Friday, April 28, 2017

Civil Air Patrol flew anti-sub patrols from Brownsville, San Benito, Texas

Steve Patti was a mechanic in the Civil Air Patrol during WWII. He was stationed at Marfa AAF Auxiliary Field #2 and flew as an observer on some border patrol missions. He was then sent to the CAP base at El Paso.

 After leaving El Paso, Patti transferred to Brownsville, Texas, where he operated with the Civil Air Patrol for about three months before moving about 15 miles northeast to San Benito.

Although Patti did not fly any missions as an observer while stationed at El Paso, he did fly one mission while at Brownsville.

“I flew as an observer. I only flew one mission out of Brownsville as an observer and that was on submarine patrol.”

Patti was also taking flying lessons on his own during this time in order to earn his pilot’s license.

“I was taking flying lessons at Les Mauldin’s there at the Brownsville Airport.”

Patti explained that there were three types of missions flown by CAP out of Brownsville and later San Benito -- submarine patrol, beach patrol and convoy escort.

“We were originally at Brownsville; there was so much heavy traffic of international flying coming in from South America and the United States – there was military there and there were civilian airlines there – we couldn’t operate. There was no hangar for us to do our maintenance.”

“We had anywhere from 12 to 18 aircraft at Brownsville, depending on how many we could put on the line. That’s why we had to leave. We had no hangars, no facilities for maintenance there.”

“Some of the [aircraft] owners left. They were there like three or four months and they’d leave and they’d take their aircraft with them and we’d have to get a replacement airplane for it.”

“Either the owner brought it and he flew his own aircraft or somebody left their airplane there and we would maintain it and the owner wouldn’t be there.”

A Coca-Cola advertisement from August 1943 stated, “The Civil Air Patrol has recruited more than a third of the nation’s 100,000 civilian pilots to fly for national defense. Coming from every walk of life, they are putting forth an extra something to do their trained part.”

Patti explained that some CAP pilots who owned aircraft and left them at Brownsville had to return home for a few months for business reasons; either he was working a job or owned a business. They would then return and pick up where they left off doing various patrols.

When asked why some of the CAP pilots were using their own private planes for patrol duties, Patti explained, “That’s absolutely right. Yeah. There were no trained personnel. The Army Air Corps had been caught flat-footed. The Navy had been caught flat-footed. All of our aircraft were lend-lease going to Europe for the war in Europe. The Navy was getting all their aircraft for their Pacific fighting. So there were no trained personnel to protect our shores. CAP was the only available way of getting these submarines in check, to put them in check at the very beginning.”

“Submarines left the area because Civil Air Patrol was there. They couldn’t operate close to our shores anymore. They had to go out beyond the range of our aircraft.”

Life at Brownsville Municipal Airport for Patti and his fellow CAP members was tough.

“We worked out in the hot sun where the temperature was about 98 to 100 degrees and then the humidity was in the 90s – 90 percent humidity.”

“We didn’t have a hangar. We didn’t have a place to park our airplanes. It was concrete runways, you know.”

“We were at Brownsville Municipal airport for about three months and then we moved to San Benito lock, stock and barrel.”

“The administration building that was there at Brownsville International, we had it moved to San Benito which was an empty airport.”

“We were the only function going on there. They sent an Army ordnance man over to our base and they dug a revetment and they put the bombs underground. He had the key to get into the bombs. He did all the stuff of putting the bombs on the bomb rack. We didn’t touch the bombs.”

“He was an ordnance man. He was sent to us on loan from the Army with the hundred-pound bombs and depth charges.”

As for the aircraft that they used, Patti explained, “If they had been on coastal patrol, they had the propellers painted out because the propellers were misconstrued as Japanese insignia.”

“We got our orders for the aircraft that were flying beach patrol and also submarine patrol and convoy: the red propellers had to be obliterated from the insignia. It was just a white diamond pyramid.”

When asked why the pilots and crews were instructed to remove the red propellers from the CAP’s white diamond pyramid so that they would not be confused with possible Japanese aircraft in the Gulf of Mexico, Patti replied, “That’s a good question. Nobody challenged the order. The order came from headquarters and you don’t challenge headquarters. If they told you to remove it, you removed it. If they tell you to stand on your head, you stood on your head.”

Given the enormous distance of San Benito, Texas, and the Gulf of Mexico from any Japanese air base in the Pacific, it would seem impossible that any Japanese aircraft could be anywhere near that combat zone.

“I understand what you’re saying and the idea is ridiculous, but that’s nevertheless; somebody in national headquarters passed the word down that all CAP aircraft on submarine patrol and convoy have the propeller removed.”

The threat of Japanese and German warplanes or German U-boats in the Gulf of Mexico was not as far-fetched a fear in 1942 as it might seem today after reviewing some of the war documentaries released then.

In Frank Capra’s series of wartime propaganda films entitled “Why We Fight,” the documentary named “War Comes to America” described how close the Japanese and German military threat was to the Panama Canal Zone.

The narrator stated that there were already over 1 million Germans in Brazil living exactly as they did in Germany. Their students were being taught in 1,200 German schools with Nazi teachers educating these pupils with Nazi textbooks. Nazi newspapers were being published there, as well. To train young German men the art of flying, Hermann Goering glider clubs had been created in South America, too.

German airlines were operating from airports in Ecuador, which were within easy bombing range of the Panama Canal. The German pilots there were reserve officers in the Luftwaffe and German transport planes already had bomb racks in place.

As for the Japanese threat, the narrator said that there were 260,000 Japanese living in Brazil who took their orders from Tokyo.

Fifth Column activity in South America was spurred on by German athletic clubs created in the same spirit as the Hitler Youth movement, the narrator finished.

Col. Patti continued, “We were looking for mostly submarines. We knew there wouldn’t be any Japanese submarines there, but we were looking for submarines (meaning German U-boats). We were looking for people that had their ships sunk by subs. We were looking for people on rafts; we were looking for debris; we were looking for oil slicks and anything tell-tale, you know, that was evident that there was some activity in the area.”

“We were flying anywhere from 40 to 60 miles out to sea and most of the pilots had never flown any further than the city that they were flying in.”

“They had no experience in bad weather. They had no experience in IFR weather to fly the aircraft. The aircraft weren’t equipped for instrument flying.”

Patti explained that IFR stood for Instrument Flying Regulations.

He said, however, that he never spotted a German U-boat, any wreckage or oil slicks, or anything else suspicious in the water while on patrol.

More about the history of Finney Field and the CAP will be discussed in the next article. Readers are asked to visit the Breedlove-CPTP website at for more details about the glider program of WWII.

Anyone with information about the Plainview Pre-Glider School at Finney Field should contact John McCullough email

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