Sunday, December 07, 2014

Serving a nation: Three who served in Civil Air Patrol receive posthumous honor

Norma Kraemer on Thursday holds the Civil Air Patrol jacket of her late husband, Vern Kraemer, in front of Vern’s American Tri-Wing airplane on display at the Rapid City Regional Airport. On behalf of her late husband, Norma is accepting the Congressional Gold Medal Wednesday in Washington, D.C., in honor of his World War II contributions to the Civil Air Patrol.
Sean Ryan, Journal staff 

The three brave men with Black Hills connections had one mission: Keep America safe. 

 One of the three survived despite once flying his plane upside down in fog. Another was sure he had sunk a German U-boat. The third spent part of World War II towing a target so U.S. military pilots could sharpen their shooting.

Earl Wilkinson, Vernon Jeffries and Luverne "Vern" Kraemer, all skilled and unselfish pilots, technically were not servicemen in World War II and their unheralded contributions brought little recognition, until now.

They joined a fledgling outfit called the Civil Air Patrol, and even before Dec. 7, 1941 — 73 years ago today — the day on which Japan dragged the United States into the war, CAP pilots, all civilians, already were flying the coastlines of America, scanning the waters for German ships and submarines.

This week, Wilkinson, Jeffries and Kraemer will be posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in a ceremony Wednesday, Dec. 10, in the Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol.

The golden medallion stands for national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions, and has been presented to war heroes, actors, authors and entertainers, as well as pioneers in aeronautics, space, exploration, science and medicine.

Protecting the homefront

The Civil Air Patrol was founded Dec. 1, 1941, just six days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, according to Major Bruce Kipp, public affairs officer for the South Dakota Wing of the CAP. From March 1942 to August 1943, members of CAP’s coastal patrols, flying their own or borrowed planes, flew 24 million miles, over the Atlantic and Gulf coasts to ward off German U-boat attacks against U.S. shipping, Kipp said.

In a press release Kipp said CAP pilots spotted 173 U-boats and attacked 57. They escorted more than 5,600 convoys, and 65 CAP pilots were killed on duty.

According to their descendants, the three men with local ties loved flying and were proud of serving their country.

Aviation love affair

Each day, hundreds of travelers at Rapid City Regional Airport walk past an American Tri-Wing airplane suspended from the ceiling of the terminal. That versatile craft was built in 1952 by Vern Kraemer who, at 27, was among the first CAP members and flew hundreds of missions before settling in Rapid City and becoming a sought-after airplane mechanic.

Kraemer died in June 2012, at age 95, but his widow still sees him flying in the clouds.

“This man was Mr. Airplane,” said Norma Kraemer, a 65-year-old pilot and aviation historian who lives near Rapid City. “Vern spent his whole life in aviation. That’s all he thought about was airplanes.”

Kraemer was taught to fly by Clyde Ice, the iconic Spearfish pilot who was the first inductee into the South Dakota Aviation Hall of Fame and who, in 1927, gave Charles Lindbergh tips before he flew from New York to Paris.

In the early days of World War II, Kraemer was in Atlantic City, N.J., making daily reconnaissance flights along the East Coast, escorting oil tankers and freighters ferrying critical war supplies.

“We really had undefended coasts,” said Norma, who wrote and published “South Dakota’s First Century of Flight" in 2010. “Germans would surface in their submarines at night and use their guns to strafe shipping.”

Eventually, Kraemer and his colleagues attached depth charges to the undersides of their aircraft to attack the U-boats.

“What Vern did was very dangerous,” she said. “Flying conditions on the Atlantic were awful, and they would often fly 150 miles out to sea. His closest scare was when he found himself upside down flying in his plane in a fog. Weather was the biggest enemy they had. Luckily he had the proper instrumentation to get himself back upright. This was not like flying to Wall Drug for breakfast.”

Although Norma will be in Washington, D.C., Wednesday to accept Vern’s Congressional Gold Medal, the timing, she said, is all wrong.

“Most of these people in CAP in World War II are now pushing up daisies,” she said.

Although Norma said she’ll treasure the bronze replica of the gold medal, she may not keep it.

