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The Ghost Blimp L-8 and the Unexplained Disappearance of the Two US Navy Pilots

BY Sonal Panse February 2, 2019
Ghost Blimp: U.S. Navy L-8

Ghost Blimp: U.S. Navy L-8. (National Archives)

Many strange events occurred during the Second World War and many of them remain unexplained till date. This is the case with the US Navy Blimp L-8, whose two-man crew disappeared without a trace in 1942. Despite a widespread search and a thorough investigation, the US naval authorities could not come up with any plausible and adequate explanation of why, when, and how the crew had abandoned the blimp and what had happened to them.

The mystery of the Ghost Blimp L-8

On 16 August 1942, at 6:03 a.m., US Navy Blimp L-8 took off from Moffett Field on Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay on a routine mission. It was a clear day, with a calm sea, and you wouldn’t have known there was anything amiss with the world.

The Second World War was raging in Europe, Asia, and Africa, and the United States. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, United States was paranoid about being on the receiving end of Japanese attacks on the West Coast mainland. The L-8 was instructed to patrol the coast and look for Japanese submarines that might be lurking in the Pacific Ocean. The two-man crew was equipped with a .30 calibre machine gun and 300 rounds and two Mark 17 depth charges. If they spotted the enemy’s submarines, they were to make every effort to destroy them.

The L-8 flight was to last for four hours, after which the pilots were to return to Treasure Island to refuel and then go back on another patrol. At 7:38 a.m., the crew radioed their base to report that they had spotted an oil slick in the water four miles to the east of the Farallon Islands. They said they were going to investigate the area for possible submarine presence. That was the last radio contact the men made, but a Liberty ship, Albert Gallatin, and a fishing trawler, Daisy Grey, saw them after this time. The blimp had dropped two smoke-producing Mark IV float-lights or flares at 7:42 a.m. to aid them in better scrutinizing the area. The personnel on the ship and the trawler later informed the naval authorities that the blimp had patrolled the area for about an hour and they had seen the L-8 descend to 30 feet above the water surface at one point. The fishing trawler hurriedly pulled up its fishing nets, fearing that they would be ruined if the blimp unleashed one of its depth charges against a lurking Japanese submarine. Nothing alarming happened, however. No Japanese submarine appeared and, after the flares, the L-8 did not drop anything else into the ocean. The blimp and its crew looked perfectly alright to the watchers on the Albert Gallatin and the Daisy Grey. There was no indication of any kind of trouble.

Sometime after 9 a.m., the L-8 dumped ballast, rose back up in the air, and began its return journey to Treasure Island. Many eyewitnesses saw it on this return journey. None of them thought there was anything wrong with the blimp, although a few did notice it sagging in the middle.

There was no further radio contact, however, and the attempts of the naval base to establish contact came to nothing. They were not much alarmed since it was common for radio connections to fail on occasion. In addition, the pilots were experienced and had enough fuel to return to base. Even so, at 8:50 a.m., when they still hadn’t heard from the L-8, they sent two Vought OS2U Kingfisher floatplanes to conduct a search and informed other planes in the area to report to them if they saw the blimp.

A few reports soon trickled in. The pilot of a Pan Am Clipper called at 10:49 a.m. to say he had seen the L-8 over the Golden Gate Bridge. Then, at 11 a.m., one of the Kingfisher floatplanes reported they had seen the blimp ascend to 2000 feet three miles to the west from Salada Beach. Later, the pilot of an Army P-38 saw the blimp near Mile Rock. In all these sightings, the L-8 appeared to be in fine fettle.

The next person to see the blimp was Richard Quam, a Navy seaman who was off-duty and was driving along the coastal highway to spend the day on the beach. He thought something didn’t seem quite right with the blimp. There was a noticeable bend in its middle. He took a photograph out of sheer curiosity. The naval authorities later confiscated his camera film.

