Timing was critical for air patrols of Acadia during World War II.
- By: Joshua F. Moore
When most Maine visitors pass through Trenton, the tiny village just over the causeway from Mount Desert Island, they are entering relaxation mode, a frame of mind where schedules and timepieces become secondary to naps and strolls in Acadia. But these nine airmen were anything but ordinary visitors when photographer John Collier, Jr., captured them synchronizing their watches on June 5, 1943. They were members of the thirteen-month-old, all-volunteer Coastal Air Patrol (CAP) that formed along the East Coast to keep an eye out for German submarines, and Collier has been careful to dodge out certain top-secret information on the flight board behind them.
The Trenton base, No. 20 in the system and the northeasternmost in the U.S. (the other Maine base was in Portland), was particularly important to American defenses, as the Maine coast was the nearest spot to Europe and the brand-new Liberty Ships from South Portland and destroyers from Bath were attractive targets. (Two German spies actually landed in Hancock, not far from where this photo was taken, in November 1944 before they were captured in New York City.) Though some Mainers joined the patrol, many of the pilots and observers came from elsewhere, including Intelligence Officer William B. Day, at far right, who hailed from Connecticut as did many other airmen at the base. Some aircraft were loaned, though the unidentified pilot at far left bought his own plane at home in Wisconsin and flew it east specifically to join the mission.
With their hats emblazoned with the Civil Air Patrol seal (the Coastal Air Patrol was a division of it), Mae West life vests, and holstered survival knives, each pilot would fly a zigzag pattern up to forty miles offshore, radioing the navy whenever his observer spotted the telltale oil slick a German submarine left behind. The work was sometimes perilous — the Trenton base lost two pilots before the Coastal Air Patrol closed in August 1943 — and monotonous, according to former pilot Prentiss Godfrey. At ninety-four, Godfrey is one of the only remaining pilots who served in either the Portland or Trenton bases during World War II. “They told us that the value of the CAP was that it kept the submarines down, because in those days subs ran on battery power, and us flying kept them from coming up to the surface to recharge,” he says. “It was a little bit boring, really, because you just went out and came back.”
Godfrey’s humility is admirable, but his missions and the ones flown by the men shown here helped protect our shores. The Civil Air Patrol reports that after the war one German commander confirmed that coastal U-boat operations had been ceased because of “those damned little red and yellow planes.”
- By: Joshua F. Moore