Save the Blimp Base

From this Naval air station airships hunted U-boats in the Florida Keys.

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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."

The shootdown of K-74 is the only recorded combat loss of a blimp during the more than 500,000 hours of patrols flown worldwide during the war.

The sawgrass is whipping through the open windows of a Hummer, the civilian version of the burly military Humvee. Alan Crockwell, an amateur historian who volunteers his time to a growing effort to preserve Richmond's headquarters building, guides the vehicle to a flat table of asphalt surrounded by pine trees. We've parked where one of Richmond's three blimp hangars once stood-massive 1,086-foot-long structures made of wood beams and hung with sliding iron doors, whose graceful roofs arced to 183 feet.

As the war drew to a close, the base's K-series blimps were joined by new M-series ships that the Navy tested here. But in September 1945, scarcely two months after the war was over, the base was called upon once again to face down an enemy lurking at sea-a hurricane tracing a lazy path through the Caribbean. At the time, hurricane prediction was a shaky science at best-all that was known was that the storm would likely strike the state, but it was unknown where it would come ashore. Military aircraft-Grumman F6F Hellcats, Corsairs, and P-51 Mustangs, among others-were flown from nearby bases and from the deck of the USS Guadalcanal to the refuge offered by NAS Richmond's sturdy and cavernous blimp hangars.

The storm came ashore on the mangrove-entwined coast of south Florida, cut a swath across southern Dade County, and tore through Richmond NAS. The hangars, which stood close together and were stuffed with blimps and hundreds of fighters and bombers, withstood the winds. But one of them caught fire, perhaps from a short circuit. Witnesses reported seeing the winds drive flames horizontal, and eventually all three hangars were ablaze, lighting the night sky with burning wood, aircraft, and fuel. When the rain stopped, only the smaller buildings and the hangars' concrete corner pillars were standing.

About John Sotham
John Sotham

A former associate editor of Air & Space, John Sotham is a hopelessly nearsighted frequent flyer, with thousands of hours logged in exit rows worldwide. He is a retired U.S. Air Force Reserve colonel and a former crew chief on the F-4D Phantom II and A-10A “Warthog.” He started collecting aviation books when he was eight years old. Any opinions expressed are solely the author’s.

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