The Vanishing Of The Ghost Blimp Crew
During World War II, one of the most perplexing mysteries to occur was on the morning of August 16th, 1942, when two US Naval pilots seemingly disappeared without trace from the cabin of their original airship, while conducting a routine flight off the coast of California. What could have caused two highly trained military men to leave an airworthy ship in mid-flight? In this post, we analyze the Ghost Blimp.
The Attack On Pearl Harbor
World War II is arguably one of the most documented and revisited wars from history. However, many of the events that took place during this war remain secluded from the purview of many Americans. Some may be surprised to hear that both Japanese and German naval forces conducted attacks near or on the United States mainland, primarily against American ships along its Atlantic and Pacific coastlines. While a series of following events would result in the unusual disappearance of two US blimp pilots later in August, Japanese submarine activity likewise resulted in another mysterious loss on December 7th, 1941- that of a number of Merchant Marines and soldiers far out at sea.
Ten minutes before the attack began on Pearl Harbor, 1,200 miles away, a Japanese First class submarine surfaced and opened fire on the SS Cynthia Olson, a US Army lumber freighter midway on her route between Washington State and Hawaii. After dozens of shells fired from the submarine's deck gun hit their mark, the Olson became the first US ship to be sunk by the Japanese Empire. The last to see them alive, Japanese records report that the captain of the attacking sub later surfaced and provided food rations to the surviving Americans and their lifeboats. However, despite the Olson's radio operator remaining on the ship and successfully transmitting their final position to nearby ships and shore stations, none of the 35 crewmembers were ever seen again.
Prior to the start of the attack on Oahu, Japanese submarines were positioned near the entrance of Pearl Harbor, in order to intercept any American vessels attempting to maneuver out into open water. Three days later, nine of the available twelve Japanese submarines were then instructed to pursue and sink an American aircraft carrier on its way to the US Mainland. They were then to move to strategic attack points- Harbor entrances and shipping lanes- along the US shoreline. Over the following week, from December 18th to the 24th, Americans would witness a number of Japanese attacks on US Merchant vessels, very near the shores of California. The submarines will remain on location, prowling the coastline until the last week of February.
During this time, at least half a dozen American merchant and cargo vessels were attacked, with a number of their crew members being killed or abandoning their sinking ships; some with their lifeboats then riddled by Japanese deck-guns. Although the Japanese had initially planned to bombard American coastal cities, such as Los Angeles, submarine commanders feared the Americans' increasingly accurate anti-submarine retaliations. The only land target to be attacked was the Ellwood Oil refinery, located about 80 miles northwest of Los Angeles, near Santa Barbara.
As many Americans now feared mainland attacks during the uncertain conflict, the United States Navy proposed to Congress the development of a lighter than air (LTA) program for routine anti-submarine patrolling of the coast and harbors. Equipped with two Mark 17 depth bombs and a .30 caliber machine gun, these are ships were more than capable of sinking any Japanese subs they might locate.
The Ghost Blimp Crash
By August of 1942, dirigible patrols had become a common observance along California's coastline. However, in the late morning of August 16, as a lone swimmer prepared to enter the water, he was startled to see a blimp emerging from the now dissipating morning fog, flying dangerously over the water right towards his position. Quickly moving out of blimp's way, he watched as the airship bounced off the sand, then careened into a steep embankment. One of the two depth charges broke away on impact. Now free from the weight of the charge, it lifted into the sky and drifted back out of sight.
Thousands of eyewitnesses soon watched as this crippled airship now listed slowly over the San Francisco peninsula. With its helium bag leaking, it eventually descended to the ground, grazing several rooftops and power lines before landing in the street on the north east end of Daly City. Having pursued the drifting airship for some time, firefighters, police and city officials arrived quickly on the location, joined by other residents and curious observers.
An immediate search baffled the investigators; the blimp was missing its crew. The door had been latched open, a microphone hooked to an external loudspeaker dangling out of the open hatch. Aside from the damage to one of the engines during its several impacts, nothing about the ship was out of order. The engine was on and the throttle was set to the idling position. The radio was turned on and in working condition. The life raft and three parachutes were still in the cabin on their hooks. There was no apparent evidence of foul play.
Last Sighting of the Love-8 Blimp
The Airship, referred to by its designated number as Love-8, had departed the nearby Naval Station Treasure Island shortly after 6:00 a.m. that same morning, piloted by 27 year old Lieutenant Ernest Cody and 32 year old Ensign Charles Adams; both were considered skillful fliers. The first hour and a half of flight was uneventful, taking them over the Golden Gate Bridge, out over open water towards the small Farallon Islands, 30 miles offshore.
