While I was spending mostly peaceful days on my grandparent’s farm on the banks of the Delaware River, our country had gone to war. Water-borne crews were doing a fine job of monitoring the rivers and bays of the East Coast, but it became obvious to military and political leaders that more help was needed. For one thing, there simply weren’t enough ships or crews on hand early in the war to provide adequate coverage. During the summer and fall of 1942, the German threat was very high, and ships transiting the Delaware River and Bay were often targeted. The Civil Air Patrol, which had been conceived in the late 1930s by Gill Robb Will Wilson, a New Jersey aviation advocate, was called upon to play a more active part in defending the coast, including the waters of the Delaware.
America had been literally bombed into the war, with meager maritime defenses on the East Coast, and a naval fleet in disastrous disarray at Peral Harbor. Critical shortages of gasoline and oil grew, and vital supplies for the European war effort were choked off as enemy submarines operated with impunity. As tankers burned and freighters were sent to the bottom in record numbers, the Philadelphia-based Sun Oil Company (Sunoco) helped establish a “Tanker Protection Fund.” Those monies were used to establish civilian coastal patrol bases. Volunteers came from everywhere in the country. Within months some 40,000 eager civilians signed up.
Civil Air Patrol (CAP) pilots provided their own air planes and equipment and often couldn’t cover their expenses on the alloted $8 per flying-day government pay. But fly they did! One of those intrepid fliers, Eddie Edwards, was an uncle of the boy I would meet some 15 years later and subsequently marry. Captain Edwards and a fellow pilot, Hugh Sharp, made a daring rescue on 21 July, 1942. Their pluck still elicits admiration!
Many early CAP aviators earned the dubious distinction of membership in the “Duck Club.” That membership was gotten by virtue of engine failures and subsequent ditchings at sea. Radio calls to the Civil Air Patrol communications network, if made in time on weak one-watt sets, would bring CAP twin-engine Grumman Widgeon amphibious aircraft to the rescue.
The plane which Sharp and Edwards went searching for had gone down some twenty miles off Rehoboth Beach, Delaware at 4:50 P.M. When Pilot Henry Cross came to after his watery crash, he found himself alone in the water after his plane sank. Cross couldn’t find his observer and radio man, Charles Shelfus. Fortunately, their distress pre-ditch radio-call for help had been received.
Within an hour, Hugh Sharp, Commander of the CAP base at Rehoboth, Delaware, arrived at the scene in a Sikorsky seaplane with Eddie Edwards as his observer. Sharp landed in the rough water, with eight to ten foot swells tossing the Sikorsky about. The left pontoon of the plane was badly damaged while landing in the big swells. Immediately, the plane started to fill with water. Edwards gamely loaded Cross aboard the Sikorsky despite the angry swells. The trio searched in vain for Shelfus, and finally turned toward the shore at 6:20 P.M.
They couldn’t take off because the sea was so rough. The only option to them was to taxi the plane all the way to shore. The damaged left pontoon quickly sank. Leaving Sharp to continue piloting the plane, Edwards crawled out onto the right pontoon. He grimly hung onto the bomb rack to help balance the badly damaged plane. He was completely immersed many times during the trip back in to shore.
A Coast Guard picket boat met the Sikorsky at 8:50 P.M. and towed it and its passengers to Chincoteague, Virginia. They finally arrived there at 11:45 P.M. In order to keep the plane upright, Edwards had clung to the outside of the plane for eleven hours. He was almost half-frozen when they got to safety. The first Air Medals of WWII presented in person by President Roosevelt went to those two CAP pilots, Hugh Sharp and Eddie Edwards.
The CAP Coastal Patrol bases did a great job bertween early 1942 and August, 1943 when the CAP was made an auxiliary of the Army-Air Corps. CAP pilots then went on to provide other much-needed services to a country at wat.
After the war was over a German Commander confirmed that coastal U-boat operations along the East Coast of the United States were significantly curtailed partly “because of those damned little red and yellow (CAP) planes.
My fiance took me to meet his Uncle Eddie soon after we had agreed to marry, and heard Eddie Edwards humbly recall this rescue and other stories of his adventures and exploits from World War II.