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CAP's Coastal Patrol Bases No. 16 and 21

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On December 9, 1941, Governor Broughton appointed Mark Reed of Asheville as the first commander of the North Carolina Wing of the Civil Air Patrol. One of the most important missions of these volunteer aviators, who served in the state wing at Beaufort and Manteo from 1941 to 1944, was antisubmarine patrol duty. One of Beaufort's aircraft, a Stinson 10A Voyager owned by Bruce P. Ellen of Canton, NC, is shown here outfitted for coastal patrol operations. The aircraft sports the CAP roundel on the wings and empennage and a type of camouflage paint scheme to minimize visual detection by U-boats. This aircraft is here pictured with a U.S. Navy Mk 15 practice bomb, but would carry the AN-M30 100-pound general purpose bomb when on patrol. The plane crashed into the sound after a takeoff on February 19, 1943, but the crew escaped unharmed. Photograph courtesy of the Charles Small family, Richmond, VA. (click image to view full size)
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A Brief History - Part 1

11/6/2017–"You cannot forget the crucial days when our merchant ships and oil tankers were being sunk in large numbers in our coastal waters, to the dismay of our people. The Civil Air Patrol saved the day."  - Joe W. Ervin, North Carolina Representative, October 3, 1945

Founded on December 1, 1941, the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) organized the nation’s civilian pilots into a type of “flying minutemen,” utilizing private aviation resources for the nation’s defense. During World War II, North Carolina volunteer aviators organized into the North Carolina Wing of the CAP towed targets for military training, flew courier service missions, and fought forest fires. The most prominent – and famous – mission of CAP for the state and nation involved the men and women on antisubmarine patrol duty from 1942 to 1943.  From dawn to dusk, pilots patrolled up and down the Outer Banks and southern beaches on the prowl for German U-boats, sailors in distress, sea mines, debris, and other navigational hazards, and assisted the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard in escorting merchant vessels safely along the East Coast. North Carolina in these years funded and operated two antisubmarine coastal patrol bases, first at Manteo and then at Beaufort. Developed as a component of the North Carolina Office of Civilian Defense (NCCD), CAP personnel volunteered their time, money, and lives in a little publicized but important civil defense role.

Beginning in mid-January 1942, German submarines, “U-boats” arrived in the waters off the Outer Banks and commenced sinking merchant traffic. By the end of January an additional eight allied vessels went down off the North Carolina coast, including the British tanker Empire Gem, with a loss of forty-nine crewmembers. In February, German U-boats sank eight more ships along the state’s coast; destroyed twenty-two vessels in March, and sank twenty-three more in April. Lights from vehicles, residences, and businesses along the Outer Banks aided the German submarines by silhouetting merchant vessels against the glowing shore. Once detected, an unescorted merchant vessel was easy prey for enemy submariners. Ultimately, U-boats sank seventy-eight vessels off the North Carolina coast. 
 
The waters off North Carolina, particularly Cape Hatteras, became a prime hunting area for U-boats. A natural choke point, merchant traffic heading north and south would swing out from the cape to avoid the treacherous Diamond Shoals, placing them on the very edge of the continental shelf. Here the warm waters of the Gulf Stream smashed into cooler Arctic waters, creating turbulent winds and waves. Frying Pan Shoals, off Cape Fear, and Lookout Shoals, off Cape Lookout, also became graveyards for numerous U-boat victims. U-boats could spend the day submerged in the deeper waters on the narrow edge of the continental shelf, then surface under cover of darkness and patrol, spotting the profiles of ships from their running lights or silhouetted by glow along the shore. U-boats sank merchant vessels off the Hatteras and the North Carolina coast with startling regularity, earning the area a new title: “Torpedo Junction.”
 