At 7:38, when they were within four miles of the islands, the men radioed their position. A few minutes later, having spotted a suspicious oil slick (a possible indication of Japanese submarine activity), they alerted their squadron's headquarters of their intent to investigate it. This was the last anyone ever heard from either of these men. Crew members aboard two ships floating nearby the location of the reported oil slick, a cargo ship named the SS Albert Gallatin and a fishing trawler made the Daisy Gray, later reported their eyewitness accounts in lieu of Cody and Adams inexplicable radio silence.
About the same time, Love-8's pilots had radioed their investigation of the oil slick, 7:42 am, both ships witnessed two smoke flares dropped from the blimp into the water. The pilots would have used these flares to mark a spot of interest; for instance, the location of an enemy submarine, which could then be targeted by American bomber planes. The Gallatin crew immediately sounded an alarm and manned their deck guns, quickly moving their ship away from the area, in case there was a submarine.
The Daisy Gray was much closer, enough for the first mate to see the two pilots inside the gondola, and even distinguish their hair color. They immediately began reeling in their fishing nets in anticipation of the airship dropping a depth charge onto an enemy sub. There were no bombs dropped. In fact, while they remained in place watching the blimp, none of the now keenly observant Daisy Gray crew saw anything fall from the aircraft other than the two initial flares. For over an hour they watched in trepidation, some with binoculars, as the blimp continued to serve the location, between two hundred to three hundred feet over the water. At one point, the Airship descended to less than 30 feet above the waves, as if its crew wanted a closer look.
Men on the now departing SS Gallatin said it looked as though it was almost sitting on top of the water. Then shortly after 9 a.m. Love-8 a drop ballast, rose and headed back toward San Francisco. Since blimps regularly patrolled the coast line, nobody watching thought L-8's movements seemed unusual, but that was possibly the last time Cody and Adams were ever seen.
For some reason, the pilots had maintained radio silence during this hour and a half. Their command back at base was growing concerned. By the time the Airship was witnessed leaving the location of the reported oil slick, all aircraft in the vicinity have been notified to be on the lookout for a potentially distress blimp and to report any sightings immediately. Two Kingfisher floatplanes had also been deployed to search for the airship.
The following series of L-8's movements and its reported sightings are confusing, to say the least, as they make little sense when placed chronologically. This could be either due to the entirely baffling nature of this event, or the possible alterations in the multiple retellings of this story over the last 80 years. Indeed, many of the available news articles and television series which have covered this "Ghost Blimp" story simply avoid mentioning L-8's whereabouts from the time she left the oil slick after 9 a.m., until she was seen by the lone swimmer colliding with the embankment on Ocean Beach and dropping one of her depth charges at approximately 11:15 a.m.
This version of the story would make it appear that during those two hours, Love-8 simply drifted 30 miles back with the wind, presumably in an uncontrolled manner, since both pilots may have fallen out while the blimp idled over the oil slick. Yet this seems unlikely for a number of reasons, including that the blimp was witnessed as flying in a controlled manner and there do appear to be multiple sightings of the blimp between these two points of time.
An hour and a half after departing the oil slick, at 10:49 am, the pilot of a Pan American Clipper plane reported, seeing the blimp flying over the Golden Gate Bridge. Nothing seemed unusual, L-8 appeared to be under control and heading back in the direction of Treasure Island. It is possible that a nearby P-38 pilot also reported seeing her nearing the bridge around the same time. However, no given timestamp appears to exist for the P-38 pilot's report and other retellings of the story seem to simply include this particular sighting as an afterthought. The P-38 pilot apparently reported the same information as the Clipper pilot; The blimp was flying normally-nothing unusual. If these two sightings go to the bridge are in fact true, L-8's next reported sighting is then almost impossible to comprehend.
The Kingfisher floatplanes, presumably still searching along Love-8's originally planned route over open ocean, were possibly then informed that the blimp was spotted near the bridge and redirected their course in that direction to get eyes on for themselves. At 11 a.m. ,ten minutes after being seen over the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the Kingfisher pilots finally spotted the blimp. Strangely, Love-8 was nowhere near where her previously reported flight path should have taken her.
