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Rear Admiral Harold B. "Min" Miller, U.S. Navy (Retired) (1903-1992)

Lieutenant Harold B. "Min" Miller at the controls of his F9C over Moffett Field. In 1934, Miller became the HTA Unit's senior aviator and was co-developer of the radio equipment which "homed" the pilots back to the airship.Based on four interviews conducted by John T. Mason Jr. from April through September 1981, the volume contains 290 pages of interview transcript plus an index. The transcript is copyright 1995 by the U.S. Naval Institute; the interviewee placed no restrictions on its use.

Following graduation from the Naval Academy in 1924, Miller spent two years in the crew of the battleship USS California (BB-44) before going to flight training. As an aviator, he initially was in the battleship USS West Virginia (BB-48) and carrier USS Langley (CV-1). He served as a scout plane pilot from the Navy’s last two rigid airships, the USS Akron (ZRS-4) and Macon (ZRS-5). His memoir includes a description of the Macon’s loss in 1935. After floatplane duty in cruisers, Miller served with Patrol Squadron 16 in Alaska and commanded Patrol Squadron Five in Panama. He subsequently was on the staff of Rear Admiral Arthur Bristol, Commander Support Force, Atlantic Fleet. In 1942-43 Miller headed the Training Literature section of the Bureau of Aeronautics, commanding a talented group of artists, writers, and photographers. After a stint as naval attaché in London, he headed the public relations staff of Admiral Chester Nimitz in the Pacific in 1944-45, then was spot-promoted to rear admiral to serve as the Director of Public Information for the entire Navy. After retirement in 1946, Miller served in public relations capacities for TWA, the American Petroleum Institute, Pan American, and Hofstra University.

An index to this volume can be viewed here (.pdf).

In this excerpt from his second interview at his home in Manhasset, New York, Admiral Miller recounts the dramatic loss of the USS Macon off the coast of California in 1935.

Doctor Mason: And now we're coming to that fateful day, February 12, 1935.[1]

Admiral Miller: This was the challenge for Doc Wiley and the Macon: to go out and show the fleet what we could do. The fleet exercises were rather extensive. They were all up and down the West Coast. We had four pilots aboard: Knappy Kivette, Simpler, Huff, and myself. By then we had reached the point — as I said, with wheels off and extra gas — where we could go out for four and a half hours. We were in pretty good shape. The Macon first went around the fleet, around the islands off of Santa Barbara. I recall we went in back of the fleet, and our airplanes moved forward and made the contact that we needed to make. As a matter of fact, the ship received excellent comments from the fleet. The job we had been doing just looked like things were going to come to fruition here — Doc Wiley's hard work and the planes' progress. Things were going along very well.

On July 7, 1933, two weeks after her commissioning, the U.S. Navy ZRS-5 USS Macon meets two of her Curtiss fighters over New Egypt, New Jersey, and drills them for the first time on her trapeze. the pilot of the first plane is Lieutenant D. Ward Harrigan, senior HTA aviator; of the second, Lieutenant (j.g.) Frederick N. Kivette. The "stripes" or "windows" partly around the airship's circumference are the condensers of her water recovery apparatus.I think on the second day we moved forward, and by this time, we found everything we were looking for in the enemy fleet, except for a cruiser. The Macon by now was somewhere off of San Luis Obispo. It was the cruisers we wanted, so Gerry Huff and I launched and started out trying to find them. We did find them, way up towards Monterey and well offshore. When we reported them, we were out about two and a half hours, I would say. At that time we received word that the war was over, the exercises were over. We turned the ship for everybody to go home. I wasn't with Gerry now; I was alone. Gerry was also off by himself. We both returned to the ship. I met Gerry there outside the airship, and he went aboard and I went aboard. It was a very lonely feeling being outside the ship in an airplane with no place to go if you had any problems. So I made it a point to always be the last aboard and get my guys on. So I went aboard. It was the last landing ever made on the airship; little did I know at that time.

I reported to the officer of the deck, who was George Campbell, and to Captain Wiley that there was quite a tough weather front up ahead.[2] It was somewhere up in the vicinity of Monterey and Carmel. But we had gone through tougher ones down in the Caribbean than this one. Well, we kept on going north, and everyone was getting ready. We'd be back in Sunnyvale in another eight hours. Finally, as we were coming up to Point Sur, we were in this weather, and suddenly the ship just sort of went through some maneuvers. The nose kicked and pulled over to the right, and it went up and it went down and so on and on and on.

Doctor Mason: Were there thunderstorms?

The U.S. Navy ZRS-5 USS Macon's officers in 1935. Left to right: Lt. Cdr. Scott E. Peck; Lt. Cdr. Jesse L. Kenworthy, Jr.; Lt. Cdr. Edwin F. Cochrane; Lt. Cdr. Herbert V. Wiley, commanding officer, USS Macon; Cdr. A. T. Clay, commanding officer, Moffett Field; Lt. Cdr. George H. Mills; Lt. Cdr. Donald M. Mackey. Center: Lt. (j.g.) Gerald L. Huff; Lt. (j.g.) Harry W. Richardson;  Lt. Howard N. Coulter; Lt. (j.g.) Earl K. VanSwearingen; Lt. Calvin M. Bolster; Lt. Harold B. Miller; Lt. Anthony L. Danis. Top: Lt. (j.g.) Leroy C. Simpler; Lt (j.g.) John D. Reppy;  Lt. George W. Campbell;  Chief Boatswain William A. Buckley;  Lt. Walter E. Zimmerman; Lt. (j.g.) Frederick N. Kivette; Chief Machinist Emmett C. Thurman.Admiral Miller: Well, I don't know if there was any thunder or lightning connected to it or not, but there were violent air currents. To you and me, it would just mean a real cloudy turbulence. I was in the control car, I remember. After all, the heavier-than-air people had nothing to do after flying except to sit there and play acey-deucy or read a book. It was obvious in a very short time that we had a real problem on our hands. The word then came back that the ship was beginning to break up back aft, that some of the girders had carried away. Also, an effort was made to lighten the ship because we were flying heavy at that particular time. We had to get some weight off the ship, so they dropped a lot of ballast.