“Maybe it’ll find a home at the South Dakota Air & Space Museum at Ellsworth" Air Force Base, she said. "We’ll see. Who knows? I might enjoy it for awhile.”

'They definitely tagged it'

Vernon Jeffries grew up on farms in Iowa and Minnesota and, as a young pilot, volunteered for the CAP and also wound up in Atlantic City, flying aircraft armed with depth charges.

After his CAP service, Jeffries taught pilots in the U.S. Army Reserve, then he managed an airport in Blue Earth, Minn., sold planes, cars and trucks, crop-dusted and, in 1953, started a new career in therapeutic massage, which he practiced in Hot Springs and Rapid City until retiring in 1984. Jeffries died in April 2004, but his son said he always took pride in his CAP service.

“If he were still alive, he would be so proud of this honor,” said David, a lieutenant colonel in the South Dakota Wing of the CAP. “He was always upset that the Civil Air Patrol didn’t get recognition for what they did. They were actually combat war veterans. We lost quite a few airplanes during the war, and as combat veterans they got little recognition and no VA benefits.”

In a phone call from Arizona last week, David credited his father with introducing him to aviation when he was just 14. David served 26 years in the Air Force, retiring in 1991 as a master sergeant.

A New Underwood resident when he is not snow-birding in Arizona, David said his father rarely talked about his World War II service.

“He told one story of an encounter with what they thought was a Nazi submarine, and they thought they got it,” David said. “They didn’t get credit for sinking a submarine, because no one was captured and there was no real evidence. But they used the oil slick from the sub as a navigation checkpoint for the next six months. So, they definitely tagged it.”

David can't make the Washington trip, but said he’ll be there in spirit.

“I am very, very proud of him,” David said, choking up. “I’m proud of the fact he voluntarily set aside years of his life to do what he could in support of our country with almost no remuneration whatsoever. I would have expected our government to recognize the activities of that band of men and women long before this, before most of them had died."

Profound respect for a grandfather

Earl B. Wilkinson, was reared in Truman, Minn., served as an infantryman in World War I and grew interested in aviation in the early 1930s.

During the Great Depression, Wilkinson bought his first open-cockpit airplane, built a hangar and carved out a dirt airstrip in an alfalfa field, according to his grandson, Tom Senesac, of Rapid City. Wilkinson eventually upgraded and sold his old plane for a Lambert Monocoupe, which he flew until the summer of 1942, when joined the fledgling Civil Air Patrol in Atlantic City.

He mainly flew coastal patrols, along with some tow target work with the 22nd Tow Target Squadron, until August 1944, Senesac said. Wilkinson died in December 1954, at age 56, from a blood clot he may have developed following a shop accident.

“I never knew him, and I never got to meet him,” Senesac said. But hours of research, family stories and Wilkinson’s log books instilled in Senesac a profound sense of respect for his grandfather's CAP service.

“He left his Chevrolet dealership to serve his country while at the same time his son was serving in the Navy,” Senesac said. “A lot of people answered the call back then, just left their children and their families behind, and served their country. And they didn’t do it for the pay. They ate bananas and lived in Quonset huts and rode bicycles. They didn’t have much.”

Flying was his grandfather's passion.

“You could tell the guy loved to fly,” Senesac said. “He studied flying, stunt flying, and he was very proud to have flown in the CAP. He even had a thick sterling silver bracelet made that says, `Capt. Earl B. Wilkinson.’”

While Senesac, once a member of the Rapid City Wing of the CAP, cannot attend the ceremonies, he said the medallion will find an honored place in his home.

“I plan on putting it in a shadow box with mementos like his dog tags, photos of him flying, and things that are dear to the family,” Senesac said. “This will give him recognition that he answered the call, that he made a difference, that he served his country. Maybe someone will remember him.”

Story and Photo Gallery:

  Courtesy Norma Kraemer 
First Patrol Force, Atlantic City, N.J., pose for a group shot on Aug. 31, 1943, the last day of Atlantic City Squadron #1 of Civil Air Patrol. Commander was Major Wynatt Farr, seated in the center of the picture. The three planes in the picture left to right are a Fairchild 24, a Grumman Widgeon and a Waco. Vern Kraemer is kneeling at the lower left of the picture.

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