The shadow of war loomed when 17-year-old Bill Bruring became one of the founding members of the La Crosse squadron of the Civil Air Patrol on Dec. 1, 1941.
Bruring was a student at Central High School and was persuaded to join by Roy E. Kumm, the president of the G. Heileman Brewing Co., who also happened to rent an apartment to Bruring’s family. Civil Air Patrol units were forming around the nation with the idea of helping with coastal patrols and to organize civil aviation.
Few knew how close war was. Six days later, Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor in Hawaii was bombed by the Japanese and the United States entered World War II.
Bruring and 45 other founding members of the Civil Air Patrol were honored in December when they received the Congressional Gold Medal. Saturday Bruring was honored again by Congressman Ron Kind during a ceremony at the La Crosse Civil Air Patrol Headquarters near the La Crosse Regional Airport.
Bruring, 90, has served 73 years with the patrol — interrupted only by military service — and said the Dec. 10 ceremony in Washington, D.C., was probably the highlight of his life.
“It was quite an honor to be received in Washington, D.C.,” Bruring said. He took home a three-inch bronze replica of the gold medal that is placed on permanent display in the Smithsonian Institution. During his visit to Washington, Bruring was promoted from major to lieutenant colonel.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the mission of the Civil Air Patrol became more critical. Through December 1943, CAP pilots flew 24 million miles over the Atlantic and Gulf coasts to stave off German U-boat attacks against U.S. shipping, according to air patrol records. They spotted 173 U-boats and attacked 57 during the war. CAP flights helped save more than 363 sailors from U-boat attacks and provided aid to 91 ships in distress.
It was not without a cost. The CAP lost more than 90 aircraft and more than 60 volunteers lost their lives.
“World War II could have turned out a lot differently if not for the men and women of the Civil Air Patrol,” then Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told the recipients during the Dec. 10 ceremony. “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.”
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In La Crosse the air patrol took on more of a training role — much like it does today — but the cadets were a little older and focused on the basics of flight training. It was a way, said Major Todd Mandel, public affairs officer, to churn out pilot crews for the war machine. It took nine people to form the crew for a B-17 bomber, he said.
Other functions of the air patrol were to tow aerial targets for student pilots, hold war drives, collect supplies and assembe medical kits.
Ironically even after more than seven decades of service, Bruring never received his pilot’s license. He took Red Cross medical courses and taught courses in first aid and military drills.
Bruring graduated in January 1943 and volunteered in the Army. He served as a paratrooper during World War II and served in the Navy during the Korean War. He resumed his Civil Air Patrol duties when he was discharged and has been active in promoting local Memorial Day and Flag Day ceremonies.
Bruring also worked with radio and communications. He was the founder of radio station WWLA on 93.3 FM in 1966 with a tower atop Grandad Bluff where he and his wife Louise lived. The station later became WIZM FM.
In 1998 the Brurings donated a 12-by-18-foot flag and a new flagpole for Grandad Bluff after the previous flagpole was destroyed in a windstorm. “You can probably say it’s through patriotism,” Bruring said about his donation and service to the flag. “I love America.”
Bruring lost Louise in 2010 after 63 years of marriage. They were introduced by Kumm and she spent more than 45 years working for the brewery as executive secretary to Kumm and his son-in-law Russell Cleary.
“I’m still living OK,” Bruring said. “La Crosse is such a great town. We’re privileged to live in such a beautiful part of the country.”