Cadets of the Canandaigua-area Civil Air Patrol are volunteering and learning behind the scenes.

CANANDAIGUA — World War II might have turned out differently if not for the Civil Air Patrol.

Launched in 1941 just days before the Dec. 7 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a patrol of citizen aviators flew more than 500,000 hours performing a variety of duties that bolstered the war effort. In 1946, President Harry Truman established the patrol as a federally chartered nonprofit and Congress dubbed the group the Air Force Auxiliary.

Despite its continued service to the nation in emergency aid, cadet program and aerospace education, many know little about it, even after its 75th anniversary. 

From the beginning, news of the Air Patrol has often been overshadowed by other events. Understandably so at its founding, just before the attack on Pearl Harbor: “Civil Air Patrol got pushed to the back page,” said Maj. James McClure, commander of the Canandaigua Composite Squadron. Members gathered on Wednesday for a weekly meeting at the Canandaigua VA Medical Center to mark CAP’s 75 years with a big birthday cake. 

Then, as now, the volunteer might behind the Air Patrol is alive and well if not in the spotlight. That’s the case locally as well as nationally. The Canandaigua squadron — also known as the Ghost Squadron — is one of 1,400 squadrons nationwide. Across the country, 56,000 youth and adult members include aircrew, emergency responders, chaplains and instructors.

Its mission? To support communities through emergency response, aviation, and promotion of air, space and cyber power.

“Through a lot of my tough decisions I know I drew on my experiences from Civil Air Patrol and the values it instilled in me,” said Leah Watkins, 19, a Civil Air Patrol cadet chief master sergeant. A former cadet commander with Ghost Squadron, Leah joined on her 12th birthday.

A resident of Conesus in Livingston County, Watkins was homeschooled, has taken college courses, works and is headed to Finger Lakes Community College this spring to study political science.

“I know I wouldn’t be who I am or where I am without some of the influences I had from other cadets when I started out,” Watkins said. “So, now I’d like to be that influence, that guide for our newer members.”

The Civil Air Patrol educates cadets in four main areas: leadership, aerospace, fitness and character development. It also provides after-school programs, orientation flights in powered and glider aircraft, as well as flight training scholarships. About 10 percent of U.S. Air Force Academy new classes are made up of former CAP cadets, according to the Air Patrol's website.

The organization also provides competitions, awards and scholarships. Cadets explore science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers through activities focused on aviation, space and technology. Cadet programs attract more than 24,000 members nationwide, ages 12 through 20.

The Ghost Squadron has 12 cadets, along with six senior members.

Cade Chesler, 14, a freshman at Canandaigua Academy, is a cadet chief master sergeant with Ghost Squadron. He was really young when airplanes grabbed his attention. Since age 3 he’s been interested in planes, said his mom, Sue Chesler.

Now Cade is training to be a pilot and is focused on aerospace and search and rescue. His dream plane? An A-10 Warhog warplane. Cade said the discipline and training he is receiving reinforces his goal of attending the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Cameron Jones, 15, a Canandaigua Academy sophomore, is a cadet tech sergeant with Ghost Squadron. He learned about CAP through a family friend and joined almost as soon as he was eligible.

From the start, Cameron said he was attracted to CAP’s emphasis on fitness and what he could learn about being part of a ground team. Earlier this year, he said cadets like himself trained in search and rescue were set to take part in the rescue of a person in Pennsylvania. He was ready to go, though state troopers and environmental officers brought the person to safety before cadets were called in.

Cameron said he looks forward to participating in a future rescue. As a cadet, his role of junior flight sergeant means he helps other cadets with drills, preparing for tests and other challenges. He represents Ghost Squadron on the Cadet Advisory Council, taking part in decision-making, training missions and other duties. Cameron said he plans to attend college, study plumbing and possibly join the military.

Paul John “PJ” Meza, 15, a sophomore at Fairport High School, is a cadet senior airman with Ghost Squadron.

“I enjoy the discipline and bond I have with all the other cadets,” he said. “I also enjoy learning about aerospace and getting time close to planes and flying on them.”

PJ plans on joining the Air Force and doing ROTC in college. “My experience in CAP will help me greatly,” he said.

Squadron Commander McClure said he works with a fine group of cadets. McClure and other senior members act as safety officers, oversee finances, personnel matters and so forth.

“Some wear many hats,” said McClure, who has been squadron commander for two years.