On 19 May 1942, wing adjutant Frank E. Dawson wrote to Governor Joseph M. Broughton requesting that the governor ask NCCD director Ben E. Douglas to lobby the federal government to establish a coastal patrol base in Wilmington. By the end of May, Douglas received confidential information from CAP National Commander Major Earle L. Johnson that the CAP desired a base near Wilmington, and that if Governor Broughton contacted Lt. General Hugh A. Drum, Commander of the Eastern Defense Command, about requesting such a base, he would authorize it.  
 
In early June, the national CAP headquarters informed the state wing headquarters in Charlotte that they would request “a considerable amount” of their aircraft for patrol duty over the North Carolina coast within the next few weeks. Wing executive officer Dawson then summarily solicited the NCCD for funds to purchase two-way radios for patrol aircraft, to which the state allocated $1,000 for the purchase of five at the end of June. Broughton contacted Drum on 18 June requesting the general consider approving a coastal patrol base. Drum confirmed on 6 July how “arrangements are underway for the activation of such unit at the earliest practicable date.” Drum added that the army informed Broughton that it would activate such a unit within approximately two weeks, authorized to operate from the airport at Wilmington.
 
Now promoted as state wing commander, Captain Dawson began gathering resources for the new coastal base. At some point in mid-July, the location of the base changed from Wilmington to Roanoke Island, specifically at Skyco airfield located between Manteo and Wanchese. Dawson wrote Douglas on the twenty-first and reported that the base could begin operation the following day. On 22 July 1942, an advance group of men arrived at Skyco to prepare Coastal Patrol Base No. 16. This group of sixteen men and one woman, led by base commander and Charlotte engineer Captain James L. Hamilton, commenced cleaning up the base headquarters – an old farmhouse – mowing the field, clearing brush, erecting a radio antenna, and battling swarms of mosquitoes. Orders went out days later for men to report for duty at the base. On 27 July 1942, the first flight of eight aircraft arrived, ferried by Lieutenants William P. Bridges of Shelby, Dabney M. Coddington of Charlotte, Robert E. Church of Elkin, Claude Jarrett of Asheville, and Vernon C. Rudolph of Winston-Salem.
 
Despite the challenging work and swarms of mosquitoes, the eighty Tar Heels at the base had a job to do and base commander Hamilton ran a strict operation, insisting on full compliance with regulations. The local community and Dawson, who tirelessly lobbied the state government for funding, aided the base’s early development. The Dare County commissioners agreed to pay the monthly base rental of $10.00, and the Work Projects Administration (WPA) placed a small contingent of workers at the base to help cobble together basic living quarters and repair facilities. Manteo’s citizens readily accepted the CAP fliers with open arms, renting out houses and rooms to the men and interacting with the base personnel at the local theater, dances, and other base social events.
 
The first coastal patrol from Skyco began on 10 August 1942, piloted by Lieutenants Charles E. Bailey of Madison with Observer Edwin T. Howard of High Point. The War Department authorized coastal patrol units “to patrol coastal shipping lanes for the purpose of protecting friendly shipping and of locating and reporting enemy submarines, warships, or suspicious craft and to take such action as their equipment permits in the destruction of enemy submarines.” By late August, daily patrols at dawn and dusk operated from the primitive strip at Skyco along the coast from Norfolk to Ocracoke Inlet. Dawson flew in to inspect the base’s progress on 15 September. For unspecified reasons, Hamilton resigned as commander of the Manteo base and Dawson replaced him with Captain Allen H. Watkins, Jr., a wealthy Greensboro businessman and aviation enthusiast who quickly earned the respect and admiration of his peers as base commander. From October 1942 to January 1943, Coastal Patrol Base No. 16 moved from Skyco to a new airport built by the WPA just north of the town of Manteo. CAP would share this base, officially commissioned U.S. Naval Auxiliary Air Station (NAAS) Manteo on 3 March 1943, with Navy Fighting Squadron 17 (VF-17) for the remainder of its existence.
 
