Aviation

The Unsolved Mystery of the WWII Ghost Blimp

It had been only ten months since the United States entered World War II. The country was on high alert, particularly on the west coast. Fears of Japanese attacks prompted the authorities to warn citizens to be on the lookout for anything at all strange or out of place.

On Sunday, August 16, 1942, Richard L. Johnson saw something that most definitely fell into the category of “strange or out of place.” He was returning to his home in Dale City, California when he saw something above him. It was a massive object, bigger than a house, and it was slowly descending out of the sky.

As Johnson watched in fascination and horror, the object struck a utility pole, throwing electrical sparks in its wake. The mysterious object continued its descent, heading straight for Johnson’s house.

The scene after the crash of the L-8. Image via National Archives.

He jumped out of his car and ran to his house to help his mother get to safety. When he emerged a few minutes later, his car could no longer be seen. the bizarre thing from the sky landed on top of it, completely obscuring the vehicle.

As a crowd of emergency responders and curious (and frightened) neighbors gathered, they tried to make sense of the sight. It was as if someone had unceremoniously dumped a massive canvas tarp in the middle of the street, covering the car. It was only the gondola, resting askew on the pavement, that informed spectators that a blimp had crashed in the otherwise-unremarkable neighborhood.

Someone asked a question: “Where is the crew?” Eighty years later, that question remains unanswered. Little did Johnson and his neighbors suspect they were witnesses to one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of World War II — the mysterious Ghost Blimp.

The wreckage that fell upon Johnson’s car was the L-8 airship. The Navy acquired it from the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, and it entered into military service just five months earlier, on March 5, 1942.

The military made use of blimps to patrol the oceans and coastlines, keeping a watchful eye out for signs of enemy activity. Unlike a Zeppelin, a blimp does not have a rigid structure to hold lighter-than-air gas. It is, essentially, a large balloon that lifts the gondola with its crew and equipment.

The L-8 was, by all accounts, in excellent shape. It had performed over 1,000 trips without any mechanical problems of any significance. Just one month after entering service, the L-8 flew to the USS Hornet, supplying Lt. Col. James Doolittle and his crew for their historic bombing raid over Tokyo.

The men who piloted it on that fateful day had similarly-excellent records. Lieutenant Ernest Dewitt Cody was a 1938 graduate of Annapolis. At 27 years of age, he had distinguished himself with his professionalism. His commanding officer described him as “one of the most capable pilots and one of the most able officers” under his command. Cody piloted the L-8 on the supply run to the Hornet. He was promoted to Lieutenant, in part, because of the competence he showed on that mission.

Thirty-eight-year-old Ensign Charles Ellis Adams had 20 years of experience in flying lighter-than-air vehicles. Receiving his commission just one day earlier, the August 16 flight with Cody was his first as an officer and the first opportunity for the two men to fly together.

Their mission that day was routine. They were to depart from Treasure Island and patrol a 50-mile radius of San Francisco before continuing to the Farallon Islands and then returning to Treasure Island. They departed Treasure Island at 6:03 a.m. Aviators reported five miles of visibility.

At 7:30 a.m., Cody reported his position to Moffett Field. He advised they were about four miles east of the Farallon Islands. Four minutes later, he saw something that could be the sign of a submerged submarine. He radioed in, saying, “Am investigating suspicious oil slick—stand by.”

The crews of two civilian vessels, a fishing boat, the Daisy Gray, and a Liberty cargo ship, Albert Gallatin, nervously watched the L-8 descend toward the surface of the water. They reached for their weapons, in case the Navy airship’s actions were a precursor to an unwelcome visit from an enemy submarine. For the next hour, the crews of the ships watched the L-8 circle the area. The airship was so low that its two-man crew could be seen through the windows of the gondola.

About 9:00 a.m., the L-8 again ascended to its cruising altitude and resumed its route toward San Francisco. Those aboard the vessels below breathed a sigh of relief and returned to their previous activities.

Back and Moffett Field, anxiety levels were on the rise. Since 7:42 a.m., the L-8 had been silent. All attempts to raise radio contact were met with silence. Following standard procedures, two Vought OS2U Kingfisher floatplanes were deployed to look for the airship. Notices were sent to other aircraft to watch for the L-8 and to report its location.

Around 10:49 a.m., the first report of a sighting came in. The pilot of a Pan American Clipper spotted the L-8 over the Golden Gate Bridge. About 10 minutes later, one of the Kingfishers caught sight of it about 3 miles west of Salada Beach at approximately 2,000 feet. The altitude was a bit of a concern. Airships typically would fly higher over land for safety reasons, but it wasn’t necessarily a reason to panic. There may be perfectly good reasons for flying at that height — if only the crew could be reached to offer an explanation.

