With the fatal crash into the sea of the USS Akron in 1933, and the USS Macon disaster in 1935, America’s brief love affair with rigid-frame dirigibles pretty much came to an end, much to the chagrin of the U.S. Navy which had invested heavily in the enterprise. (See HOME COUNTRY Nov. 2009.) It was not though, the death of the “Air Ship”, and fortunately the non-rigid, much smaller “Blimp” with its collapsible Helium-gas-filled air bag survived, even if in largely-experimental and small numbers. Although its commercial future seemed limited, this LTA (lighter-than air) “cousin” was soon to show great promise as a coastal patrol vehicle.
In the first six months of World War II alone, German U-boats sank 410 Allied ships, most within sight of the New Jersey shore, and it suddenly dawned on a gravely-diminished U.S. military that at that rate, the Nazis would put us out of business within a year. Then, reminding us that we were in a two-ocean war, Japanese submarines showed up on our west coast, the I-17 actually shelling an oil refinery near Santa Barbara with short-range deck guns.
Headquartered at Lakehurst, New Jersey, and later, Moffett Field, California, the humble Blimp was about to become our first line of defense against the U-boat onslaught, capable of remaining aloft for many hours while keeping an eagle eye on hundreds and even thousands of square miles of ocean. They excelled in spotting enemy submarines, but really came into their own as escorts for Allied convoys transiting dangerous waters. In fact, no ship was ever lost to a submarine attack while being escorted by Blimps whose relatively slow speed, wide range, and accuracy in dropping depth charges caused the enemy to reconsider the wisdom of their Battle of the Atlantic strategy. (In fact, it was our aviation superiority that led the Germans to develop the snorkel.)
When hostilities began the U.S. Navy possessed only a handful of Blimps, mostly type “L” training craft, and fewer than 100 trained pilots and crew. With an emphasis on the larger type “K” model, the Goodyear Rubber plant at Akron, Ohio began a manufacturing effort which would change history. By 1944, there were fifteen Blimp Squadrons with 1,500 pilots and 3,000 air crewmen on both coasts and abroad flying nearly 200 Blimps with a near-perfect safety record while making 56,000 operational flights. Only one Blimp was shot down by enemy fire, and that because its bomb failed to release during a low-level attack on a U-boat.
There was however one other loss; that of the L-8 out of Moffett Field, California. And because until this day, it remains a mystery which has never really been solved, it is a story worth telling.
Early on the morning of August 16, 1942 the Blimp L-8 lifted off from Treasure Island with Ensign Charles Ellis Adams as pilot, and Lieutenant JG Ernest Dewitt Cody, an experienced dirigible pilot making his first Blimp transitional flight at his side. Citing weight concerns, they left Aviation Mechanic Petty Officer Riley Hill who should have been the third crew member behind.
As they passed behind Farallon Island, about 25 miles away and around 7:30 AM, they radioed base with a report that they were investigating what looked like an oil slick on the surface. No follow-up report was ever received and that initial message would be the last contact with L-8. About four hours later, the L-8 returned to view, flying low and with an obviously compromised inflation level, finally crashing into a house in a residential neighborhood of Daly City. Its passenger cab, otherwise intact was empty, its crew nowhere to be found. The radio and all controls were in good working order and the door secure, yet all efforts to find the lost crew, on land or at sea revealed no clue of what might have gone wrong, even though fishing boats in the area had observed the airship maneuvering offshore throughout the day.
Both Adams and Cody left behind wives and family who would be told that their men were officially “missing”. They would finally be declared “dead” one year later. The blimp L-8 would be repaired and put back into service. Pieces of it lie in a museum display today . . . all that remains of the “ghost” ship mystery of WWII.
A WWII K class Blimp flies anti-submarine escort duty over a convoy bound for supply-hungry European Allies.
Remains of the L-8 “Ghost Blimp” lies crumpled and empty in Daly City, CA on August 16, 1942.
Once capable of housing up to eight WWII Navy Blimps, the 21-story high Tillamook, Oregon airship hangar, now an aviation museum, remains the largest wooden single-span building in the world.