Tucsonan Richard “Jerry” Snyder can add another commendation to the dozens he has received for service to his country.
Early next year, Snyder, 86, will join at least two other Southern Arizonans who will receive the Congressional Gold Medal — the nation’s highest ranking civilian award — for their role in the Civil Air Patrol during World War II.
As a 15-year-old, he was among 120,000 members who volunteered in the CAP to support the military effort on the homefront and help keep the nation secure.
The U.S. House of Representatives voted in May to award the medal to the CAP for its service during the war, and Snyder is among fewer than 100 surviving members who will receive a replica of the medal, said Steve Cox, a CAP spokesman.
The two other Arizona residents who are recipients of the medal are Helen Gunter, 87, of Tucson, and Gail Halvorsen, 93, of Amado. Gunter joined the patrol in 1944 in the Iowa Wing, and Halvorsen joined in 1941 in the Utah Wing, Cox said.
In 1943, Snyder joined the Northampton, Massachusetts, cadet unit of the patrol.
“I’m very proud to have been a very small part of the Civil Air Patrol at that time,” said Snyder, while sitting in the study at his far-northeast-side home.
He was surrounded by memorabilia of those days, and his flying days as an Air Force fighter pilot, university professor and aerospace researcher.
“I learned to be a pilot and a flight officer in the Civil Air Patrol. I studied navigation, code, weather, engines, and instruments. I became familiar with the B-24 bomber,” recalled Snyder.
During World War II, Snyder volunteered for search-and-rescue missions near Northampton, and remembered searching for enemy aircraft from a tower in his hometown. “Enemy submarines were coming close to our coasts and sinking ships by our shores,” he said, explaining that American ships were loaded with oil and supplies for Allied forces.
The Civil Air Patrol was founded Dec. 1, 1941, a week before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Snyder said. There were members who used their own planes to fly anti-submarine missions off the East and Gulf coasts. They also conducted search-and-rescue missions, assisted in pilot training, conducted patrols of the border and ferried supplies and personnel.
By 1943, the CAP’s coastal patrols had flown 86,685 missions totaling nearly 244,600 hours. More than 70 planes sent out from coastal patrol bases crashed, and 26 CAP members were killed. Another 39 died during search-and-rescue mission across the nation, said Cox.
At age 17, Snyder became a pilot and flight officer while in the patrol. He learned how to fly a single-engine aircraft. “My flight instructor did a loop on the first flight, and that got my interest,” said Snyder, letting out a laugh.
“I’ve done many loops since,” he said, crediting his patrol training for his success in the Air Force, which he joined in 1949. He went through advanced fighter pilot school, and during the Korean War, Snyder flew 100 combat missions in a P-51 fighter.
Snyder, who has flown 70 different aircraft, has survived five plane crashes, including one in 1953 when he was piloting an F-84G fighter plane that crashed during a blizzard in Canada.
“I survived 18 hours at 16 below zero because the rescue party could not find the crash site. I crashed four miles from the airbase. I fractured five vertebrae, had crushed ankles and a head injury,” said Snyder, adding that he had 10 days left in the Air Force.
He underwent numerous surgeries, and it took nearly two years to heal. He moved to Tucson in 1954 because he developed arthritis. He attended the University of Arizona, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in physical anthropology in 1956, a master’s in 1957 and a doctorate in 1959.
At the Applied Research Laboratory of the College of Engineering at the UA, Snyder did experimental research on human spinal tolerances, designed astronaut restraint systems, and designed a light aircraft crash facility for dynamic occupant crash protection studies.
Snyder eventually went to work for the Federal Aviation Administration in 1960, and combined his aviation and biomedical background to improve flight safety, and how to better protect people in plane crashes.
His research led to new designs in aircraft seats, seat belts and structural components.
He also improved vehicle safety as manager of biomechanics at the Ford Motor Co. in 1966. His research was internationally recognized by awards from the National Safety Council, Society of Automotive Engineers, Flight Safety Foundation, Aerospace Medical Association and American Academy of Forensic Sciences.
Snyder was inducted into the Health and Safety Hall of Fame International in 1993, and into the Arizona Aviation Hall of Fame in 1998.