The L-8 airship visible sagging as it flew over Daly City. Image via National Archives.

Shortly thereafter, the pilot of an Army P-38 reported seeing the blimp, seemingly on its way back to Treasure Island. No obvious indications of malfunction or distress were visible.

A few minutes later, Richard Quam, an off-duty seaman, saw the L-8 as he was driving along the highway between San Mateo and San Francisco. He noticed that the blimp was bending in the middle and took a picture of the sight. Aside from the loss of communication, this was the first indication that something was seriously amiss.

Around 11:15 a.m. the L-8 was approaching the shore of Ocean Beach in San Francisco. The structure was clearly sagging, and the motors were silent. It briefly touched down on the beach before going aloft once more. It struck the side of a hill, dislodging one of its 325-pound depth chargers. Now substantially lighter, the aircraft rose again, clearing the hill and moving on.

By this point, thousands of witnesses saw the aircraft. Interviews with witnesses after the crash clearly showed that the crew was still in the vessel. Seventeen-year-old C.E. Taylor was watching events through binoculars and told reporters that two men were clearly visible inside the entire time.

By the time the L-8 made its final descent, landing on Richard Johnson’s car, the crew was nowhere to be found. When the rescuers got to the gondola they found the door open, the microphone for communication was hanging from the doorway, a hat was resting on the controls, and the life raft and all parachutes were still in place. As for Cody and Adams, however, there was no trace to be found.

The Navy launched a full search and rescue operation for the missing men. For the next three days, the shore where the L-8 briefly touched down and the coastline were searched extensively. No signs of the missing men and no indications of foul play were revealed.

Meanwhile, investigators examined the wreckage, looking for clues. Nothing made sense. The engines were in perfect running order with the ignition switches in the on position. Four hours of fuel remained in the tanks. The only unusual findings were that the batteries were drained and part of the fuel supply had been dumped out with no obvious explanation why.

A Navy board of inquiry interviewed thirty-five witnesses, with no one pointing to anything that would explain the mystery. Multiple eyewitnesses on the ground and at sea reported seeing both crew members through the windows of the gondola, with no indication that they were in distress. Nothing pointed toward the men falling or jumping out of the aircraft. Ultimately, the board found that “no fire, no submersion, no misconduct, and no missiles struck the L-8.” The thing that remained unanswered, however, was what happened on the L-8 between 7:42 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. that made two Navy officers stop communication and vanish before crashing their blimp in a residential neighborhood?

Eighty years later, we are just as much in the dark as they were at the time of the incident. That does not mean there aren’t theories. Among the possible explanations offered over the past eight decades are:

  • Cody and Adams were captured by a Japanese submarine;
  • They were spies who defected to Japan;
  • They were involved in some bizarre love triangle (and no, we’re not talking about the song of that name by New Order);
  • It was all an elaborate scheme to go AWOL;
  • A stowaway overpowered the crew;
  • The aircraft made contact with the ocean before coming ashore, and the crew was washed away by the waves;
  • Alien abduction (because, of course, someone would suggest that);
  • Secret tests of radar conducted on board and inadequately-shielded microwave technology overwhelmed the men, causing them to become overwhelmed and fall out;
  • We were unable to find any discussion online to support this, but we’re confident someone believes it was the result of the Illuminati, lizard people, or possibly the British royal family.
The L-8, recommissioned as America, in its post-war service.

John J. Geoghegan, writing for Aviation History magazine, posits that the likeliest explanation is that one crewmember fell into the ocean either while investigating the oil slick or repairing an engine and that the remaining crewmember had gone into the water in an attempt to rescue him and likewise was lost.

Despite the many theories, one year after their disappearance, the men were declared dead. The Navy officially classified the incident as “100% Unknown/ Undetermined.”

Although the fate of the crew remains a mystery, what happened to the L-8 after that fateful day is well documented. The L-8 was repaired and resumed its wartime service as a training vessel. After the war, it was returned to the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. It was refurbished, renamed America, and was used to broadcast sports events until its retirement in 1982.

Upon its retirement, the gondola was donated to the Navy. It was restored to its WWII specifications and is on display at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida.


3 replies »

    • Say what you will about having read the greatest books of all time or recognizing the difference between Van Gogh and Picasso, in our judgment, the true sign of cultural sophistication is the ability to steer any conversation toward 1980s music, Doctor Who, or comic books.

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