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The Forgotten Blimps
of World War II

CTC Edward E. Nugent, USN (Ret)

 Anyone who has ever seen a group of blimps will, I believe, remember the occasion.

For me it was during World War II when our family went from Leavenworth, Washington, where we lived, to Shelton because my cousin was home on leave from the Coast Guard.  He took me to see the blimps at the Naval Auxiliary Air Station at Shelton and told me how they were being used.  I don't remember anything he said but I never forgot the sight of those lighter than air airships.  The main operating base of squadron ZP-33 was Tillamook, Oregon, but I am sure at least six of the squadron's eight airships were at Shelton that day.

That memory stayed with me and one regret of my Navy career is the fact that I only had a token contact experience with blimps.  When I served as Beachmaster at NAS Pensacola, bringing in PBM's that stopped by, my collateral duty was Petty Officer-in-charge of mooring blimps (at the "old" Chevalier Field) that came down from Lakehurst, New Jersey.  Recently, blimp pilot, LT C. Donald Lee, USNR (Ret.) gave me access to an NAS Lakehurst information booklet from 1946.  This material was invaluable in our effort to revive the lighter than air (LTA)  story.

The need for a fleet of airships was recognized before our entry into World War II.  Four successive chiefs of the Bureau of Aeronautics had called for such a non-rigid airship program.  Their names are remembered but their "requests" were ignored.  They were RADM's Moffett, King, Cook and Towers.

Finally, in June 1940 the 76th Congress passed Public Law 635 for a 10,000 plane program which included a provision for 48 non-rigid airships.  When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor six months later the only airships in service were training airships.

That total included four K-type patrol airships built between 1938-41, three small L-type trainers built in the same time frame, a single G-type trainer built in 1936 and two old TC-type Army trainers built in 1933.  Only six (the K and TC types) were large enough for sea service, but the L ship would be used for coastal patrol.  The only operational base was at Lakehurst, New Jersey.

Even people who lived through those early war years have forgotten the toll taken by enemy submarines.  The merchant ships sunk numbered in the thousands with 454 sunk by German U-boats in 1942 in our Atlantic coastal area.  Many of these sinkings were within sight of land, sometimes during daylight hours while swimmers on the beach watched in disbelief.  By 1943 the number of sinkings was reduced to 65, eight in 1944 and only three in 1945.

The reduction was in direct ratio to the development of LTA operations.  No ship escorted by a blimp was ever sunk.  We hasten to add that this antisubmarine program was a partnership operation that developed using blimps the small CVE "jeep carriers," PBY Catalina squadrons and other patrol squadrons.  The aircraft however, could not be watching over these merchant fleets all the time, as the blimps could.  The blimps often could do the job themselves with their limited fire power and depth charges.  When needed they could call for aircraft from the CVE assigned the area.  The system worked very well.

The account of one German U-boat well illustrates how critical was the need for a rapid development of a large airship program.

German U-123 was commanded by a 28 year old named Reinhard Hardegen. He led a group of five U-boats to the eastern seaboard to begin their attacks 13 January 1942.  Each sub carried 15 torpedoes and 180 rounds of artillery for their gun mount.  When he returned to occupied France he had sunk nine ships.  He began another cruise 10 April 1942 and by the time he returned to France again, he had sunk a total of 19 ships on the two cruises.  More than 400 ships were thus sunk in the first six months of 1942.

The initial operation of which U-123 was part was named Operation Drumbeat.  Michael Gannon, author of the book "Operation Drumbeat," is extremely critical of the Navy and particularly ADM King.  Our purpose here  is not to respond to Mr. Gannon in defense of ADM King.  However, a message sent to the Secretary of the Navy, 12 February 1940, from RADM Ernest J. King would seem to refute charges that RADM King had no understanding nor appreciation for the threat of submarines.

"The restatement of Naval Policy recommended by the General Board in February 1937 reaffirmed in October 1939 is considered sound, viz: to build and maintain non-rigid airships in numbers and classes adequate for coastal patrol and other essential Naval purposes."

The execution of this recommendation began 12 December 1941 by order of the President.  The losses of 1942 were a result of unrealistic down sizing of the military, not poor leadership after the war began.

The Pacific Coast was not immune from the submarine menace.  The SS Medio* was the first merchant ship sunk by a Japanese sub on 20 December 1942 off the coast near Eureka, California.  A Japanese sub actually shelled oil derricks north of Santa Barbara, California on 23 February 1942.  Early in the evening, 15-25 rounds struck the United States.

When the war began there were only 100 LTA pilots, including retired, reserves and students.  There were also only 100 qualified enlisted air crewmen.  by 1944 this number reached 1,500 pilots and 3,000 air crewmen.  The number of administrative support personnel grew from 30 officers and 200 enlist in 1941 to 706 officers and 7,200 enlisted in 1945.

Airship operations first expanded from Lakehurst to Moffett Field, California when ZP-32 was established 31 January 1942, with two TC's and two L's.  ZP-12 was established at Lakehurst 2 January 1942, also with four ships.  This was the beginning of fleet airship service in defense against submarines.

