Charles E. Compton, a civilian ‘sub chaser’ during WWII, has died at 103 in Evanston
Rejected by the Army Air Forces and the Navy because he’d lost a kidney at 16, he signed up for the Civil Air Patrol, flying surveillance to hunt for German U-boats.
rWhen he got his pilot’s license in 1937, Charles E. Compton’s love of flying was a carefree way to let the world drop away.
It also made for some great date nights. When his college classmates were offering would-be dates rides in their Oldsmobiles, “I upped ’em one. I invited them to go flying with me,” he once said.
As he’d lift off the ground with a young woman seated next to him, he’d declare: “Are we having fun or what?”
At 95, he still remembered the abbreviations he used in his flight log when he had a special connection with a passenger: “H’’ stood for a hot date.
“I was able to get some of the beauty queens aboard,” he said, “especially one particular lady” — his future wife Barbara.
There were “a lot of fun years,” he said, “but then it all changed. It was a Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941.”
When he landed that day, “Somebody came out and said all aircraft are grounded.”
Japanese military planes had bombed the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor.
Mr. Compton tried to enlist in the Army Air Forces and the Navy but was rejected because he’d lost a kidney to illness at 16.
So he did the next best thing for someone who loved to fly. He signed up for the Civil Air Patrol. Its volunteers flew planes — often their own — along the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico, doing surveillance to hunt for German U-boats.
Mr. Compton’s base was Atlantic City, New Jersey.
The “sub chasers” escorted Merchant Marine ships heading out to supply cargo to U.S. troops. As they entered the open ocean, “We dipped our wing and saw them heading east into harm’s way,” he said at a 2011 ceremony to honor his service. “We were able to go back to a safe haven, and we thought a lot about those brave souls, some that didn’t make it.”
“Convoys could be attacked at any time,” Mr. Compton said, according to testimony in the Congressional Record. “Our job was to make it less easy for the German submarines to surface without being detected.”
For a year or more, until the Navy took over the patrols in 1943, he and other Civil Air Patrol volunteers scanned the seas.
“They never got GI benefits. They never got any pay at all,” said his daughter, former ABC White House correspondent Ann Compton Hughes.
Mr. Compton died June 16 — three days before his 104th birthday — at Westminster Place in Evanston.
“He lived to be 103 with one kidney,” his daughter said. “They could have taken a bet on him.”
One of his proudest days came when he was nearly 100. In 2014, President Barack Obama recognized CAP members with the Congressional Gold Medal.
Their heroic achievements had been read into the Congressional Record in 2012 by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who said they “spotted 173 U-boats, attacked 57, dropped 82 bombs and sank or damaged two.” They discovered 17 floating mines and assisted 91 floundering vessels and 363 survivors in the water. Sixty-five members were killed during the war.
According to congressional testimony, “At least one high-level German Navy officer credited the CAP with being the primary reason that submarine attacks were withdrawn from the Atlantic coast of the United States in 1943, saying, ‘It was because of those damned little red and yellow planes!’ ’’
Mr. Compton was one of the nation’s last living links to the first days of the Civil Air Patrol and was Illinois’ oldest CAP member, according to Major David E. Gillingham of the Evanston unit named in his honor: the Col. Compton Composite Squadron.
Young Charlie grew up in Kenwood, the son of Wilda Woodruff Compton and Don Compton, a business executive. He and older brothers Richard and Gail attended the University of Chicago laboratory schools, prep school at Lake Forest Academy and Dartmouth College.
A fan of orchestra leaders Glenn Miller and Dick Stabile, he played saxophone and clarinet in big bands during college summers. Before graduating in the late 1930s, he formed a student flying club at Dartmouth.
His first plane was an amphibious Grumman G-44 Widgeon. It once played a role in a daring rescue.
“Two little boys drifted too far out into Lake Michigan from somewhere on the beaches on the North Side,” his daughter said. “He took his plane, flew out and landed in Lake Michigan, grabbed the two boys and flew them back to shore.”
After college, he worked in a factory making aircraft parts. But he realized “I’d rather be flying,” he said at his 2011 recognition ceremony, and signed up for the Civil Air Patrol.
After his wartime volunteer work, he entered business school at the University of Chicago. He met his future wife in young Hyde Park social sets that included Mel Torme, the singer known as the “Velvet Fog.”
They got married in 1945 and raised their family in Glencoe. He worked for CBS and the Frederick Asher and Meeker advertising agencies.
Mr. Compton, who bought a color TV in 1955 — one of the first in Glencoe — sold ad time for the new medium. His daughter recalls his jubilance when he sealed a deal involving a TV show starring actor Lloyd Bridges: “He said, ‘I just sold “Sea Hunt” to Hamm’s beer.’ ” Later, he was an advertising manager for H&R Block.
Mr. Compton continued to volunteer with the Civil Air Patrol through the 1970s. Over time, his Evanston squadron became inactive. But, in 2010, when CAP members discovered he was living nearby, they were thrilled, Gillingham said. The Civil Air Patrol’s Illinois Wing and national headquarters promoted him to the rank of colonel. Four years ago, when the Evanston unit re-formed, the squadron was renamed for him.
“Charles Compton was our living legacy,” Gillingham said. “He was there from the beginning.”
At 90, he was president of the Rotary Club of Glencoe.
“Airplanes and animals were his passion,” his daughter said.
Over the years, he had a boxer named Eisenhower, two great Danes — Aruba and Babe — several English setters, a bull terrier named Blossom and a cat named Buddy.
After Buddy died, Mr. Compton kept his water bowl and food dish out for years — and the food bowl always had a little kibble in it.
The Comptons also owned a pet Mynah bird that cried out “Barbara!” or “Charlie!” whenever the phone rang. And Mr. Compton had a parrot named Oliver that every morning would sit on his shoulder and drink orange juice from his cup.
After his wife died in 1988, he raised ferrets and had a pet coatimundi.
Mr. Compton is also survived by his daughter Susan, sons Arthur and Michael, seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. His ashes are to be interred at Glencoe Union Church.