It’s been seven decades, but members of the Civil Air Patrol are being remembered for their volunteer service to protect the United States during World War II. Congress voted to award CAP members with the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
The CAP was founded a week before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Members used their own planes to fly missions protecting the country’s coastline from Nazi U-boats threatening U.S. shipping. Today, CAP volunteers fly missions to help after natural or manmade disasters and search for missing aircraft.
Some of the more than 100,000 members who stepped up to help during wartime still live in the D.C. area and have great stories to tell. Elizabeth Wallace of Bethesda is a 95-year-old pilot who can tell you what it's like to fly down Broadway. She was one of the first female pilots with the Civil Air Patrol in the 1940s.
“Oh, I loved it! I couldn’t get enough of it,” she said.
Wallace hasn't flown in years, but when the pages of her memory lift her into the air, you can see the wild blue yonder in her eyes.
“The vistas that you see from the air, there’s just nothing like it!” she said.
Wallace is one of those remarkable women of the last century who defied convention and made her own way in a man's world by joining them in the sky.
“I really started flying in 1940, but I started my interest in flying in the fifth grade,” she said.
She got her pilot’s license when she was 21 on a rudimentary Piper Cub plane that didn't have brakes.
“We had to zigzag the rudders to stop it when we hit the ground,” Wallace explained.
When World War II, started Wallace went into the Army as an economist. After her bosses learned she had a pilot’s license, she said, they sent her into military intelligence, G-2, to analyze the German air command in North Africa.
“We were scared to death of Germans in North Africa. If they had gotten through Egypt and gotten to that oil, it would have been a very different war,” said Wallace.
Meanwhile, the Army was starting the Civilian Pilot Training program to get more men into the Air Corps.
Elizabeth Wallace was one of only a few women accepted.
“The men didn’t like us at all,” she said. “They resented the women.”
She would get her flight time in at dawn flying over Long Island Sound and Manhattan. “And that bay would be frozen and the rays of that rising sun coming over that frozen bay was unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” said Wallace. “I would fly over Manhattan at 3,000 feet and do figure eights over Central Park. I had a deal with my father. At three I would fly down Broadway to Wall Street where he worked and he would have his hand out widow waving his handkerchief to me.”
After the war, Wallace married another pilot. The two spent their free time flying. She eventually became one of the first female pilots with the Civil Air Patrol in the D.C. area.
“We just flew over the Appalachians and the mountains, the farms, the fields, wherever the need for search,” said Wallace.
People like Wallace who fly never fully come back to earth. They leave traces of themselves in the wind like beacons that allow them to find their way back when time changes their course.
“There is nothing like moving over the earth,” she said. “It’s just freedom.”
To read more, visit a new website documenting the Civil Air Patrol’s journey to receiving a Congressional Gold Medal.