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1936-1941 Origins

Gill Robb Wilson, described in Frank Blazich’s recent book on the Civil Air Patrol as the ‘intellectual founder’ of the organization, started the ball rolling on the creation of the Civil Air Patrol in 1939. He realized that aviation in the United States would be severely curtailed, if not outright banned, within the country should it be dragged into the wars that were being fought on the sides of the oceans that flanked the U.S. mainland. He sought out other similarly minded individuals and they studied what could be done to utilize civilian general aviation as a very useful tool to support whatever national effort for the upcoming involvement in the two-ocean war would look like. By 1941 some individual states were attempting to do the same within their own borders, but Wilson, et al, was thinking along the lines of a national organization.

They studied with great interest the individual state aviation plans. In Ohio, the Civilian Air Reserve (CAR) had been formed in 1939, and by 1941 other CAR units had been formed in Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania. These groups, with a military organizational structure, would serve their individual states and remain distant from the military. It was clear that civilian pilots wanted to contribute their skills and their machines to a worthy cause.

The Federal government also realized that organizing the civilian side of the house was a necessary priority, and President Roosevelt began creating several agencies and offices to study what was needed to prepare the civilian population for war: The Office of Emergency Management, Council on National Defense, National Defense Advisory Commission, and others, came into existence.

In September 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called up the National Guard. States that were counting on being able to use the Guard’s aviation units now found themselves without their own air forces.

Although the concept of the CAR was catching on and was the front runner for what the national organization would be, it was New Jersey’s Civil Air Defense Service (CADS), with its Civil Air Guard (CAG), that fit the bill (It didn’t hurt that Wilson was assisting in its creation) It stressed civilian cooperation with the military. That was the clincher as far as Wilson and his group were concerned. 

On May 20, 1941, President Roosevelt created another agency, the Office of Civilian Defense (OCD), and named New York’s Mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, as its director. LaGuardia himself was a former Great War bomber pilot. LaGuardia created a committee to advise him on aviation matters and appointed Wilson as one of its members. Wilson now had the ear of the head of the OCD. 

In early July, Wilson and LaGuardia sent their plan to Washington for consideration. Because it was an aviation matter, the plan was delivered to the Army’s aviation office. The sign on the office door read “Major General Henry H. Arnold, Commander, U.S. Army Air Forces”. General Arnold was receptive to the plan and began detailing officers to work on making the plan a reality. The CADS plan was considered superior, more fleshed out, and with a better chance of success. General Arnold would have several discussions with LaGuardia and Wilson, and the staff he had assigned, as well as other civilians in related agencies over the next months. By September they had refined the program and decided to call it the Civil Air Patrol. 

Although most of the political and civic leaders of the day knew that America’s involvement in the war was imminent, nobody knew exactly when, or where, the real war for the U.S. would start. The U.S. was already being shot at by Japan and Germany. In December 1937, the gunboat U.S.S. Panay, PR-5, and four small Standard American oil tankers were sunk on the Yangtze River in China by Japanese aircraft, supposedly a case of misidentification. In the Atlantic, two American destroyers that were escorting British convoys were torpedoed; on October 17, 1941, the U.S.S. Kearney, DD-432, was torpedoed and severely damaged near Iceland, and two weeks later, on October 31, the U.S.S. Reuben James, DD-245, was torpedoed and sunk, also near Iceland. The shooting had already started.

On December 1, 1941, LaGuardia signed a memo that was intended to get the pamphlet about CAP to the GPO. Later that week, he was informed that General Curry’s name had never made it the GPO; the presses were still waiting for the name so they could start printing the CAP pamphlet and CAP enlistment forms. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor caught everyone – the U.S. government, the military, the OCD, and the fledgling National Headquarters staff - by surprise. Nobody was truly ready. On December 8, LaGuardia signed OCD Administration Order No. 9, formally creating the Civil Air Patrol, and naming General Curry to the position of National Commander of the Civil Air Patrol. The presses at the GPO finally started rolling.

With archives at the Nevada State Capitol and the University of Nevada, Reno, unavailable right now due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, the exact date when Nevada Governor Edward Carville received the message about his needing to appoint a wing commander, as well as any memos that may have been written on the topic (such as who was considered or recommended), are not currently known. What can be surmised is that it was sometime between November 28 and December 11.

Buried on page 20 of the December 11 edition of the Reno Gazette Journal was a two-sentence announcement of the appointment that day by Gov. Carville of E.J. Questa as “the director of the civilian aeronautics organization for Nevada” and that EJ would head to Washington D.C. on Saturday for a conference.

Immediately upon returning from the three-day conference, EJ spoke to reporters. On December 18 he met with the press and explained the organization’s purpose and what its organizational structure would be. Still buried on page 20, but with its headline, for the first time a Nevada newspaper called the new organization by its correct name: “Civil Air Patrol To Be Organized Here."

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