Since the beginning of World War II, there has been an extra pair of eyes watching each ship launch at Bath Iron Works.

It might be hard to take your eyes off a brand new warship as it glides down the Kennebec, but keep your eyes on the sky during the next launch. Somewhere up there is the Civil Air Patrol, on alert for danger.

My father-in-law was a Civil Air Patrol cadet in his youth, and he liked to brag about skipping his high school prom to fly on a search-and-rescue mission. While he never earned his pilot’s license, his time in the patrol led to a lifetime interest in ham radio and computers, and put him on a path toward a career as an engineer. To this day, one of the patrol’s core missions is to train young people in science, engineering, and other STEM fields.

It all started, though, as a way to utilize civilian resources during WWII. If war came, the nation’s private pilots could be used to support the military. The timing turned out to be excellent, as the Civil Air Patrol was founded on Dec. 1, 1941, just six days before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The patrol performed search-and-rescue missions, and thankless tasks such as towing targets through the air for gunnery practice.

Its main mission, however, was hunting for submarines.

The mouth of the Kennebec was a great location for Nazi submarines to lurk, ready to pick off the new destroyers and liberty ships that BIW was sending down the river. The old forts, Popham and Baldwin, were useless against this threat.

Civil Air Patrol planes were sent to escort each ship and keep watch for enemy subs. At first, their only job was to report any sightings to the military. Then an air patrol plane actually found a Nazi sub stuck on a sand bank, but watched it get away before the Navy could get there. After that, Civil Air Patrol planes were equipped with small bombs and depth charges.

Unable to be pilots in the regular military, women flocked to the Civil Air Patrol. According to a timeline on its website, by 1944 a quarter of all patrol members were women, and they flew the same missions as the men. Willa Brown was the Patrol’s first black female officer in 1942.

After the war, the Civil Air Patrol became an auxiliary of the new Air Force. In 1951 it began to focus on training young people in aerospace technology, such as jet flight and space travel. Its cadet program helped train future soldiers for the military. Today the Civil Air Patrol has three Congressional mandates, according to the official newsletter.

First, it provides emergency services. Unpaid volunteers fly thousands of hours a year doing reconnaissance and relief aid missions after tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and wildfires. They assist in homeland security and anti-drug missions, too.

Second, it runs a cadet program with 25,000 young people participating from age 12-20. Kids learn discipline, participate in humanitarian efforts, serve as goodwill ambassadors abroad, and receive an aerospace education. It sounds like a high-tech version of Scouting – with the opportunity to fly airplanes.

Finally, the Civil Air Patrol offers free STEM training to tens of thousands of school children each year. Participants achieve an average 27% increase in standardized science test scores. If you would like to get your child involved, the contact information for the Maine branch of the patrol is Maine Wing CAP HQ, P.O. Box 5006, Augusta, ME 04332-5006, telephone 626-7830.

Zac McDorr is the founder of the Bath Maine History Center on Facebook.You can reach him at [email protected].

A Civil Air Patrol shirt patch.

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