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LTA and WWII: role of Navy airships often forgotten.

Two storms ...

On May 6, 1937, Harold Edwards watched a cigar-shaped behemoth cutting across a turbulent New York skyline.

The weather was rough, and he could see violent cracks of lightning from a window in his home on 2nd Street in the shadow of the Empire State Building.

"It was so big, there'es no way I could forget it," recalled Mr. Edwards, a DAV life member from New Port Richey, Fla.

The massive silver airship Mr. Edwards saw moving through the storm was the Hindenburg, a rigid German airship, or dirigible, on its first trans-Atlantic crossing of the year. It was a symbol of German pride and nationalism and reflected not only Germany's belief in superior craftmanship and design, but also her fascination with airships.

This fascination was shared by the United States military after witnessing the successful use of the dirigibles by Germany and France in World War I. The U.S. Navy, in particular, took notice of rigids, possibly foreseeing their usefullness in anti-submarine missions, minesweeping, and rescue operations.

That early May flight of the Hindenburg put a cautious edge of any U.S. plans for investing in dirigibles for future military use. As it attempted to land at the Naval Air Station (NAS), Lakehurst, N.J., the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg burst into flames. The airship carried 97 crewmen and passengers; 35 died in the fiery crash, as did one member of the ground crew.

The well-publicized crash would effectively end the use of rigid airship for commercial travel, but the Navy's interest in the airships did not vanish completely in the flames. Thousands of Americans, like Harold Edwards, would soon begin an assocation with non-rigid airships, or blimps, that would be largely ignored in most history books.

Just as a violent storm accompanied the arrival of airships into Mr. Edwards' life, another storm steered his path back to blimps a few years later. It was the thunder of the attack on Pearl Harbor, launching the United States into World War II.

The work horse ...

At the beginning of World War II, the Navy's Lighter Than Air (LTA) inventory consisted of 10 non-rigid airships. NAS Lakehurst was the only LTA station.

The Navy's rather limited LTA fleet included two TC-type airships (remnants of the Army's defunct LTA program), one G-type blimp, three L-type trainers, and four K-type airships. The M-type airship would later be added to the Navy's World War II LTA arsenal.

While the L-type airships would earn their keep in the massive blimp hangers primarily as training ships for up-and-coming pilots and crews, the K-type blimps would earn the reputation as the "work-horse" of World War II LTA missions.

Just over 250 feet in length, the K-ship was well equipped with communications gear and instruments for "blind" and night flying. Each airship had an ASG-type radar with a 90-mile detection radius, Loran long-range navigations systems, and underwater search equipment, such as sonobuoys and MAD (magnetic anomaly detection) gear.

The K-type was the first Navy airship with an internally suspended control car, which was 40 feet long and carried the crew, power source, armaments, and most of the equipment.

The blimp's arsenal usually consisted of four depth charges, two on the control car's external bomb racks and two in the bomb bay, and a .50-caliber aircraft machine gun in the forward turret. Some blimps were equipped with automatic rifles that could be fired from removable windows in the aft of the control car.

During war, the K-ship carried a flight crew of nine skilled men, including a command pilot, one or two co-pilots, two mechanics, two airship riggers, and two radiomen.

While officers were primarily responsible for the piloting and navigation duties aboard the blimps, the strong training and team-work ensured most crewmembers could handle most jobs, including flying the airships.

"I was trained to work the radio and radar," said Thomas Morris, a DAV life member from New Jersey who served with LTA squadrons in Lakehurst and Brazil. "On long flights, I relieved the co-pilot and helped in other areas.

"There wasn't much most of us couldn't do aboard a blimp," he said.

No matter what their position on the airship or with the ground crews, the LTA sailors helped take back the dangerous waters of World War II.

The war on water ...

With war raging in Europe in June of 1940, Congress passed legislation, which, among other things, provided for the construction of 48 new non-rigid airships to bolster the Navy's lagging LTA assets. This increase in airship production, however, pales in comparison to the 200 authorized by Congress in 1942.

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the Navy's LTA program still had only 100 pilots and another 100 enlisted crewmembers. More importantly, the LTA program was without any kind of organization to conduct operations in the fleet.

Recognizing the shortage, the Navy began scouring universities for potential pilots and crewmembers.

"We had already been through the Navy's navigation training and knew all the naval basics," said Elliot Steinman, a blimp pilot. "The Navy condensed the one-year training program for blimp pilots down to three months. They called us `90-day wonders.'"

After the establishment of Airship Patrol Group 1 and Airship Squadron 12 at Lakehurst in January of 1942, the evolution of the Navy's LTA program began in earnest. The expansion of the LTA program couldn't come quickly enough for the Navy.

The attack on Pearl Harbor was only the beginning of the trouble for the Navy and merchant ships. In 1942, enemy submarines had sunk thousands of U.S. ships. German U-boats off the Atlantic Coast of the United States sunk more than 400 vessels.

"They called the area off of Cape Hatteras (N.C.) `Iron Bottom,'" Harold Edwards recalled. "There were a lot of ships sitting at the bottom of the ocean out there."

Grant Southward, a pilot from one of the first LTA classes at Lakehurst, shares some of those memories of Cape Hatteras.

"You could look out and see the masts of sunken ships sticking out of the water," he recalled. "The Germans were really putting it to our guys out there."

The waters of the Pacific weren't any safer for U.S. ships as the notorious ship-killers of Japan's submarine fleet menaced the West Coast. On Feb. 23, 1942, the Japanese submarines were brazen enough to attack oil derricks north of Santa Barbara, Calif.

