Save the Blimp Base
From this Naval air station airships hunted U-boats in the Florida Keys.
- By John Sotham
- Air & Space magazine, September 2001
(Page 2 of 4)
Fleet Airship Wing Two was formed at newly built NAS Richmond to cover the Caribbean. On July 18, 1943, K-74 and K-32 lifted off their concrete pads and rose over south Florida for a routine patrol. K-74 was headed for the upper keys, while K-32 was to fly farther out to sea, turn south toward Key West, and finally head north again. Later that evening, both airships would be in position to keep watch over a tanker and freighter scheduled to pass from the Gulf of Mexico through the Florida Straits to the open Atlantic.
Blimp patrols were mind-numbingly boring, lasting as long as 12 hours. Armed with a single .50-caliber machine gun and four depth bombs hanging from racks beneath their control cars, the craft were hardly intended for heavy combat. Their crews were ordered to monitor the positions of friendly ship traffic and report any sightings of U-boats, which could then be attacked by warships, if any were in the area, or by fighters from Naval Air Station Key West.
K-74's skipper, Lieutenant Nelson Grills, commanded a crew of nine: co-pilot Jay Jandrowitz, navigator Darnley Eversley, mechanic J.L. Schmidt, bombardier Isadore Stessel, radiomen Robert Bourne, J.M. Giddings, and John Rice, gunner G. Eckert, and seaman J.W. Kowalski. As the craft took up its station over the straits, U-boat U-134 was running on the surface and recharging its batteries, its crew on deck enjoying the fresh night air. The blimp's crewmen first saw two blips on their radar, clearly the merchant ships they were monitoring. Then, near midnight, they saw a third blip. They moved forward to investigate. And there it was: a German submarine, on the surface and headed in the direction of the two merchant ships. There was no time to marshall aircraft to intercept the sub. Grills descended to 250 feet and opened the throttles to bring the blimp to its maximum speed.
"We were in a tough spot...," Grills told Anthony Atwood in 1997. "We decided that the best we could do was see if we'd draw fire. We felt that saving those ships was worth the blimp."
The German crew saw K-74 and opened up from the conning tower with a 20-mm cannon. Grills' crew returned fire. As the blimp passed over the submarine, the sub's deck gun shot up its envelope and damaged its engines, which caught fire. According to Atwood, the crew released their depth bombs, but as the airship's aft section passed by the submarine, K-74 took more fire and began to lose altitude. Within minutes, it settled into the waves and U-134 slipped away into the night.
The crewmen scrambled out of the control car's hatches and inflated their life preservers, but their raft floated away before they could board it. Within minutes, one of the merchant vessels K-74 had been monitoring cruised past, oblivious to the recent battle. Its sailors didn't see the blimp's crewmen in the water, clinging to each other to stay together. Radioman Bourne had managed to send a message to Richmond before the blimp went down, and by morning, a rescue aircraft spotted the men and directed a rescue ship to pick them up. But Isadore Stessel had become separated from the rest, and as he waved to the aircraft, he was attacked and killed by a shark. Grills had become separated too. It wasn't until later that evening, after spending close to 20 hours in the water and fending off another shark, that he was finally spotted by K-32 and rescued.
Grills and his crew were initially under a cloud of disapproval for attacking the sub against orders and for the loss of the blimp. But after the squadron commander interviewed the crew, Grills, and later the rest of the crew, received the Purple Heart. It wasn't until 1961-after analysis of German records revealed that K-74 had damaged U-134-that Grills received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Still, vindication for one member of the crew was slower in coming. It took 40 years for the Navy to give a commendation medal to Isadore Stessel's family. "It was a bunch of 19- to 20-year-old kids in a blimp risking their lives," says Saul Stessel, Isadore's cousin. "They did damage that sub-the radio contacts give evidence that the blimp hurt them and they could not submerge. It was [later] attacked by a Navy Avenger [torpedo bomber], and it got as far as Spain until it was attacked by a [Royal Navy] Liberator and sunk."