Lest We Forget - On board the USS Macon Going Down

By A. Denis Clift

Miller earlier had flown from the Macon ’s sister airship USS Akron (ZRS-4), and fate had it that he was not on board when she crashed in 1933, killing nearly the entire crew and Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics Rear Admiral William Moffett.

On the second day of that fleet exercise in February 1935, Miller and his three fellow Sparrowhawk pilots had done their scouting job well. Having found the last cruiser in the enemy fleet, they came back on board the Macon .

I reported to the officer of the deck that there was quite a tough weather front up ahead. We kept going north, and suddenly the ship just went through some maneuvers. The nose kicked up and pulled over to the right, and it went up and it went down, on and on and on.

I was in the control car, I remember. The word came back that the ship was beginning to break up aft, that some of the girders had carried away. The first thing you knew, we were up at about 5,000 feet, instead of 1,800 feet. Because of the angle of the ship, they couldn’t start the engines; the fuel wasn’t getting to the carburetors. They called all hands into the nose.

A couple of engines started. 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 would lose all that lift. The ship was getting heavy back in the tail, and the nose was still trying to get light.

It was obvious the crew wasn’t going to save the ship. At about 500 feet we could begin to see the water and realize we were coming down. We landed in a horizontal position. Those with any sense lowered themselves into the life rafts, and some didn’t even get wet.

Then the ship assumed a slow upward movement to a vertical position. Those of us still aboard had gathered in the bow and were all up there around the nose cone. There was a whoosh of some currents of air or gases coming from the ship. I had always heard that helium can make your vocal cords inactive. I practically lost my voice at that time.

By this time, we were down to the size of a two-story house. We started letting go of the lines and sliding into the water. She finally, sort of like an old dog, lay down. Away she went and disappeared. It was quite fortunate that we got off before this happened.

Mr. Clift is the U.S. Naval Institute’s vice president for planning and operations and president emeritus of the National Intelligence University.


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