The Kingfisher pilot further stated that the blimp was acting unusually, as it was now rising through the overcast disappearing into the cloud cover at nearly 2,000 feet when he spotted it. That day's weather conditions would have meant the blimp's automated pressure release valves would activate somewhere between twenty one hundred and twenty-five hundred feet. Once the maximum altitude had cost enough its helium to be vented, the now crumpled Airship then would have descended.
If accurate, this reported sighting by the Kingfisher pilot is bizarre. Despite having just been reported as flying East over the Golden Gate Bridge, back towards Treasure Island, L-8 now appeared to have doubled back, as she was now almost 15 miles Southwest from the bridge, three miles off shore over the Pacific Ocean. While some minutes must be accounted for in the delay of the previous radio transmissions, the reported times of these sightings and Love-8's inexplicable changes in flight pattern are seemingly impossible as if the blimp was suddenly capable of moving at incredibly high speeds, or that it could be two places at once.
When departing and returning from the Farallon islands, for the trip to have taken an hour and a half in both directions-from just after 6:00 a.m. until 7:42 and then its return starting just after 9:00 a.m. until 10:49, the blimp would have been traveling at a low cruising speed of around 20 miles per hour. At least on the first leg of the trip, out to the islands, this is a logical speed for the pilot to have maintained. If not only to conserve fuel, they would have wanted to move at a speed slow enough that would allow them to observe the water below them for enemy submarines.
It is unknown whether the pilots were still aboard when the blimp was heading back towards land. However, since it was later found with the engines set to idle, it is not clear how the blimp could have maintained a consistent 20 mile per hour speed on the trip back, unless there were strong enough winds or unless it was in fact being piloted.
In any case, L-8's maximum airspeed was just over 60 miles per hour, in excellent weather conditions. For the blimp to have traveled 15 miles Southwest of the Golden Gate Bridge in less than 10 minutes, it would have to be moving at a speed of somewhere between 85 to nearly 100 miles per hour, which would have been impossible.
If the Kingfisher pilot's reporting is accurate, and L-8 was three miles off of Solana Beach at that time, it then apparently again reversed course, drifting over six miles back Northeast. This movement, at least, is presumably an accurate assumption since strong winds may have pushed the idling and now deflated blimp inland until it eventually struck Ocean Beach.
When it later crashed in Daly City, the blimp was found with only four hours of fuel remaining. Having started her patrol with 12 hours worth of fuel, the only rational explanation is that at some point, one of the pilots intentionally dumped over 30% of the airship's fuel. But why? This procedure was considered highly unusual, unless for some reason the blimp needed to rise in a hurry by suddenly and drastically increasing buoyancy.
The substantial fuel dump may explain why the blimp was seen disappearing high into the cloud ceiling like a child's balloon, meaning the loss of fuel then occurred sometime between 10:49 and 11:a.m. while the Airship somehow traveled the impossible distance from the Golden Gate Bridge to three miles off of Salada Beach. This increased buoyancy could further be explained by the loss of the two men on board, although multiple eyewitness accounts appeared to contradict this notion. Those individuals claim to have seen men moving around inside the gondola even after the blimp was already deflated and drifting offshore.
Commonly Suggested theory for the Ghost Blimp
As our minds attempt to make sense of this mystery, many will gravitate to the commonly suggested theory that, due to a number of possible causes, at some point one of the men fell from the gondola. Possibly occurring at the site of the oil slick, the could explain the aircraft circling low over the water for over an hour. As the door was latched open with the loudspeaker handset dangling out of it, the remaining pilot may then have been leaning out of the door, using the loudspeaker to attempt to locate or communicate with the fallen man, now in the water.
The second man then possibly fell when he either lost his grip on the Gondola, or otherwise falling during his attempts to locate and rescue his companion. As the waters surrounding the Farallon Islands appear to attract one of the largest aggregations of great white sharks in the world, arguably these waters are dangerous enough for anyone to fall into, even if they did survive the impact and or wearing a life jacket.
Though clearly the most plausible explanation, this theory begins to fall apart due to conflicting eyewitness reports, especially those of the blimp's seemingly controlled flight pattern back towards San Francisco, as witnessed by the Daisy Gray and the pilots who spotted her near the Golden Gate Bridge. In addition, some have suggested that the two flares were dropped, not to mark an enemy submarine, but to mark the position of the first man who had fallen. While logical, this theory is contradicted by the Daisy Gray crew reporting that the flares dropped at 7:42 am, approximately the same time that one of the men was also radioing their base command, informing them of the oil slick.