Ghost Blimp L-8 sagging in the middle. (National Archives)

When the blimp came inland, it was eight miles off course to the south of San Francisco. After nearly touching down on the Ocean Beach near Fort Funston, it continued onward and crashed into a nearby cliff. There was only one bather on the beach at the time and he reported later that the impact against the cliff dislodged a 325-pound depth charge that rolled out of sight down the hill. The impact also bent the starboard engine’s propellers. Considerably lightened by the unloading of the depth charge and although with a V-shaped sag in its middle, the blimp rose up into the air and continued onward.

The blimp passed over the Olympic Club golf course, astonishing a crowd of golfers. One of the golfers looked at the blimp through binoculars and told the naval authorities later that he had seen two men in the gondola. After passing over Lake Merced, the L-8 went over the Daly City BART station and Mission Street. By now, hundreds of people had spotted the blimp and, as it was now visibly deflating and appeared to be in trouble, they had begun running after it.

Soon the L-8 began losing height and, after scraping over rooftops and nearly getting entangled in telephone lines, it crashed into a house in Daly City and then landed in the middle of a street. The now deflated gas bag of the blimp draped over a car – the owner had been cleaning it just minutes before the blimp’s descent and had fled for his life when he saw it coming down on him – and the upturned gondola touched down gently and drew up against a telephone pole. When the onlookers rushed to it, they discovered there was no one on board. The door had swung open, with no sign of the safety bar, and two of the three life jackets were missing; since it was mandatory for the crewmen to wear life jackets at all times while on board, the life jackets had obviously disappeared along with the men that were wearing them. One of the crewmen’s hats was still there though, dangling on the controls, and a briefcase that contained secret codes was still locked in place. Also, on board were the rubber life raft and the three parachutes – putting into doubt the claim of one eyewitness that he had seen a parachute drop out of the blimp earlier; nobody was found in the reported area, despite a thorough search.

L-8 – The Ghost Blimp

The L-8 was manufactured by the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company for promotional purposes. It was 150-foot-long and had a 47-foot diameter. It could hold around 123,000 cubic feet of helium and could attain a speed of 43 knots. It was powered by twin 145 horsepower Warner Super Scarab Type 5 engines.

When the United States entered the Second World War, the Goodyear company bowed to the US Navy’s requisition order and presented the L-8 and four other blimps to the US Navy to help with the war effort. The navy refurbished the L-8 and made it a part of the lighter-than-air Airship Patrol Squadron 32. They used the L-8 for sending supplies to offshore ships and to patrol the coast. The blimp and its gondola were in excellent condition. The blimp had made 1,092 trips without encountering any problem, and, moreover, it had undergone a thorough inspection prior to the flight.

L-8 blimp being used to deliver supplies

L-8 blimp being used to deliver supplies to the USS Hornet. (U.S. Navy)

On that fateful day, the L-8 had been ordered to fly to the Farallon Islands, turn northward to Point Reyes, turn southward to Montara, and then turn back over the Golden Gate Bridge to Treasure Island.

The L-8 crew

The two-man crew were Lieutenant Ernest DeWitt Cody, 27, and Ensign Charles E. Adams, 35. They were both married, were experienced pilots, and had impeccable career records. They were both described as level-headed and competent.

Lieutenant Cody had graduated from Annapolis in 1938 and was not as experienced as Adams in piloting lighter-than-air flights. He had logged only 756 hours of such flights. Adams, on the other hand, had 20 years of experience in manning lighter-than-air flights and had logged 2,281 hours.

However, what he lacked in experience, Lieutenant Cody made up in determination and skill. Earlier in the year, in April 1942, he had delivered a 300-pound cargo of plane spare parts for the B-25 bombers to the USS Hornet; the vessel was carrying the bombers to Japan to carry out bombing raids over Tokyo. To deliver the cargo successfully, Lieutenant Cody had to hover over the ship, keeping the blimp steady, quite a piloting feat. He received a promotion for this successful cargo delivery.

