When Jeri Truesdell took prospective pilots up in the air for the first time, she would tell them to sit back and feel the strength of the engine on takeoff.
It was a feeling she always loved, and never forgot.
“I wanted to give them the feeling,” she said. “Anytime I get in an airplane of any size, I’m absolutely thrilled.”
Truesdell, of Winnetka, is a World War II veteran who is now 100 years old. On Wednesday, she was among hundreds of living and posthumous recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the country’s highest civilian awards, for service in a World War II-era volunteer air patrol that kept watch over the U.S. during the war.
In a Capitol Hill ceremony attended by congressional leaders, lawmakers and military officials praised the Civil Air Patrol, calling it a grass-roots, volunteer-driven squadron of citizens who often did not qualify for military service but who wanted to defend their country.
“They were clerks, they were bus drivers, they were doctors,” said House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). “They flew with unbridled determination, and we were lucky to have them up there.”
The patrol was founded a week before the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that drew the United States into the war. Volunteers flew around the country, often in their own planes, and relied on homemade safety equipment, including inner tubes as life rafts, volunteers remembered.
Originally, the patrol’s assignment was to watch for German submarines that had been harassing merchant ships off the U.S. coasts. Eventually, patrol planes were equipped with bombs and depth charges to attack the subs. They also transported emergency supplies, fought wildfires, and assisted with search and rescue operations.
Over the course of the war, patrol volunteers dropped more than 80 bombs on U-boats, two of which were believed to have sunk as a result. Flying in all weather conditions with basic equipment, 65 volunteers died on patrol.
Volunteers often slept in barns and operated from antiquated airfields, lawmakers said.
“Many of you left jobs, shuttered businesses, traveled to ramshackle airbases and slept in chicken coops ... just to risk your lives in civilian aircraft,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).
Lester Wolff, a patrol volunteer who later became a New York congressman, said the pilots represented a cross-section of ages and genders.
“We were a ragtag group of rejects from military service,” he said. “We were volunteers in the true sense of the American tradition.”
The patrol offered some of the first aviation opportunities for women.
For Truesdell, volunteering with the Civil Air Patrol led her to join the Navy Waves, where she trained female pilots. She later became a member of the Navy Reserve.
“We are all proud, humble and thrilled beyond belief,” she said of her fellow volunteers. “This is the absolute biggest day of my life, and I’ve had some big ones.”
The Civil Air Patrol is now an auxiliary branch of the Air Force and remains active in humanitarian emergencies. Volunteers with the patrol have responded to the eruption of Mt. St. Helens and to Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.
Lawmakers told the crowd Wednesday they were proud to recognize a group that has long gone unheralded while other World War II-era veterans have been praised.
“Today’s gold medal may be long overdue, but it’s well-deserved,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
All living recipients will receive bronze copies of the official medal, which will go on display at the Smithsonian.