Fleet Airship Wings were steadily added up and down  both coasts with squadrons ultimately stationed in Jamaica, Brazil, Trinidad, then across the Atlantic to Port Lyautey, French Morocco and Gibraltar.  These latter two operating bases not only protected the Strait but the entire Mediterranean Sea.
 

World War II Fleet Airship Wings and Squadrons

Wing

Squadron

NAS Main Base

# Airships

One

ZP-11

South Weymouth, MA

8

"

ZP-12

Lakehurst, NJ

8

"

ZP-24

Weeksville, NC

8

"

ZP-15

Glynco, GA

8

Two

ZP-21

Richmond, FL

15

"

ZP-22

Houma, LA

4

"

ZP-23

Vernam Field, Jamaica, BWI

4

Three

ZP-31

Santa Ana, CA

12

"

ZP-32

Moffett Field, CA

12

"

ZP-33

Tillamook, OR

8

Four

ZP-41

Sao Luiz, Brazil

8

"

ZP-42

Macelo, Brazil

8

Five

ZP-51

Trinidad, BWI

8

 

SQD-14

Port Lyautey, French Morocco

6

 

Util SQD-1

Headquarters, Key West, FL

8


 
 

People who served in LTA rightfully boast of their aircraft's dependability.  Airships assigned to fleet units were 87 percent available "on line" at all times.  35,6000 operational flights were made in the Atlantic and 20,300 in the Pacific, for a total of 5550,000 hours in the air escorting 89,000 ships loads with troops, equipment and supplies.  Additional hours were flown by utility squadrons using K-ships and G-ships providing photographic calibration and torpedo recovery services.

LTA records reflect only one airship lost through enemy action.  This loss was the night of 18 July 1943 when K-74 was advised that no enemy sub was in her assigned patrol area.  However, K-74 detected a sub by radar and engaged it on the surface in the Caribbean.  A gun duel briefly silenced the German fire, but the airship's bombs failed to release while over the U-boat, where upon she was brought down by the submarine's gunfire.  K-74 floated for hours and all the crew but one were picked up the next day.

Perhaps the loss of L-8 should be a part of this "short list."  The strange account was once featured on the TV series "Unsolved Mysteries" because the ship returned but not the crew.  L-8 was a part of ZP-32.  On 16 August 1942, the ship took off from Treasure Island, California with ENS Charles Ellis Adams as pilot and LTJG Ernest Dewitt Cody, a qualified dirigible pilot, making his first flight in a blimp.  An aviation mechanic Riley Hill was to make the flight but just prior to takeoff was told he didn't need to go.  In retrospect he believes heavy moisture which had saturated the blimp's covering gave cause for concern in having three men aboard.

The flight was to proceed over Treasure Island, go west about 25 miles to Farallon Island, then north to Point Reyes, then to Moffett Field.  After one and one half hours into the flight, at 0730, L-8 radioed they had spotted a suspicious oil slick and were going to investigate.

That message was the the last heard from L-8.  At about 1120, San Francisco shore patrol called Moffett and reported a blimp had come down near a gold course bounced off a hill losing a depth charge.  She then bounced back into the air and came down in downtown Daly City.  No one was on board the airship.

The Navy assumed that due to a problem one of the two men had crawled outside and gotten into trouble whereupon the other officer tried to help and both fell to their death.  That explanation, however, ignores the last radio transmission that they were investigating a "suspicious" oil slick.  It does not explain the microphone that was for the external loud speaker dangling out the open door.  The flight of L-8 remain a mystery to this day.

Rescue was another area in which blimps distinguished themselves.  Captain  F.B. Baldwin, USMCR, an ace with five Japanese aircraft to his credit, was one of the first people to be picked up and lifted directly into an airship car.  He had crashed off the coast of California on a training flight.  Many a survivor of sunken ships gratefully remembered the rations and medical supplies lowered to them from K-ships which then called for surface craft to pick them up.  Since the airships had a galley this often meant hot food, which was welcome in the North Atlantic.

When World War II ended there were 15 blimp squadrons in operation, patrolling about three million square miles of water.  Since blimps had played such a significant role, it was appropriate that airships of SP-12 participated in the sinking of the last U-boat destroyed in World War II.  The pressure maintained by airships against German U-boats forced the introduction of the Snorkel, which is when some would say the German U-boats became a true submarine.

LTA blimp squadrons continued in the U.S. Navy after World War II at an ever decreasing level until the 1960's when they faded from the scene.  The Goodyear blimp at sporting events is the main reminder we have of the glory days of LTA.  Current plans by Germany's Zeppelin may revive rigid airships for luxury air transportation.  But it appears doubtful non-rigid blimps will make a comeback, unless it would be for the famine relief programs, which appears will be with us for some time to come.  No I haven't heard anyone suggest it but I keep hoping there's a good reason to bring back the blimps.

Originally published in Foundation Magazine, Spring 1995, a publication of The Naval Aviation Museum Foundation.  Used by permission of the author and NAMF. 

*web bos'n note:  Correct name of the ship was SS Emidio. See U.S. Merchant Marine WW2 Merchant Ship Losses Off site location.

 

 
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