing to prove myself except that I did have a pilot’+s license. Part of their respect for me, I’m sure, came from the fact that I was Zack’s brother.  But I suspect it also was the fact that they knew I was going to be getting in the real shooting war very soon and they were too old and would not be able to get to do that. That is a strange thing to think about as I write this, in that people really wanted to go to war which could mean getting killed.  But a person needed to have lived at that time, when your country was really in danger of being taken over by the Germans and the Japanese, to understand how Americans wanted to get in the fight. It was an extremely threatening period and almost everyone wanted to do their part.

                          Bob Mosley and Brother Zack Taxi for 1942 CAP Flight

We wore a uniform that looked very similar to a regular US Army Air Forces uniform except the wings were different and we had red epaulets which attracted so much attention that I never wore the uniform except when I had to. This wasn’t so much from a pride stand point even though the red epaulets did create some giggles. It was mainly because I had not yet earned my military wings and I didn’t want anyone to think I was trying to impersonate a military pilot.

As stated before, the airplane we used primarily was the 90 Horsepower Stinson 10A. Our coastal patrol mission was pretty much the same each time we flew. We would take off from the Lantana airport in a very loaded condition (maximum gas load, a 100 pound bomb, and emergency equipment) which made you wonder on some of those hot days whether you were going to make it off at all because the runway was not very long and that little Stinson loved the ground. There were always two pilots and in back of the seats was space for the emergency equipment which consisted of some flares, our flotation equipment (a deflated car inner tube) with a canvas sack attached to it . This was referred to as the “Barracuda Bucket”. The idea was that if you had to ditch, after hopefully surviving the water landing, you would be able to get out of the plane then swim back and go into the back seat of the plane and drag out the Barracuda Bucket. You were then to inflate the inner tube (while swimming)  with a small bicycle pump that was back there also. Hopefully, then you could get into the middle of the inner tube and lower yourself, part way at least, down into the sack. I don’t know whether it was ever successfully used or not; I personally doubted it’s practicality. We did wear Mae Wests though and I was a good swimmer, so the only thing I hoped for if I had to ditch was to survive the landing and  get out of the plane. I figured I could take it from there.

Getting back to the mission, we nearly always took off to the east and there was a small lake right at the end of the runway. Across the lake were trees and a few houses. The lake was longer north and south than it was east and west though, so on those hot days when there was doubt that you were going to clear the trees across the lake going straight ahead east, we would get airborne as soon as the plane felt like flying, then cautiously bank over the lake and head north up the lake until we could get some more airspeed. You were also operating over a cooler surface over the lake than when you were on the runway, so the plane began to perform  a little better and thus you could clear the trees at the north end of the lake with no problems. We would then head out due east over the ocean to about 10 miles off shore and then zig-zag for the next 4 hours on a northerly course. This would put us about 40 miles out from the coast by the time we were abreast of the Banana River Naval Air Station, just south of Cape Canaveral because the coast of Fla. runs at about 160-340 degrees. What we were actually doing was tracking pretty much along with the Gulf Stream which slowly pulls away from the coast as it heads north from the Palm Beach area. Now, 40 miles doesn’t sound like much but you can’t see land from that distance at 1000 feet and with only a single engine aircraft it is a long way to swim if that one engine quits. We would then turn west and go in and land at the Banana River Naval Air Station (now Patrick Air Force Base) and get some gas and then turn around and do a search pattern back down the coast for another 4 hours; just the reverse of what we had done coming north.  There would also be another patrol taking off from Lantana as we would be heading back, thus we  pretty well kept a plane out there all  the time. The last flight of the day would spend the night at the Banana River Naval Air station and then we would get up real early and be ready for take off at dawn. I certainly had no intuition that the Banana River Naval Air Station, i.e. Patrick Air Force Base and it’s environs would play such an important part in the later years of my life.

