On a calm but overcast Sunday in August 1942, two experienced officers took off on an antisubmarine patrol flight in the U. S. Navy blimp, L-8. They left the small advance base on Treasure Island, California, in the dim, early hours, and those watching the ship disappear into the haze never suspected that a few hours later she would present one of the most baffling mysteries of modern times.
Her two-man crew, Lieutenant (j.g.) Ernest W. Cody and Ensign Charles E. Adams, were in fine spirits that morning. After some 15 years in the Navy, Adams had finally been commissioned, and this was his first flight as an ensign. It made the patrol more than routine. As they flew low to investigate any surface or underwater abnormality, the two airmen waved to fishermen below.
When they passed over the entrance channel to San Francisco Bay, a few miles off Golden Gate Bridge, they were on the last two hours of their flight. Dotting the surface were the usual fishing craft, as well as two patrol boats, one Navy, the other Coast Guard. Suddenly, Cody noticed a smudge on the blue water. It was an oil slick, indicating the possible presence of a submarine. Cody circled and came in over it.
On board the patrol boats, all eyes were trained on the blimp, while the skippers ordered full speed ahead. The fishermen, too, hastened to get away, in case a depth charge should be dropped.
But, to the surprise of the watchers, the airship neither circled a second time nor bombed. Instead, she shot upward into the clouds. They never saw her again.
Continuing to rise, the L-8 presently emerged from the cloud bank. For two-and-a-half hours she drifted at 2,500 feet, and then, becoming heavy, began to fall.
On the beach near an Army Coast Artillery patrol Station, two surf fishermen were casting. One glanced up and shouted at his companion. The blimp was falling on them, right out of the sky. When she hit the beach, practically at their feet, they grabbed her tie lines and tried to hold her. The gondola door was open and they looked inside. Everything was in perfect order, except for one thing—Lieutenant Cody and Ensign Adams were missing.
The two men were not strong enough to hold their rambunctious captive. Torn from their hands, she skidded across the beach and was brought up short against a precipice. There the wind played ball with her, bouncing her against the stone wall, until the continued shocks loosened one of her 300-pound depth charges. When the charge dropped off, the ship, now light enough to ascend, soared above the cliff and disappeared.
About 15 minutes later, she landed gently on a street in Daly City, a suburb of San Francisco.
Back at squadron headquarters on Moffett Field, Operations had been trying to raise the L-8 by radio. The last word from Cody had been received at 7:50 a.m. when he had radioed, “Am investigating oil slick.” There should have been a follow-up report on this investigation, but it did not come; nor did his position report, due at 8 o’clock.
The blimp’s persistent silence was attributed at first to the failure of her radio. No particular worry was felt at Headquarters, since the day was calm and Cody had not indicated any trouble. However, as the minutes ticked by, Lieutenant Commander Watson, Squadron Commander, became increasingly puzzled. The atmosphere at the base grew tense; the men in the office were growing restless.
When the blimp failed to report at 9:30, as scheduled, Watson alerted all nearby ships and planes. Although Operations was worried, no one thought that Cody and Adams were in real danger. Both had had considerable lighter-than-air experience and would know what to do in case of trouble.
Then the first message came in. An airplane pilot, flying above the cloud bank, had caught sight of the L-8, apparently out of control. He did not know if her crew were all right because, before he could get close enough to see, she had dropped into the clouds.
The second report was received an hour later from the artillery patrol station, which declared that the L-8 had landed, hit the precipice, and then disappeared.
“Any news of the crew?” Watson demanded.
“Two men jumped off when she hit the beach,” came the reply.
With relief, the Commander settled back. He would go and bring her home when she finally came down. Meanwhile, he wondered why Cody and Adams had abandoned her—but, of course, their report would clear up the confusion.
Close on the heels of the Army message came a call from the police chief of Daly City. The L-8 had made a perfect two-point landing in the street. Police and firemen had searched her thoroughly, even cutting into the helium envelope, but, to their astonishment, had found no one inside.
