PEOPLE in the town of Daly City, California, just south of San Francisco, were shocked and surprised when a sagging blimp dropped in on them on a summer’s morning.
It was August 16, 1942, 75 years ago today, when residents saw the L-8 blimp wafting aimlessly, first over the beach, before lifting to drift inland where it struck a hill.
One of the “bombs” attached to the craft broke loose and rolled down the hill onto a golf course. Players avoided going near it, fearing it could explode, not realising that it was a depth charge designed to only detonate underwater.
Word quickly spread of the stricken airship. People gathered in the streets to watch as the blimp drifted over homes, the gondola striking powerlines, sending out sparks but, fortunately, not igniting the aircraft’s fuel tanks.
The balloon now punctured, the blimp crashed to the ground, tail first into the street. People rushed in, heedless of their own safety, to rescue the crewmen they assumed would be stuck inside. But they found no one.
The gondola was empty and apart from two missing life jackets, which the crewmen were required to wear at all times, and a hat on the control console, there was no sign of the pilot Lt Ernest DeWitt Cody and his co-pilot Ensign Charles E. Adam.
Cody and Adam had taken off about 6am from Treasure Island, an artificial island once home to a world’s fair but converted into a navy base. Before the war the aircraft had been a Goodyear blimp but had been bought by the navy, was given the designation L-8 and commissioned in March 1942.
Japanese submarines had been menacing shipping off the west coast of the US since shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, which had drawn the US into the war. The Japanese sub I-17 had even shelled an oil facility in Ellwood near Santa Barbara in February.
L-8 became part of America’s anti-submarine patrols in the waters off the coast of California. Its primary role was to look for the subs, report them and if possible try to sink them. The blimp carried depth charges and was fitted with a machine gun to dispatch the enemy vessel.
As a lieutenant, 27-year-old Cody was the ranking officer on the aircraft, a graduate of the US Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1938, but the 38-year-old Adam, who had only become an ensign the day before the flight, was the far more experienced pilot.
Adams had 20 years experience with lighter than air aircraft and had even rescued people from the Hindenburg when it crashed in 1937.
A third member of the crew, machinist Riley Hill, had been scheduled to take the flight but the fog over San Francisco made the blimp too heavy so Hill stayed on the ground. It lifted off through the mist on a routine mission that would take it southwest of the city towards the Farallon Islands, then north as far as Port Reyes, a cape jutting into the ocean about 50km northwest of San Francisco, then back to Treasure Island; a round trip of about four hours.
At about 7.40am Cody reported a suspicious oil slick, dropped two float lights (a smoke flare to mark the spot) and went to investigate.
Ships in the water below, fearing the blimp was about to drop depth charges, steered clear of the area. One of them, a fishing trawler, pulled in its nets. But the L-8 dropped no bombs. It continued to circle the area and crews on the boats reported being able to see the men in the gondola through their binoculars.
After that nothing more was heard from the crewmen and the blimp was not sighted again until it drifted over land at 11.15am before crashing in the street at Daly City. Rescuers found the cabin door open and no sign of Cody and Adam. All three parachutes were still in place and so was the aircraft’s life raft. The radio was still working and the blimp showed no evidence of being damaged by enemy fire. A major air and sea search failed to find any trace of the missing men.
The fact that they never reported in after investigating the oil slick suggests that whatever happened to the men must have happened at around that time, but nobody on the boats saw men jumping or falling from the aircraft.
A seemingly obvious explanation is that they simply accidentally fell out, but there is no evidence to confirm any theory and, in the absence of Cody and Adam or their bodies, the disappearance remains a mystery.