Constable: Grayslake pastor proud of link to Civil Air Patrol
It took a few decades for Libertyville's Jill Paulson to truly grasp the impact made by civilians volunteering with the Civil Air Patrol during World War II -- and her grandfather, Gill Robb Wilson, created the organization. So it's not surprising that it took our government 73 years to reach the same conclusion.
"It was exciting. It was gold on all levels," Paulson, 55, says of Wednesday's ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, where she received a replica of the Congressional Gold Medal awarded the Civil Air Patrol.
Growing up in Virginia in the shadow of the CIA office, she remembers hearing her parents and others talk about the long list of accomplishments for Wilson, who died in 1966.
"They'd say, 'Oh, your grandfather started that,' and I'd go, 'OK, whatever,'" remembers Paulson, who shares the middle name Robb with her grandfather.
In 2010, a California group asked Paulson, pastor of the Wildwood Presbyterian Church in Grayslake, to speak about her grandfather, the civilian agency he founded, and the work that organization did and continues to do. She researched the man and his mission.
"I was so impressed, I joined," says Paulson. Now Capt. Jill Robb Paulson of the Illinois Wing serves as chaplain and historian for the agency and teaches "character development" to young cadets in her service with the Lake County Composite Squadron GLR-IL-042. "It's never too late to join."
The Washington ceremony was attended by 46 original members of the Civil Air Patrol, including Jeri Truesdell, a 100-year-old California resident who spent two years as a pilot in the Illinois Wing during World War II.
Founded on Dec. 1, 1941, six days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Civil Air Patrol was credited with spotting 173 German submarines, attacking 57, damaging 17 and sinking two. Sixty-five of the volunteers were killed during the war.
"World War II could have turned out a lot differently if not for the men and women of the Civil Air Patrol," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said during the ceremony, which also included remarks from speaker of the House John Boehner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "Today's gold medal may be overdue, but it's well-deserved. It's the highest civilian honor we can bestow, and we're proud to bestow it."
Paulson says her grandfather, who flew planes for France and then the United States in World War I, was the first aviation director for the State of New Jersey. Wilson, who witnessed the fiery crash of the Hindenburg in Lakehurst, N.J., in 1937, had flown in the airship a year earlier as part of a tour of Germany.
Seeing the military groups of young Nazis and talking with a German major who told of coming ashore secretly from German submarines to visit Atlantic City during the first world war, Wilson began working on a plan to use civilians to protect the U.S. in the war he thought was coming, Paulson says.
During World War II, civilians, using their own small planes, flew 24 million miles over the Atlantic and Gulf coasts to protect U.S. ships, most of which were tankers filled with oil bound for Europe. In Illinois, private pilots conducted lake rescues off Chicago's Navy Pier, made emergency deliveries of parts needed to keep factories running, flew over farms looking for scrap metal, and helped teach young military recruits how to shoot.
"At Fort Sheridan, we would take up our little planes and put targets on the back and all these soldiers would practice shooting at us," Paulson says of the volunteers who came before her.
One of Illinois' Civil Air Patrol pilots was Willa Brown, the first African-American woman to earn a private pilot's license and to hold a commercial pilot's license in the U.S.
"We broke a lot of barriers," Paulson says of the Civil Air Patrol, noting that her grandfather paved the way for women and African-Americans to not only serve with units but become commanders.
"My grandfather was very adamant," Paulson says. "He was so determined to make this a success, he had blinders on in a good sense of the word. He said, 'If they can fly, and they can teach, we need them.'"
Our country still needs those volunteers, Paulson says, noting today's Civil Air Patrol searches for missing people, fights fires, helps with rescue missions on land and sea, and is responsible for aerial photographs of everything from offshore oil spills to the flood damage along the Des Plaines River. You don't have to be a pilot to join, notes Paulson, who works alongside other volunteers on the ground team.
Married to Brian Paulson, pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Libertyville, and mother of Annie, 24, and Ben, 22, Jill Paulson says her grandfather died of a cancer that she believes was a result of the radiation he received while watching the hydrogen bomb explosion during weapons testing in 1954 in the Bikini Atoll. The Civil Air Patrol honors the man by dedicating its highest honor as the Gill Robb Wilson Award.
"He believed civilians would step up. Even as volunteers, they would step up to serve their country," Paulson says. "And he was right."