With the base on Roanoke Island established, Major Dawson commenced work on obtaining a second base for North Carolina. Dawson informed Governor Broughton on August 5 that he was working to acquire another coastal patrol base, despite the men at Manteo not receiving their allocated patrol per diem from the army. CAP National Headquarters agreed with Dawson’s recommendations and on 2 September 1942, authorized the establishment of Coastal Patrol Base No. 21 at Beaufort.  This would be the last coastal patrol base established by the Civil Air Patrol in World War II.  

Dawson, private pilot, jobber for W&W Pickle and Canning Company, and state wing commander, now assumed command of the Beaufort base. He arrived at the coast and began organizing the base on 7 September along with 75 CAP volunteers from across the state. The initial airfield at Beaufort left a lasting impression as recorded in the base yearbook: “it [was] growing waist-high in swamp grass, and full of stump pine. About half the field was under water at high tide. The only evidence of human habitation in the area was a tiny, two-room homestead in the northeast corner of the field.” Despite the horrid condition of the field, volunteers mowed out two runways through marsh grass on the highest ground available, filled in holes, and leveled the ground as best as they could. The men next erected a radio tower, configured the cottage into a base operations office, constructed primitive outhouses, and built a pilot’s house from lumber brought from Williamston. After all of the construction, check flights, and radio checks, the first patrols lifted off on 30 September, patrolling from Cape Hatteras to Cape Fear. Much like Manteo, Beaufort’s community warmly welcomed the CAP community, renting rooms and cottages to the aviators and base personnel, and forming lasting relationships; there was even a marriage or two.

Dawson wasted no time upgrading the base conditions at Beaufort. On the first day of patrols, construction began at Beaufort on a hangar for the unit’s aircraft. It was finished by mid-October. The indefatigable Dawson next worked with the NCCD to complete and submit a Federal Works Agency War Public Works application to improve the airport by paving the runways, grading the taxiways, and building proper drainage systems.  Submitted by the state civilian defense office in the first week of December 1942, the Federal Works Agency approved the project on 5 January 1943, and submitted the work to the Navy, which in February gave its approval for the Civil Aeronautics Administration to construct two 4,000-foot runways, with a third runway approved months later.

Accompanying the federal funds for improvement of the Beaufort airfield, the North Carolina General Assembly voted to appropriate funds for the North Carolina Wing in the winter of 1943. Dawson, in an application statement to the General Assembly requesting $50,000 for the construction and maintenance of the coastal patrol bases and state wing, stated that the CAP’s “primary goal is the defense of the North Carolina coast and the protection of merchant shipping in the sea lanes adjacent thereto.” Dawson’s message struck a positive chord with Representative Roy Rowe (D – Burgaw), who introduced H.B. 103 on 21 January 1943, to appropriate $30,000 for the state wing under the OCD and for the coastal patrol bases and other CAP needs statewide. The House and Senate swiftly approved the measure and the General Assembly ratified it on 11 February 1943. Within a week both Dawson and Watkins requested approximately $14,000 for the Manteo and Beaufort bases. By late July, Beaufort sported a massive new hangar and machine shops, and Manteo had an array of buildings, fuel storage facilities, and machine shops.

CAP coastal patrol operations were classified “as confidential military information, and will at all times be safeguarded as such,” with violators subject to dismissal and prosecution under the Espionage Act. Operations at both bases focused on coastal patrols from dawn to dusk (CAP aircraft did not perform night operations). The Navy or Coast Guard could call on the small aircraft to escort convoys up and down the coast, passing the convoy off between base aircraft and providing an aerial shepherd to deter the U-boats. CAP aircrews radioed back to base any signs of flotsam, patches of oil, human remains, or suspicious objects, with the messages then relayed to military authorities. Military authorities often requested the CAP aircrews to survey and chart wrecks of sunken vessels posing risks to navigation.                                 

This article is an excerpt from “North Carolina’s Flying Volunteers: The Civil Air Patrol in World War II, 1941-1944,” published in the North Carolina Historical Review 89 (October 2012).