By this time, it was obvious that things were really not going right. The first thing you knew, we were up around 5,000 feet instead of around 1,800 feet where we had been, or perhaps even lower. We simply went up like a free balloon at this point, and the nose of the ship was up. An effort was made to get the engine started, but we couldn't. With the angle of the ship, the fuel wasn't getting into the carburetor, so until we could get the bow down, we couldn't get the engines started. Then they called for all hands together in the nose, way up there in the cone to try to get some weight up there. Finally that was done, the nose came down, and a couple of engines got started. By this time it was obvious that the disintegration was taking place back in the tail. As one ring would collapse, the broken aluminum parts would make holes in the next bag and we'd lose all that lift. So the ship was getting awfully heavy back in the tail, and the nose was still trying to get light.

By this time it was obvious the crew wasn't going to save the ship. They simply couldn't fly the ship. The only thing to do was get down in the water. The concern was that maybe we were drifting back in over the mountains behind Point Sur. With a couple of engines going, we got the ship headed back to sea and began to let down by valving. Of course, probably we were heavy at that time anyway. We started down, and then the point was whether we would come down over land or water. Well, it turned out to be over water and about 12 or 15 miles off of Point Sur. I think at about 500 feet we could begin to see the water and realize we were coming down. We landed on the water in a horizontal position, just as gently and as softly as you please. By that time, people had broken out life rafts and dropped lines from the ship and so on. The order was given, of course, to abandon ship. Those with any sense lowered themselves into the life rafts and some didn't even get wet.

Doctor Mason: How large a crew was there?

Diagram by Admiral Miller showing the accident sequenceAdmiral Miller: We had about 82 aboard. Out of that we lost two men, as opposed to the Akron, which saved three men and lost 73.[3] We were just the reverse of that. Some of us stayed aboard. I was among those, and I thought, "My God, this ship is afloat. This ship will never sink. We'll just sit this out until the fleet shows up. We won't even get wet." Well, at this point those people in the boats pulled away from the ship. Incidentally, it must have been around 4:00 o'clock, and this was February and the days were short. It was cold and beginning to rain. It was not a very encouraging picture at all.

Those in boats pulled off a quarter of a mile or half a mile away and huddled in a group out there. Here we were high and dry on the ship, thinking how stupid they were. Then, the first thing we knew, instead of being horizontal in the water, the ship suddenly assumed a very slow upward movement to a vertical position. Instead of being 50 feet from the water, we were 400 feet up in the air. We were sitting there on top of a cone in this beautiful airship, the lower part of it being in the water. That didn't look as good as it did a few moments before.

By this time, those of us in the ship had gathered in the bow and were all up there around the nose cone. You heard this rumble and you didn't know what it was. Finally there was a whoosh of some currents of air or gases or something coming up from the ship, escaping through the top of it. I had always heard that helium had the unique characteristic of making your vocal cords inactive. In other words, you lose your voice if you were surrounded by helium.

Doctor Mason: If you inhaled it.

Admiral Miller: I think that is true because I practically lost my voice at that time. I realized what was happening; the gas cells were breaking down below, and here was a natural cone bringing the gas up to us. I said to come on and get outside. We all scrambled out and broke out all the lines and we had a maypole up there. Everybody outside the ship was each hanging on to a line. Of course, the ship was so big that it was still practically like a haystack up there. It wasn't sharp, and you weren't in a danger of slipping off or anything. It was raining, it was cold, and we'd hear another blast and the ship would settle deeper and deeper. Every time we heard a blast, we knew another cell had carried away, another ring. Now it was getting dark; it was about 5:00 o'clock. We knew we had gotten out an SOS to the fleet, but nothing had happened as yet.

The star on the Macon's nose.About this time, we were now down to the size of a two-story house. I guess I was probably the senior one there and said, "Well, boys, the time has come. We have to get out of here." Most of us had on a life jacket of sorts on. I think two or three didn't have any at all. So we said, "Let's get in the water and get out of here before this whole thing goes down." So we started letting go of the line and sliding over the haystack into the water, and it was cold as hell. You didn't know quite what to do. I took off my shoes and threw them away. To get rid of weight, I attempted to get my class ring off and throw it away. All kinds of silly ideas come to your mind.

Just about the time we were going in the water, there were searchlights way in the distance. The cruisers were looking for us. We turned around and there was one little bluejacket still on this haystack. He didn't want to come in the water at all, and we shouted and screamed. Finally, he let go and got in the water. He no more had gotten in there than we pulled him up; we were all swimming by this time. We had to swim over to the boats. Obviously the navigation flares ignited the gasoline that had also blown up inside this envelope. On the outside was the red, white, and blue Navy star and inside was a flame. The silhouette of the star was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen, if you're looking for beauty. She finally just sort of, like an old dog, lay down. Away she went and disappeared. It was quite fortunate that we got off of there before this happened.

Doctor Mason: Before this fire broke out.

[1] The loss of the Macon is also described in Richard K. Smith, The Airships Akron & Macon, pages 151-162. A written account by Miller appears as an appendix at the back of this volume of transcript.

[2] Lieutnant (junior grade) George W. Campbell, USN. Lieutenant Campbell published an account of the crash in the 15 May 1937 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.

[3] One of the three survivors from the Akron was Wiley, who also survived the loss of the Macon.



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