Ghost blimp’s enduring mystery: How did crew vanish before Bay Area crash?

Shortly before noon on an August Sunday in 1942, a solitary bather on a beach near Fort Funston looked up to see a strange sight.

A Navy blimp was approaching the beach at extremely low elevation. As the observer looked on in consternation, the 147-foot-long dirigible touched down on the beach, rose briefly into the air, then smashed into a hill, bending the propellers of its starboard engine and dislodging one of its 325-pound depth charges, which rolled down the hill and out of sight.

Now considerably lighter, the sagging, V-shaped blimp — one observer said it looked like a “doubled-up wiener” — rose into the air and drifted inland, passing over astonished golfers on the Olympic Club golf course. It sailed over the southern end of Lake Merced, then past what is now the Daly City BART Station, and crossed Mission Street near the top of the hill. Hundreds of people began following as the errant blimp continued its journey.

Drifting east over the Crocker-Amazon neighborhood near the San Mateo-San Francisco county line, the airship began to lose elevation. It scraped rooftops and hit telephone lines before touching down in front of a house at 419 Bellevue Ave., at the base of Mount San Bruno in Daly City.

Ghost blimp’s enduring mystery: How did crew vanish before Bay Area crash?

The Chronicle reported that a crowd of 2,000 “looky-lous” arrived at the scene almost immediately, joining military personnel, police and residents who came out of their houses to see what had happened.

The blimp had landed in the middle of the street, with its upturned gondola resting against a telephone pole, its engines pointed at the ground. Its huge gasbag had deflated after the impact and was draped over a 1928 Dodge sedan, whose owner had been waxing it and fled when he saw the enormous airship descending on him.

The gondola doors were swinging open. The blimp had touched down so gently that its crew members could have walked away unharmed.

But there was no trace of them.

Ghost blimp’s enduring mystery: How did crew vanish before Bay Area crash?

The search for an explanation was recounted by John J. Geoghegan in “Mystery of the Ghost Blimp,” an article that appeared in the November 2014 issue of Aviation History magazine.

Navy blimp L-8 had taken off from Treasure Island at 6:03 a.m. on that wartime Sunday, Aug. 16, on a coastal antisubmarine patrol. At the controls was Lt. Ernest DeWitt Cody, 27; the junior officer was 35-year-old Ensign Charles E. Adams. Both men had exemplary service records, were married and lived in Mountain View. The airship, armed with two depth charges and a .30-caliber machine gun, had made 1,092 trips with no major problems and had just been inspected.

Ghost blimp’s enduring mystery: How did crew vanish before Bay Area crash?

L-8 was part of Airship Patrol Squadron 32, the first lighter-than-air squadron established after Pearl Harbor. Originally part of Goodyear’s fleet of advertising blimps, L-8 and four other blimps had been requisitioned by the Navy and shipped to Moffett Field.

The Sunday flight started out routinely. Skies were clear. L-8’s route was to fly out to the Farallon Islands, head north to Point Reyes, turn south to Montara and then circle back to the Golden Gate Bridge.

At 7:38 a.m., L-8’s crew radioed that they had seen an oil slick 4 miles east of the Farallones. A Liberty ship and a fishing boat in the area observed the blimp descending to within 30 feet of the water to get a closer look. Blimps were a common sight, so the crewmen on the ships took no special notice.

Soon after 9 a.m. L-8 dumped ballast, rose into the air again and headed east. That was the last that was ever seen of its crew.

Ghost blimp’s enduring mystery: How did crew vanish before Bay Area crash?

After L-8 crashed, authorities initially theorized that Cody and Adams had bailed out over the ocean. A member of the Olympic Club said he had seen what looked like a parachute descending from the blimp about a 1½ miles out at sea.

But all three parachutes were still aboard the blimp, as was its rubber life raft, and a search of the area where the parachute was supposedly sighted proved fruitless.

Various scenarios were put forward to explain the crew’s disappearance. Maybe the blimp hit a hill and the impact either threw Cody and Adams from the airship or they leaped, fearing imminent death. Or perhaps the blimp was struck by a sudden, violent downdraft, descended almost into the ocean, and the men impulsively decided to jump.

Ghost blimp’s enduring mystery: How did crew vanish before Bay Area crash?

But airship veterans deemed both theories unlikely. As Cmdr. Donald Mackey, commandant at Moffett Field, said, “Staying with the airship has become a code of operational technique with the lighter-than-air men.”

Adding to the mystery was the fact that the blimp’s radio was still working, yet no distress transmission had been received.