Search for the missing L-8 crew

A widescale search was launched on air, land, and sea to find the missing crewmen, but they were never found. The naval authorities, under Commander Francis Connell, investigated the incident, and, in their seven-day-long inquiry, questioned civilians as well as naval personnel about what they had seen of the blimp on the day that its crew disappeared. Despite all the eyewitness testimonies, they could not come up with a reasonable explanation about what had happened. There was no sign that the blimp had been shot down or caught fire anywhere. Nor were there any sign that it had touched down at sea since its underside was completely dry and was dusty as well. There were also no signs of a fight or any other misconduct by the crew or a stowaway within the gondola.

A year later, with now new findings coming to light, the Navy closed the investigation, marking it as a 100% unknown and undetermined case, and then they legally declared the two missing men to be dead.

Theories about what happened to the L-8 crew

No one knows conclusively what happened to the two crewmen. Their bodies were never found, and nobody heard anything about them. How could they have disappeared without a trace in a busy city like San Francisco, and, moreover, right under official and public scrutiny? If anything had gone wrong, why hadn’t they radioed to inform the base? The radio, after all, was in perfect working order. There was no way they could have lost radio contact. Which meant they had either chosen not to make radio contact or they hadn’t been in the position to use the radio.

Over the years, people tried to come up with various explanations for their mysterious disappearance. According to one theory, it is likely that they climbed out of the gondola to carry out some repair work and fell to their deaths. Another theory is that perhaps the gondola door wasn’t barred as it should have been, and it swung open in mid-flight and they fell out. Perhaps the two men had a disagreement over flying the L-8 or over a woman they both like, and things grew violent and out of control and, in shoving one another, they ended up falling together out of the gondola.

Naval authorities dismiss these theories as nonsense. Cody and Adams were professional navy men and knew how to conduct themselves on a mission. Also, according to the code of operational technique, the airship crew was not supposed to bail out from the blimp when everything was working perfectly. Also, if they had fallen and died, the search teams ought to have found their bodies. Certainly, they couldn’t have fallen into the ocean, since many eyewitnesses reported seeing two men in the gondola as the blimp moved over San Francisco.

So, what could have happened to the airmen? Maybe they decided they wanted no part of the killing theatre that was the Second World War and went AWOL. Perhaps they were spying for Japan and escaped on a Japanese submarine. That again goes against the eyewitness testimonies.

Or, maybe, the Japanese submarine they were looking for, found them instead and forced them to jump at gunpoint. The Japanese then put their own men in the gondola and these were the men that onlookers saw from the ground below as the blimp coasted over San Francisco. What happened to the Japanese usurpers then? Perhaps they bailed out before the L-8 crashed and then they melted away into the city crowds to begin a spying operation against the United States. Well, that sounds exciting but not as exciting as the claim that it may have been Extra-Terrestrial Aliens that abducted the two men. Or that a shark jumped out of the water when they descended to look at the oil slick and grabbed them both.

Another theory put forward by researcher Otto Gross, is that, rather than looking for submarines, the L-8 was, in fact, conducting radar tests. Cody and Adams were knocked unconscious by the microwave radiation and, as the gondola door was improperly fastened, they probably fell out of the gondola. The US navy and army were conducting several top-secret research programs at this time, so there may be something to this theory. Given the secretive nature of the program, the bodies of the two men may have been retrieved and disposed off without informing the public.

What happened to the Ghost Blimp L-8 afterwards

The L-8, after being repaired, was returned to active service shortly after the disappearance of the crewmen. After the war ended, the Navy returned it to Goodyear, who refurbished it and began using it for promotional purposes once again. They renamed it America and it was in operation until 1982. The gondola of the L-8 is now on display in the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola in the Florida Panhandle.

Enjoyed this article? Also, check out “Hindenburg: The Tragic Death of World’s Biggest Commercial Airships“.

Recommended Visit:
Naval Aviation Museum | Pensacola, USA

Fact Analysis:
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