The Crash of Navy Blimp L-8
16 August 1942
The tide of war in the Pacific was turning. The Doolittle raids on the Japanese home islands demonstrated the American resolve to fight & win and, in June of 1942, the naval battle at the Midway Islands dealt a crushing defeat. But, with the defense of the Pacific Coast of the United States as a chief priority, and with the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor still fresh in the national mindset, the need to identify and destroy the threat posed by enemy submarines was critical to preventing another ambush on American soil.
Key to this defense was a strategy utilizing 'dirigibles', otherwise known to most as 'blimps'. Their ability to remain in one spot for longer periods, and their capability to go long periods without refueling, made them excellent observation posts to monitor for submarine activity in the coastal waters. The U.S. Navy purchased the Goodyear blimp Ranger in 1940. But, the United States entered the second World War, and the airship built by Goodyear to replace the Ranger was also sold to the Navy, and commissioned the L-8 on March 5th, 1942, as a part of Blimp Squadron 32 (ZP-32), based out of Moffett Field, near Sunnyvale in California, under the auspices of Fleet Air Wing Five.
The 'Eye in the Sky'
Sunday, August 16th, 1942, started like any other summer day by the San Francisco. The cool fog of the summer morning had caused the fabric of the blimp's coverings to become inundated with excess moisture, adding additional weight to the aircraft. In response, the flight plan was amended to reduce the crew size from three down to two in order to save weight. Aviation Machinist’s Mate 3rd class James Riley Hill was turned away from the flight.
At 6:03 in the morning, naval blimp L-8 took off from Treasure Island, located in the center of San Francisco Bay, with its crew of two. The pilot of this sortie was Lieutenant Ernest DeWitt Cody. Cody was a 1938 graduate of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, and had arrived at Moffett Field only five months earlier in March with his wife, Helen. Having been promoted in the previous June, the 27 year-old was in charge of the safe operation and flight of the blimp.
Joining Cody on the flight that day in August was Ensign Charles E. Adams. Having only been sworn in as a naval Ensign the day before, this was his first flight as a commissioned officer, despite having over 20 years of enlisted experience as a boatswain with lighter-than-air vehicles. The 38 year-old was thoroughly versed with the business of the balloon service - "Stay with the ship." Originally from Lakehurst in New Jersey, he also lived in Mountain View with his wife.
The mission was a relatively simple one: Conduct an anti-submarine patrol of the coast of California , going from Treasure Island to the Farallones, a chain of small islands 30 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge, then to Point Reyes, and return the blimp back to Moffett Field.
An hour and a half into the patrol, at 7:42 A.M., Cody radioed to base that he and Adams had located a possible oil slick in the water, and were going to further investigate. This was to be the last transmission received from the crew of the L-8.
At 11:15, later that same morning, bathers and fishers on the beach near the Olympic Club's Lakeside golf course saw the L-8 soar in from the sea. Caddies at the Lake Merced Golf & Country Club witnessed the blimp disappear behind two hills, and then rise again after a brief snag on a cliff on Ocean Beach. This snag gouged the cliffside, causing the starboard engine to be packed with dirt, and bending the propeller blades. Also, one of the two depth charges on board the airship broke free from it's rack, and fell to the ground at the Olympic Club's golf course. The shore patrol of San Francisco called the Navy at Moffett Field, and informed them that a blimp had accidentally dropped a depth charge on dry land.
The first person on the scene was William Morris, a volunteer fireman who lived in the house the L-8 crash-landed right in front of, and had watched the course of the blimp from his front door. Morris rushed to aid the crew which surely must be inside the gondola of the blimp, but as he approached it , he noticed something a touch unusual. "The doors were open and nobody was in the cabin."
Volunteer firefighters tore the blimp's envelope open to see if the crew might somehow be trapped inside, but they were nowhere to be found. The fabric of the balloon flattened out, stretching across the road and draping over an automobile owned by Richard Johnson, Morris' neighbor, as hundreds of spectators gathered.