I had only one bad experience in all of that flying over the ocean (probably 2 to 3 hundred hours) other than having to fly around and through those summer afternoon thunder storms.  It happened on a Sunday afternoon about 30 miles off the coast of Vero Beach and I was flying with one of “Zack’s old hillbilly friends”, Zeke Cornelius (they were not hill billies but their names sounded like they were), i.e., Zeke, Zack, Jake, and Ike . We were just cruising along as nice as you please at 1000 feet when suddenly the engine started getting rough and then real rough. The engine cowling looked like it was moving up and down about 4 inches and if we had crashed I would have told everyone that the engine must have come loose from it’s mounts. We checked everything we could think of which was not all that much, but we were losing our 1000 feet rapidly. I had already accepted the fact that we were going to ditch and we  headed toward the nearest freighter in sight and started making MAYDAY calls, Then  Zeke thought of one other thing to try and that was to switch from both magnetos to the ‘left only’ magneto then to the ‘right only’ magneto.  Going to the left magneto did no good but when he switched to the right magneto the engine smoothed  out, and while at a little less than normal power, it was enough to pull us up from hitting the water and we limped in to the coast and landed at Vero Beach. I was told later that what had happened was a timing wheel/gear had come loose on the left magneto and it was causing  a misfire in the cylinders; i.e., one  magneto was fighting the other and the explosions were out of synch thus the violent roughness (at least that is the way the problem was explained to me). I can certainly vouch for the violence and I never had anything like that happen in all of the many hours I flew reciprocating engines in the years to follow.

Zeke and I went to a hotel in Vero Beach and spent the night. He was really shaken up and  had to have a few drinks to settle down. I didn’t drink in those days but I didn’t really need anything anyhow because it  didn’t bother me all that much. However, if Zeke hadn’t switched the mags when he did I would sure have had plenty to be bothered about by that time, because I probably would have still been out there trying to get the “Barracuda Bucket” out of the plane. There were no more exciting events in the remaining months that I flew with the patrol.

After I left the patrol all of the pilots were awarded the Air Medal for their daring flying out there over the ocean in single engine planes looking for German submarines.

I flew with the CAP until I was called into the Aviation cadet training in  March of 1943.  I was told after I departed that our Squadron had one airplane make a forced landing on the beach and one made a forced landing in the water, a short way off of the beach. There were no casualties in either case.


Robert L. Mosley


3 thoughts on “The Civil Air Patrol on the WWII Home Front”

  1. I was a Purdue friend (1947-51) of Wright Vermilya, Commander of Florida’s CAP. I lived in West Palm, on 8th Street on the Lake Worth inland waterway, across from the Palm Beach Biltmore Hotel. We had moved from Pittsburgh in 1946.

    My older brother was M.I.A. – 1st Lt William F. Kiesel US Marines flying out of Okinawa, over Japan in his F4U Corsair. The entire squadron was hit by the worst Typhoon in history just three weeks before Jap surrender. He had joined V-5 program at Purdue Aero-Engineering school right after Pearl Harbor. He was in the top 10 % of his class and chose the the Marines .

    I was 17, a high school grad and enlisted. I sailed in USS Tarawa CV 40 on her shakedown cruise – Gitmo Bay, through Panama Canal to the Pacific. I joined the Reserves when I returned.

    One summer day Wright Vermilya called me. I knew him well. He had taught me to fly Immelmanns.” He wanted me to fly one of his father’s open cockpit planes to pick up some of Zack Mosley’s “Smilin’ Jack” comic strips in Vero Beach, and to fly them to Miami for printing in Sunday’s Papers. I met Zack. He was quite famous, of course.

    Robert Kiesel

  2. The Lake Bob flew over after takeoff out of Lantana Airport is called Lake Osborne, and the trees he spoke of at the north end of the lake are now completely occupied by housing and commercial buildings. After the 2016 presidential election, civilian flying out of Lantana Airport became very restricted when President Trump was in town at his Lago Mar Resort.

    A small correction to Bob’s story is that the current in the Gulf Stream averages 2 1/2 knots.

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