In August of 1942, a U.S. Navy L-8 blimp crash-landed in Daly City, California. What makes this a mystery, you may wonder? Its crew was nowhere to be found.
It had been nine months since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the dust was far from settled. Now in the throes of World War II, the United States military sought to locate and destroy every enemy sub it could find off the American West Coast. On Aug. 16, 1942, the U.S. Navy deployed an L-8 blimp to carry out such a mission. Onboard were two Mark 17 depth bombs, a .30 caliber machine gun, hundreds of rounds of ammunition and two well-regarded Lighter-Than-Air (LTA) pilots: Lieutenant Ernest Dewitt Cody and Ensign Charles Ellis Adams.
Adams had more than 20 years and 2,281 LTA hours under his belt. While Cody had significantly less experience, with 756 hours, he had recently been highly praised for his maneuvering of an L-8 blimp to the USS Hornet for a parts delivery mission in support of the infamous Doolittle Raid. His impressive feat elevated him to lieutenant.
The patrol area for Flight 101, as it was called, was within a 50-mile radius of San Francisco. With winds light and variable at 4 knots per hour, and a slight over-cast, the pilots departed Treasure Island at 6:03 a.m., with a planned return time between 10 and 10:30 a.m. Approximately an hour and a half after departure, Cody radioed in their position 4 miles east of the Farallon Islands. At 7:42, he sent a second message announcing the discovery of a suspicious oil slick, potential evidence of an underwater sub.
Crew of the nearby Liberty ship known as “Albert Gallatin” watched through binoculars as two smoke-producing float lights were dropped from the blimp into the waters below. Anticipating that a bomb drop could follow, they sounded the alarm and manned their guns.
Over the course of the next hour, the ship’s crew watched as the blimp circled the oil slick around 200 to 300 feet above, then down to a mere 30 feet. Wing Control made multiple attempts to establish radio contact during this time, once at 8:20 and again at 8:50, but it received no response. Finally, around 9:00 a.m., the blimp dropped ballast, ascended to altitude, and appeared to begin its return to Treasure Island.
At 10:49 a.m., a Pan American Clipper pilot spotted the blimp over the Golden Gate Bridge. He observed nothing out of the ordinary but did note that it was quite close to its pressure height of 2,000 feet. A little while later, an Army P-38 pilot spotted it and reported that it appeared to be in controlled flight. Other than radio silence from the blimp, all seemed well. Then, suddenly, a nearby seaman noticed something amiss: The top of the blimp was beginning to buckle in.
It limped ashore at 11:15 and came to a violent rest on the 400 block of Daly City’s Bellevue Avenue. First responders rushed to the control car to free the crew and made a shocking discovery—not only was the door missing but so was the crew. Cody and Adams were gone. They would never be seen or heard from again.
Following the incident, the L-8 blimp was thoroughly inspected by the military. Save for a drained battery and some dumped fuel, the airship was found to be in good working order. Its engine was intact and functioned appropriately. Its radio, instruments and controls were undamaged. Four hours of fuel remained in the tank. All the parachutes were accounted for, as was one of the pilot’s hats—left resting on a set of flight controls.
The only thing amiss was a vanished crew. Theories about Cody’s and Adams’ fate were abundant, encompassing everything from an AWOL scheme to enemy capture. Some of the wilder theories involved paranormal conspiracy and a dramatic love triangle leading to murder-suicide.
ENEMY CAPTURE…OR SPIES?
Some believe that a Japanese sub was present in the L-8’s patrol zone and set an oil slick trap to lure Cody and Adams for capture. According to this theory, once they began investigating the slick, they were either forced from the aircraft at gunpoint or shot down.
Some even speculated that Cody and Adams were enemy spies and left of their own accord. However, a briefcase containing classified materials, including secret codes, was left behind. That briefcase would have certainly been taken whether the pilots left willingly or not. Additionally, if an interaction had occurred, crew onboard the Gallatin would have likely observed such from their watch posts. They saw nothing.
The simplest explanation is the most benign but also the most tragic—the men simply fell to their deaths. In its investigation, the U.S. Navy discovered that the safety latch on the L-8’s door had been compromised. If one of the pilots had leaned against the door, it’s possible the latch unintentionally released, causing him to fall into the waters below. The other pilot is presumed to have fallen in during an attempted rescue.
Clouding this theory is that protocol would have dictated that the second pilot radio for help before making a rescue attempt. He did not. Additionally, if neither man was onboard, who dropped the L-8’s ballast to ascend it back to altitude, and who steered it back to the coast?
Whatever sealed Cody’s and Adams’ fate, it seems highly doubtful they abandoned the airship by choice. The most likely conclusion is that a tragedy occurred onboard, causing the pilots to fall. Perhaps it was due to the faulty door latch, or perhaps it was due to some strange string of events involving a conflict between the men. Despite wearing life vests, their ability to survive the cold waters below for long would have been slim. And, sadly, they would have been adrift for hours at sea before anyone even realized they were missing, rendering rescue attempts fruitless.
The blimp’s fate is thankfully less mysterious. It was quickly repaired and spent another 40 years in service before being retired in 1982. Its control car is currently on display at the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida, where it has been renamed the L-8 “Ghost Ship.” PP