The Riddle of the L-8 Blimp
The L-8 blimp, c.1942
US Navy photograph
It was a foggy Sunday morning in San Francisco, in August of 1942. The United States was at war with Japan, and coastal defenses along the western coast of the US remained on high alert for prowling Japanese submarines. A daily chore in San Francisco was a sortie by a naval blimp to look for subs outside San Francisco Bay. Today's flight of the L-8 started no differently, but the way it ended has kept people talking for more than 70 years.
Unlike a rigid airship, a blimp is just an inflated bag with no structure to help it keeps its shape. Only a few hours after it left, the craft was seen drifting in from the ocean, sagging terribly into a V-shape. Some swimmers at the beach tried to grab it by its hanging control lines but failed. It bounced up the cliff side — dangerously dislodging one of its depth charges and stopping both its engines in the process — and continued its aimless drifting over the San Francisco peninsula. Soon it became entangled in some power lines and finally came to rest in the middle of an intersection in Daly City. As bystanders ran to help, the mystery became immediately evident: there was nobody on board.
The obvious suggestions came right away. Perhaps the men fell out. Perhaps they jumped out, either to commit suicide or to go AWOL. Maybe they got in a fight and threw each other out. Maybe one fell, and the other also lost his grip trying to help him. Maybe they had found a Japanese sub, and were forced to jump out at gunpoint. Nobody could really come up with any better guesses than these, and still to this day, the Navy hasn't either.
The L-8 had been a Goodyear advertising blimp until it was turned over to the Navy for the war effort. It was a solid ship, with a strong history and no real problems, and had successfully managed severe weather in the past. Its mission today was its usual daily patrol: to launch at 6:00am from Treasure Island, a large, flat, manmade island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, and from there to fly a large figure-8 pattern outside San Francisco Bay. The pattern went straight out to the Farallon Islands, a group of rocky prominences fifty kilometers out into the Pacific Ocean from the harbor entrance. From there they were to head for Point Reyes, about 30 kilometers north, and then about 65 kilometers south to Montara, a point south of San Francisco, and then back up to the Golden Gate and land at Treasure Island. The trip usually took four to four and a half hours, and would be repeated after refueling. The men were trained to look for Japanese submarines, and were equipped with two Mark 17 depth charges in case they found any, and also a pistol and Browning .30 caliber machine gun. The gondola was a pretty comfortable affair, fully enclosed and still equipped to accommodate Goodyear passengers. You'd be no more likely to fall out of it than you would from a family car.
Of course, the Navy convened a board of inquiry, the transcript and findings for which are all available online. Findings were slim; questions were many. However the sequence of events was more or less put together. All went according to plan until 7:42am, when Cody made his final radio transmission, that they were going to investigate a possible oil slick. Crew aboard two boats in the area — a fishing vessel called Daisy Grey and a US liberty ship, the Albert Gallatin — reported seeing a blimp descend to a low altitude and circle the same area for nearly an hour. It was reported that at one point, the blimp dropped a flare. Afterwards, the blimp turned toward San Francisco — not where it was supposed to go, but the shipboard witnesses didn't know that.
By 10:30 the L-8 was overdue, and the Navy put out a radio call asking aircraft if they saw a stray blimp. Its position was reported at 10:49 by the pilot of a Pan-Am Clipper flying boat; at 10:53 by an Army P-38 Lightning fighter plane; and at 11:00 by another Navy plane that observed it rise to about 2000 feet and then descend. All these observers reported that everything seemed to be OK, with no indication that the L-8 was not under control, and they all placed it on its way back toward the Golden Gate. That's when it was seen, crumpled nearly in half, coming down onto the beach, and striking the cliff. Relieved of the weight of a 325-pound depth charge, it rose again and finally came to rest in Daly City. The Navy personnel got there around noon, and the questions began to be asked. What had happened to the crew?
The pilot was Lt. Ernest DeWitt Cody, 27, the experienced usual pilot of the L-8. He'd had a "15 minutes of fame" moment a few months before in connection with the famous Doolittle Raid, in which 16 carrier-launched B-25 bombers struck Tokyo. On April 4, 1942, Cody flew the L-8 out from San Francisco to meet the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, which was loaded with the bombers. The Hornet had steamed out of port two days previously, and L-8 went out to deliver a crate containing 300 pounds of delayed spare parts for the planes.