Even further, journalists interviewed several individuals who witnessed the airship in the sky, appearing wilted as it aimlessly drifted 50 feet over the water offshore. At least two separate individuals, a 17 year old boy at an unknown location and a young woman riding horseback near the beach where the blimp first crashed, tracked its slow movement to the beach with their binoculars and claimed they could see figures moving inside the cabin. The woman stated she was "quite sure" she saw at least three men inside.
Still more contradicting are the reports-one from the golf course near where the blimp crashed in to the beach-that a man was seen parachuting out of Love-8 while still over the water. Moreover, the Navy issued a statement that their investigation showed no possibility of the men being in the craft at any time during its derelict flight over land.
Another theory is that the pilots had in fact spotted an enemy Japanese sub and descended to investigate it. It is speculated that they were then captured, and either killed or taken prisoner on board the submarine. The first question is why they would have done instead immediately dropped their depth charges, rather than risk such a dangerous and seemingly pointless investigation. And if this theory were true, who flew the blimp back to San Francisco, as witnessed by the crew members on the Daisy Gray and the pilots who spotted Love-8 nearing the bridge?
Another theory is that the two men were involved in a Lover's triangle with an unknown woman. According to this theory, one had murdered the other in a jealous rage and then fled when the blimp reached land. This theory to seems an impossible dramatization. Although the intentional or unintentional murder of one of the pilots gives credibility as to how one of them may have initially fallen, it fails to explain the eyewitness accounts, the strange movements of the airship and at what point the second pilot could have escaped the craft while airborne.
If this were remotely true, then he may have jumped to his death out of guilt, or possibly survived the jump into the water and spent the rest of his life hiding in exile for fear of the consequences. The most contradicting aspect of this latter theory is to ask why the offending pilot would not simply explain his companion's death as an accident? More inexplicable suggestions are that both men were working together on a scheme to go AWOL, abandoning their military duty, or that they may have been spying for the Japanese.
Possibly the most sensational is that they were in fact abducted from their craft by alien intervention. A theory that does not appear to have yet been suggested is the paranormal theory of dimensional, or time, slippage. Three years after the disappearance of Love-8's pilots, five US Navy torpedo bombers, designated Flight 19, took off from Fort Lauderdale, Florida and failed to ever return. Those pilots reported experiencing compass malfunctions, and disorientation prior to their final radio transmissions. If Love-8's radio was found to be working and the pilots were onboard the Airship, why would they have maintained radio silence, unless there was possible electromagnetic interference with their transmissions?
Could the airship's seemingly impossible movement from over the Golden Gate Bridge to where it was then seen, miles away drifting into the clouds, be explained by a dimensional shift? And as the men seem to disappear, or even reappear with an additional companion inside the gondola, does their possible movement between dimensions compare to that of other urban legends? Such as in 1954, when a man arrived by plane in Tokyo from an unknown country called Taured, later mysteriously disappearing out of a locked room while being held in Japanese police custody?
As with these specific location of such myths as the Bermuda Triangle, what if the Farallon Islands, known as "The Devil's Teeth", have some form of paranormal influence of their own? As of today, Ernest Cody and Charles Adams are not the only men to mysteriously disappear in proximity to these small rocky islands off the shores of San Francisco. Jim Gray was, and remains, a commemorated computer scientist, having received the Alan Turing award in 1998 for his significant contributions to Global computer systems. He was also an experienced sailor. On a calm clear weather day in early 2007, he notified his family that he intended to sail to the Farallon Islands to scatter his mother's ashes. Like Cody and Adams, he was never seen again.
As with Love-8's pilots, an extensive Coast Guard search nearly 132,000 square miles of ocean turned up nothing. Advanced sonar scanning of 300 square miles of ocean floor between the Golden Gate Bridge and the islands turned up several wrecked ships;
an underwater robotic camera confirmed that none were Jim's sailboat. Questions are raised as to why, if he was shipwrecked, he did not radio a distress signal. Further to this, the Coast Guard confirmed his ship would have been equipped with an emergency GPS beacon which should have activated when exposed to seawater. No signal was ever received, nor has any firm explanation been determined as to how an experienced sailor and a 40 foot sailboat could simply disappear.
While near all explanations for these and other such mysterious disappearances often produce more questions than they answer, ultimately we find our thoughts are with the families and loved ones of the lost. It is they who will possibly spend their years wondering what truly happened far beyond what can be said any of our own curiosities. We wish nothing but fair winds and following seas to these men. May their families find peace.