Just outside the fences of Miami's Metrozoo-a 740-acre park where sleek monorails glide above a faux African plain-sits a handsome two-story wooden building surrounded by tall grass. A few boards hang askew from its clapboard exterior, and the roof above its portico is held up temporarily with steel girders. To get here, we've threaded our cars through a forest of spindly pine trees to this reclaimed clearing, a journey that evokes an exciting sense of discovering something forgotten. Just outside the building's entrance, Navy Petty Officer John Smith yanks the cord on a portable generator, which coughs to life. A few lights flick on, and we head down a creaky hallway and enter a large storage room, where a slide projector sits on a table and overturned paint buckets serve as seats. It's hot in here.
We're inside what was once the headquarters of Naval Air Station Richmond, a blimp base hastily constructed in the early months of World War II. As the slide projector clatters, Naval Reserve Chief Yeoman Anthony Atwood narrates and two former crewmen, who launched on blimps near here, stand by to lend their voices to the story. The crewmen, Ford Ross and James Sinquefield, have joined a small band of enthusiasts organized by Atwood who want to restore the headquarters building and convert it into a museum.
As Atwood talks, his hands make shadows on the sepia-tinted photos flashing on the wall. "Richmond was eventually home to 25 K-series blimps, three hangars, and 3,000 men," he says. "The hangars were 16 stories tall, built of Douglas fir brought in by train. The blimps protected ship convoys in the Florida Straits, and [Richmond] was the headquarters for the fight against Nazi U-boats operating in the Caribbean."
Ford interrupts: "That's not a K-type blimp, Anthony, that's an M-type."
Atwood rolls his eyes. "Okay, okay, as I was saying...," he says.
The story proceeds, and the enthusiasm brims. Atwood, Ross, and Sinquefield tell me that except for this building, the only other above-ground remnant of the base is one of the massive hangars' corner pillars, which stands about 300 yards away. But other clues to the site's past are around, if you look carefully. Directly outside the building under the relentless sub-tropical undergrowth, Atwood's volunteers found a four-foot-wide Marine Corps emblem the Marines had placed next to NAS Richmond's flagpole. And the old ramp is in plain view-it's now part of the parking lot at the zoo. Families who've come for a nature experience exit their minivans where ground crew released the mooring lines that sent the lumbering blimps on their lonely patrols for German U-boats.
Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, enemy submarines began bringing the war close to the U.S. mainland. In late 1941, a Japanese submarine shelled a highway outside Santa Barbara, California, and on the Atlantic coast, U-boats would sink 574 U.S. and Allied merchant ships in 1942. When the war began, the U.S. Navy had only 10 blimps capable of coastal anti-submarine patrols. Soon more than 200 would join the fleet.
Most of them were K-type airships, powered by two Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp engines, which gave them a top speed of 77 mph. Their envelopes were three-ply cotton bags impregnated with rubber or synthetic neoprene. The interior was coated with paraffin to make it leakproof. Most of the K-ships were 252 feet long and held as much as 456,000 cubic feet of helium. But when deflated, the five-ton envelope could fit into a shipping box 12 feet long, six feet high, and six feet wide.
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.