Homefront Security

During World War II, millions of American civilians were recruited by civil defense government programs to serve as volunteers and aid the war effort.

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Learning Objectives

Examine the role of the Civil Air Patrol and the Civil Defense Corps in monitoring home-front security during World War II.


Key Takeaways

Key PointsAlready before entering WWII, President Roosevelt established an organization whose task was to convert industries from peacetime work to war needs, allocate scarce materials, establish priorities in the distribution of materials and services, and prohibit nonessential production. The name, character, and function of this organization was redefined a number of times, but it finally became the War Production Board.On May 20, 1941 the Office of Civilian Defense (OCD) was created to coordinate state and federal measures for the protection of civilians in case of war emergency.In December 1941, the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), the civilian auxiliary of the United States Air Force, was established. It commissioned civilians to patrol (mostly the coast and borders) and engage in search and rescue missions.The Civil Defense Corps organized approximately 10 million volunteers to fight fires, decontaminate following chemical weapon attacks, and provide first aid.In October 1942, the CAP also launched a very successful cadet program that recruited and trained youth, with an emphasis on flight training.Key TermsCouncil of National Defense: A United States organization formed during World War I to coordinate resources and industry in support of the war effort, including the coordination of transportation, industrial and farm production, financial support for the war, and public morale.War Production Board: An agency of the United States government that supervised war production during World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt established it on January 16, 1942, with Executive Order 9024.Civil Air Patrol: A congressionally chartered, federally supported, non-profit corporation that serves as the official civilian auxiliary of the United States Air Force. During World War II, it recruited and trained American civilians to aid the war effort.Civil Defense Corps: An organization established during World War II, under the Office of Civilian Defense. It organized approximately 10 million volunteers to fight fires, decontaminate after chemical weapon attacks, provide first aid, and other duties.

Civil Defense: Background

The idea of civil defense began to come of age, both worldwide and in the United States, during World War I, when it was usually referred to as “civilian defense.” This was the first major war that required the involvement and support of the general population. The U.S. followed the British model and the efforts were formalized with the creation of the Council of National Defense (CND) on August 29, 1916. It consisted of six cabinet members (the secretaries of agriculture, commerce, interior, labor, navy, and war) and an unpaid civilian advisory committee, whose task was to investigate and advise the president and heads of executive departments on the strategic placement of industrial goods and services for the potential and future use in times of war.

World War II

Even before the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the Council of National Defense was reactivated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. However, CND was replaced by the Office of Production Management in 1941, which was soon replaced by the War Production Board (WPB). The WPB directed conversion of industries from peacetime work to war needs, allocated scarce materials, established priorities in the distribution of materials and services, and prohibited nonessential production. It rationed such commodities as gasoline, heating oil, metals, rubber, paper and plastics. It was dissolved shortly after the defeat of Japan in 1945, and was replaced by the Civilian Production Administration in late 1945.

On May 20, 1941, the Office of Civilian Defense (OCD) was created to coordinate state and federal measures for protection of civilians in case of war emergency. Its two branches supervised protective functions, such as blackouts and special fire protection, and “war service” functions, such as child care, health, housing, and transportation. It was originally headed by New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and was also charged with elevating national morale. The First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt served as assistant director of the OCD, and was particularly engaged in promoting the volunteer effort. Under the OCD, the Civil Defense Corps (CDF) were established. By the end of 1943, the CDF organized approximately 10 million volunteers trained to fight fires, decontaminate after chemical weapon attacks, provide first aid, and other duties.

Civil Air Patrol

La Guardia also formalized the creation of Civil Air Patrol (CAP), the civilian auxiliary of the United States Air Force, with Administrative Order 9, signed on December 1, 1941 and published December 8, 1941. The order outlined the Civil Air Patrol’s organization, and named its first national commander as Major General John F. Curry.

With America’s entrance into World War II, German U-boats began to operate along the east coast. Their operations were very effective, sinking a total of 204 vessels by September 1942. The CAP’s top leaders requested that the War Department give them the authority to directly combat the U-boat threat. The request was initially opposed, for the CAP was still a young and inexperienced organization. However, with the alarming numbers of ships being sunk by the U-boats, the War Department finally agreed to give CAP a chance.

On March 5, 1942, the government gave the CAP the authority to operate a coastal patrol at two locations along the east coast: Atlantic City, New Jersey, and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. They were given a time frame of 90 days to prove their worth. The CAP’s performance was outstanding, and before the 90 day period was over, the coastal patrol operations were authorized to expand in both duration and territory. By the end of the war, CAP pilots had flown more than 500,000 mission hours.

Under the CAP and its Coast Guard counterpart, the Coast Guard Auxiliary, civilians were trained to spot air raids, participate in search-and-rescue missions, and help with transportation. Towers were built in coastal and border towns, and spotters were trained to recognize enemy aircraft. Blackouts were practiced in every city, even those far from the coast. All exterior lighting had to be extinguished, and black-out curtains placed over windows. The main purpose was to remind people that there was a war on, and to provide activities that would engage the civil spirit of millions of people not otherwise involved in the war effort. In large part, this effort was successful, sometimes almost to a fault, such as in the plains states where many dedicated aircraft spotters took up their posts night after night watching the skies in an area of the country that no enemy aircraft of that time could possibly hope to reach.

At its height, The CAP operated 21 coastal bases in 13 states along the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico. Originally, the Coastal Patrol was to be unarmed and strictly reconnaissance. The air crews of the patrol aircraft were to keep in touch with their bases and notify the Army Air Forces and Navy in the area when a U-boat was sighted, and to remain in the area until relieved. This policy was reviewed, however, when the CAP encountered a turkey shoot opportunity. In May 1942, a CAP crew were flying a coastal patrol mission off Cape Canaveral when they spotted a German U-boat. The U-boat crew also spotted the aircraft, but not knowing that it was unarmed, attempted to flee. The U-boat became stuck on a sandbar, and consequently became an easy target.

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In October 1942, the CAP planned a program to recruit and train youth, with an emphasis on flight training. The CAP cadets assisted with operational tasks and began indoctrination and training towards becoming licensed pilots. Cadets were not exempt from being conscripted. To become a cadet, one had to be between the ages of 15 and 17, and be sponsored by a CAP member of the same gender. The cadet program called for physical fitness, completion of the first two years of high school and satisfactory grades. It was open only to native-born American citizens of parents who had been citizens of the United States for at least ten years. These restrictions were intentionally imposed to hold down membership levels until a solid foundation could be established.