Also aboard was Ensign Charles E. Adams, 38, a twenty-year veteran of airships. Adams had been present at the crash of the Hindenburg in 1937 and was among those who rushed in to pull out survivors. He had official commendations for his gallant conduct appended to his permanent service record, including a note of thanks from General Hermann Göring himself. Neither of the L-8's crewmen was a slouch.
The condition of the L-8 when it came down only served to deepen the mystery. There was plenty of weight still on board, including fuel, that Cody and Adams could have jettisoned if they were in any trouble, and no indication that they'd tried to do so. Everything on board, including three parachutes, a life raft, tools, etc., were still stowed precisely where they should be. Although both engines had been stopped and were slightly damaged when the L-8 first struck the cliffs, the fuel and ignition to both were still on. Its radio was functioning and set to the proper frequency.
Of all the items still on board, the most remarkable was a briefcase of classified documents, which Lt. Cody had carried on as was done every day. This briefcase was heavily weighted, and standing orders were for the briefcase to be thrown overboard into the ocean in the event of any emergency. Evidently no emergency had taken place.
What was missing, on the other hand, were two of the five water-activated smoke bombs the blimp carried, called Mark 4 float lights. If you did spot a submarine, you'd toss one of these where you saw it, and it would make a flame and thick black smoke for about two minutes. This is almost certainly what was observed by the witnesses on the boats.
Relieved of the weight of two crewmen, the blimp would have risen until it reached its pressure-height altitude, which was between 2100 and 2500 feet on that day. An automatic vent opened to release helium to keep the blimp from bursting, and it descended. So its appearance of being sagged into a V-shape was exactly as expected.
One the most talked-about pieces of evidence is the door. L-8 had a single side door, which was always safety locked from the inside during flight, and was confirmed to have been so by the ground crew. But at the crash site, the door was open; and not just open, it was opened all the way so that a catch engaged which held it open. Other pilots testified that it would be virtually impossible to do this from inside during flight. Thus, a lot of speculation has surrounded the position of the door.
However, common sense reveals that this is not remarkable. Somehow Cody and Adams did get out, and so the door was no longer safety locked from the inside when the L-8 came down. It landed in a busy intersection in Daly City, and many people were on hand. The first thing they did, which was long before police or the Navy arrived, was open the door to render help. The gondola was at a sharp angle facing nearly straight up, and the door would have to be swung up to open it. It was only natural for first responders to swing it up into the catch position. It would have been more surprising if the door had not been in this position by the time the Navy arrived.
There are some popular hypotheses and re-tellings of what happened to be found on the Internet. Some suspect that a stowaway may have been on board, who perhaps overpowered Cody and Adams. But this is impossible, as the gondola is quite small with no possible place for anyone to hide. It's also posited that perhaps, while flying low to look for the source of the oil slick, waves had gotten into the gondola and washed the men out. But the L-8 had definitely not come into contact with the water, as proven by hollow spaces in the bilge of the gondola and the lower fin both being bone-dry and containing dust which would have been washed out.
At the conclusion of its investigation, the Navy offered its own best-guess of what might have happened. Somehow Ensign Adams opened the door and fell out. Maybe he was airsick, maybe they were horsing around, maybe he was trying to get a better view of the oil slick, who knows. Lt. Cody tossed out the float lights to mark his companion's position, then circled low and, perhaps upon finding him, stopped the engines. In some circumstance, while single handedly trying to control the blimp and retrieve Adams, Cody fell out himself. I can't think of anything that better fits the evidence. Perhaps deploying the life raft for Adams would have taken one hand more than Cody had available, and it's not surprising that making a radio report was lower priority than saving your buddy's life.
But the simple fact is that we don't know, and we can't ever know exactly what two men did in that small car over the Pacific Ocean on that grim day. It's consistent in every way with an honest accident. There is no foul play, no Japanese submarine, no alien UFO abduction, nor anything else extraordinary needed to explain what could just as easily be explained by a single moment of human inattention. We can't know the circumstances, but we do know that Cody and Adams ultimately slipped beneath the waves; and for that, we have for them today a few lines of the naval aviator's hymn that they knew so well:
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