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Warren native’s article featured in American Heritage

Timothy Gay

An article written by Warren-native Timothy Gay on the stirring U.S. civilian response to the Nazi U-boat menace early in World War II, another “unseen enemy,” is featured in a special spring 2020 issue of American Heritage magazine called “America In Crisis.”

Gay, a 1972 graduate of Warren Area High School, is one of six historians reminding readers amid the COVID-19 crisis that “our nation has gone through times of trouble before, from epidemics and influenza to Civil War, riots, depression, and lethal U-boats in World War II. We’ve always prevailed in the end,” said American Heritage editor Ed Grosvenor.

Gay’s article recounts how ordinary citizens volunteered to protect U.S. lives and shipping from the Nazi U-boats that terrorized the Eastern seaboard and Gulf Coast early in WWII. Until late 1942, the U.S. military lacked the equipment and manpower to contain the U-boats that stalked the U.S. coastline from Maine to Texas.

In the first two-thirds of 1942, German submarines sank more than 300 ships in U.S. waters, killing 5,000 passengers and seamen (more than double the fatalities suffered at Pearl Harbor), and devastating the Allies’ war-making capacity since many of the vessels were oil tankers. Military planners had no choice but to let civilians step into the void.

Some 250,000 U.S. citizen-volunteers rallied to the cause, forming what became the Civil Air Patrol, nicknamed “The Flying Minutemen,” the Corsair Navy, nicknamed “The Hooligan Navy,” and other grassroots efforts to combat the Axis powers. Volunteers flew their own two-seater planes and skippered their own small boats to protect U.S. ships as they operated near the coast. They also conducted rescue missions, dragged artillery targets, and ferried important people and equipment. Through the course of the war, some 68 volunteers lost their lives in plane and boat mishaps.

Many volunteers, who left their jobs and families for long stretches, received no compensation for their service or expenses; others received tiny stipends that didn’t come close to replacing their regular income.

“The parallels between the courage it took to contain the Nazi U-boat threat and the sacrifice that’s required to defeat COVID-19 are striking,” Gay writes.

“The resilience of America’s WWII citizen-volunteers has never gotten its due. Had these brave men and women not stepped forward, the damage along our coasts could have been far worse. They risked everything, just as today’s health care workers risk everything every day to prevent COVID-19 from claiming more victims.”

Gay is the son of Mrs. Anne H. Gay, formerly of Warren and now living in Warrenton, Va. He is a Pulitzer-nominated author of two books on WWII and has been featured on PBS’ “History Detectives.”

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