After searches from air, land and sea found no sign of Cody and Adams, the Navy convened a board of investigation. It determined that the airship had not been shot down, had not burned or touched down in the ocean, and that its crew had not engaged in misconduct.

The U.S. had entered World War II in 1941, and the Navy deployed blimps to do routine submarine patrols along the coast. This blimp, called the L-8, belonged to the Navy and had departed from Treasure Island, a manmade naval outpost in the San Francisco Bay, early that morning. It was piloted by two men, Lieutenant Ernest DeWitt Cody and Ensign Charles E. Adams, both men with years of experience aboard lighter-than-air ships. They were in good spirits and health on the morning of the 16th, a colleague reported at an inquest just days after the incident.

Earlier that day, a short message was radioed from the blimp to Treasure Island: “Am investigating suspicious oil slick—stand by.” An oil-slick could be a tell-tale sign that a submarine was in the area. It was the last message the crew would send.

Even though the gondola was eerily intact, there were a few odd things about the state of the blimp (aside from the fact it was crewless and run aground in a city street). The door was open and fixed by a latch to the outside of the car to keep it open. Typically, this door would never be opened during flight and it could only be opened from the inside by the crew.

The engines were stopped, which suggested that maybe the pilot wanted to slow the blimp down. On every flight, the crew would bring a weighted briefcase of classified documents with them, and in case of emergency, they were to hurl these overboard. The briefcase remained, which suggested there was no emergency or that whatever had happened took place so quickly that the men couldn’t react.

“Theories abound as to why Cody and Adams vanished,” Geoghegan writes. “They were captured by a Japanese sub; they were spying for Japan and rendezvoused with an I-boat to escape; a stowaway overpowered the two men and then somehow vanished as well; their disappearance was an AWOL scheme gone wrong; one crewman murdered the other over a woman, dumped his body, then fell overboard himself; a rogue wave swept both men away; and L-8 had temporarily dipped into the ocean, washing away both men. The perennial favorite, of course, is that Cody and Adams were abducted by aliens.”

Ghost blimp’s enduring mystery: How did crew vanish before Bay Area crash?

The L-8 did not go unobserved before it plunked down on Bellevue Street. Civilians and officials spotted the ship, including a member of the Navy’s Armed Guard Unit, who was aboard the cargo ship Albert Gallatin. During the inquest, he told his interviewer that he had watched the blimp circle nearby waters above two flares (which the Navy determined had been dropped by the blimp)—behavior consistent with investigating an oil slick.

“We figured by that time it was a submarine,” said Wesley Frank Lamoureux. “From then on, I am not too positive of the actions of the dirigible except that it would come down very close over the water. In fact, it seemed to almost sit on top of the water.”

Believing there might be a submarine nearby, the Albert Gallatin sounded their general alarm, manned their guns and sped away from the scene. The last Lamoureux saw of the blimp, it had pulled its nose up from the water, apparently preparing to ascend.

Puzzling witness accounts found their way into the press and added to the air of mystery surrounding L-8. A telephone operator named Ida Ruby was out for a horse ride near the beach when she spied the blimp through binoculars. She told United Press that she was “quite sure” she saw three men in the gondola. An official testified at the inquest there was no possibility of a stowaway.

Ghost blimp’s enduring mystery: How did crew vanish before Bay Area crash?

A New Jersey man named Otto Gross, who has been researching the L-8 case since 2009, maintains on his website that the blimp was secretly testing radar, and that the crew members were overpowered by inadequately shielded microwaves and fell out of the gondola. But Geoghegan maintains that this theory is speculative, since no proof has ever been found that L-8 was testing experimental equipment.

To the rescuers’ befuddlement, the gondola of the blimp was unmolested. The pilot’s parachutes were tidily put away in their normal spot, the lifeboat remained. The cap of one of the pilots still sat on the instrument panel. The blimp was in perfect working order, down to the radio. There was even a bomb still attached to the blimp, and naval officials would later assure everyone that there was never any danger because it would only detonate in water. (This is fortunate, because a second bomb did not remain attached—it tumbled from the blimp and landed on a golf course near San Francisco.)

Geoghegan believes that the most likely explanation is that one man fell overboard while inspecting the oil slick or repairing an engine, and that the other fell into the sea trying to rescue him. Possibly a defective door latch could have contributed to this outcome.

A year after Cody and Adams disappeared, they were declared legally dead.

L-8 was repaired and after the war returned to Goodyear, which renamed it “America” and sent it to sporting events around the country until 1982, when it was retired.


Mary Greeley News