Watson assured the police chief that the-men were safe and promised to come over immediately with a salvage crew. Before leaving, he called Navy Intelligence and asked them to check the vicinity for damage claims. Then he and the salvage crew left for Daly City.
While the blimp was being prepared for her journey back to base, Cody and Adams still did not appear. Watson became increasingly impatient for their report, for it now was evident that the L-8 was in perfect condition, and there seemed no reason why she should have been abandoned. The men had now had sufficient time to come up from the beach.
Then Watson was called to the phone. It was Navy Intelligence. They had checked every boat and person who had seen the blimp—including the surf fishermen— and, as a consequence, were compelled to contradict the earlier report of the Station. Cody and Adams had not been on board the L-8 when she hit the beach.
Apparently the Army had mistaken the two fishermen, who had tried to hold her, for the crew. Now alarmed, Watson called Moffett Field and ordered a search of the area. By this time, five hours had passed since the two men had been heard from.
When the salvage crew returned the derelict blimp to her hangar, the gondola was placed on a spotless cloth and an exhaustive search was begun to uncover some clue. But the only result was to deepen the mystery.
The car was immaculate, from the shiny waxed deck to the neatly stowed parachutes and rubber life raft. Even the most trivial items were in order. Nothing was missing but the two yellow life jackets, required wearing apparel on all overwater flights.
The gondola door was fastened back as if the crew had opened it for some purpose. The radio transmitter was still at “on” position, but the battery was exhausted.
In the bottom of every L-type blimp car, beneath the deck, there was an empty space that was far from watertight and contained only a few control wires. Watson knelt to examine this compartment. He ran a finger over the bottom and then held it up for all to see. The layer of dust on his finger spoke eloquently. The complete lack of moisture was almost positive proof that the L-8 had never once touched water.
For weeks, the Navy combed the coastline, and civilians kept deluging headquarters with bits of clothing that might have belonged to Cody or Adams. But neither the bodies nor any positively identified part of their apparel were ever found.
Why did both occupants of a perfectly safe airship quit her in such haste that they failed even to put on their parachutes? How could they have vanished without trace from a blimp hovering over a calm channel dotted with boats? How could they have failed to be sighted by someone, dressed as they were in brilliant yellow life jackets? It all seemed fantastic.
Perhaps the most plausible explanation came from Watson. Besides being in command at the time, he had had years of experience with L-type aircraft.
Since the last message received from Cody was “am investigating oil slick,” the usual procedure would have been for co-pilot Adams to drop a smoke tracer to mark the spot. The L-8’s windows were small, and he might have gone back and opened the door.
Kneeling in the aperture, leaning out to make his throw accurate, he could have slipped, grabbed the side of the blimp, and shouted to Cody. The latter, hearing his mate’s cry, probably would have left the controls and rushed to offer assistance. Then, as Cody was trying to pull Adams aboard, he might have lost his balance at a moment when no one happened to be looking.
Their bodies, hurtling from a height of some 300 feet, would have sunk at once, so badly broken that they would never have returned to the surface.
This, Watson felt, was the best possible explanation. It is the one accepted by the Navy as “official.” Nevertheless, the Navy admits that this explanation does not answer two important questions: (1) Why did no one see Cody and Adams fall, when the men on board the patrol ships were scrutinizing their every move; and (2) even though they might have been badly battered, why wasn’t some trace of them ever found?
The fact remains that, for reasons unknown, the two officers were parted from the L-8. What followed was merely a cycle of events resulting from common physical laws. Relieved of the weight of their bodies, the airship quickly rose. The helium inside the envelope expanded until the pressure finally popped the safety valves, and enough gas was lost to make her heavy. She then fell straight down until she hit the beach. Losing the depth charge made her light again, and she was carried by the wind to Daly City.
Thus ended the crewless cruise of the L-8, and the fate of her two-man crew still remains a mystery.