As war-related shipping activity increased, the Navy vastly expanded its LTA program. In April of 1942, the first West Coast LTA station was opened at NAS Sunnyvale, Calif. Two senior commands--Fleet Airships, Pacific and Fleet Airships, Atlantic--were established to oversee the nine major LTA naval air stations and numerous auxiliary stations in the continental United States.

Airships were also on patrol around the globe, taking part in operations in and above such countries as Cuba, Italy, Columbia, Panama, and Mexico. Airships conducted extensive anti-submarine operations in French Morocco, Brazil, and France.

Fear and respect ...

With surface speeds of more than 70 mph and the ability to hover at low altitudes, blimps were well-suited for convoy protection and were capable of traveling great distances, staying in the air for long periods of time (sometimes upwards of 26 hours).

"A short flight was eight to 10 hours," said retired Navy Cmdr. Herb Biedebach, a World War II blimp pilot and president of the Naval Airship Association. "Flights of 17 or more hours could almost be called routine."

Rough weather and night flights were no deterrent for airships, and ship-bound sailors traveling in convoys were as glad to see the watchdogs on the lookout for German U-boats and Japanese submarines.

By 1943, due in no small part to LTA operations, the number of ships lost was reduced dramatically.

"The enemy had great fear and respect for airships. We could just float above the subs and pin them down until we got help or drop depth charges if that was possible," said Mr. Southwood. "The enemy never sank a ship that was escorted by a blimp."

LTA historian Richard Van Treuren can cite more than 25 types of missions and tasks accomplished successfully by blimps in World War II, including minesweeping, coastline patrol, and search and rescue. But lost among these uses, Mr. Van Treuren believes, is the unwritten story the blimp's successes in tracking, hunting, spotting, and sometimes even destroying enemy submarines.

Perhaps the most famous blimp attack on a U-boat during the war was mounted by Lt. Nelson Grills, pilot of the K-74. It is the only combat loss of a blimp acknowledged by the U.S. Navy.

While protecting two ships sailing in an area just off the Florida Keys on July 18, 1943, the K-74 crew spotted a surfaced U-boat. Lt. Grills decided the boats under his protection were in immediate danger and took a steep dive to attack the German U-boat.

The slow-moving K-74 was an easy target for anti-aircraft fire from the U-boat, but the airship returned fire with its guns, and the blimp's momentum carried it directly over the U-boat. Unfortunately, the blimp's bomb-release mechanism failed, and the battered airship crashed into the sea.

As the downed crew waited to be rescued, machinist mate/bombardier AMM2 Isadore Stessel was attacked and killed by a shark.

At first reprimanded for his attack on the U-boat, Lt. Grills would later be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Isadore Stessel's vindication didn't come until 40 years later, when he was posthumously awarded a commendation medal, which was given to his surviving family members.

Forgotten by history ...

According to blimp veterans names like "poopie-bag sailors" given to them by others reflect the disrespect and historical disregard experienced by World War II's airship operators.

Although many LTA veterans cite a feeling of safety and security in the bellies of the silver giants, many who served on airships suffered disabilities.

"We were very vulnerable to attack from subs, but for some reason I always felt safe," said John McWade, a radar officer who served in several locations in the Western Hemisphere including Jamaica, Columbia, and Panama.

Mr. McWade, a DAV life member from Cathedral City, Calif., was exposed to harmful radar microwaves while serving in airships. The exposure left his eyes damaged but not his enthusiasm for LTA.

"I loved my service with LTA. The flying, the flight pay, and the chance to take part in those missions was something very special to me," Mr. McWade said.

Unfortunately, the Navy's leadership didn't always share his love of LTA.

"The hierarchy in the Navy had little or no LTA experience for the most part. This led to a lack of understanding for what we did," said John P. Hely IV, a blimp pilot who was involved in an attack on a German U-boat off the coast of Georgia in 1943.

Years later, Mr. Hely actually corresponded with the U-boat captain and found the aging officer, Volker von Simmermacher, still in awe of the defensive prowess of blimps.

"Part of Germany's fear of the blimps came from their belief that we would be as efficient with them as they would have been if they had blimps," Mr. Hely said."

By war's end, LTA squadrons had performed 35,600 operational flights in the Atlantic and 20,300 flights in the Pacific. There was a total of 5.5 million hours in the air, escorting nearly 90,000 ships loaded with cargo, troops, weapons, and supplies.

The 10 blimps of the pre-war days had grown to more than 130 by war's end, but it didn't last.

By 1959, all lighter-than-air activity in the Navy was confined to NAS Lakehurst with only 13 airships in use, and airship training was discontinued.

The role of the airship, particularly sea-based rescue and patrols, was relegated to the newest member of military aviation, the helicopter.

The Navy officially announced the end of its LTA program on June 26, 1961, and the final flight of a Navy airship took place at NAS Lakehurst on Aug. 31, 1962. In March of 1977, NAS Lakehurst ceased operations, and the role of blimps in World War II became a brief footnote in the annals of naval warfare.

"Many of us LTA veterans are coming up on 80 or are already there," said Harold Edwards, the blimp crew chief who caught a glimpse of the Hindenburg on its final flight. "We did the work they asked, finding subs and protecting ships, but my friends always ask where the recognition went, where are the air medals?

"Most people have never heard our stories."
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Lighter Than Air
Author:Lewis, Rob
Publication:DAV Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2002
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