Early on the morning of Sunday, August 16, 1942, a U.S. Navy blimp prepared to take off from Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay to search for enemy submarines. The United States had entered World War II only nine months earlier, but Japanese subs had sunk at least half a dozen Allied ships off the American West Coast. Japan’s frontline combat sub, I-17, had even shelled one of California’s largest oil drilling facilities in February 1942—the first time a country had attacked the U.S. mainland since the British shelled New Orleans in the War of 1812. As a result, L-8 carried two 325-pound Mark 17 depth bombs mounted on an external rack, a .30-caliber machine gun and 300 rounds of ammunition. The blimp’s mission: Locate and sink any Japanese subs its crew spotted off San Francisco.
L-8’s two-man crew boarded the gondola shortly before takeoff. Lieutenant Ernest Dewitt Cody and Ensign Charles Ellis Adams were both Navy veterans, married and with exemplary service records.Adams was even being decorated by the German government for rescuing passengers from the infamous Hindenburg disaster.
At 7:42 a.m. Cody radioed in to inform HQ that they were investigating “a suspicious oil slick,” which could be the sign of submarine lurking below the ocean’s surface. There would be no further communications from the aircraft.
But when L-8 still hadn’t responded by 8:50, two Vought OS2U Kingfisher floatplanes were sent to search for the blimp. Other aircraft in the area were also alerted to be on the lookout.
The next indication of L-8’s whereabouts came at 10:49, when a Pan American Clipper pilot reported seeing the blimp over the Golden Gate Bridge. He spotted nothing wrong with the ship, which appeared to be under control and heading back to base. At 11 one of the Kingfishers reported seeing L-8 three miles west of Salada Beach, rising through the overcast at 2,000 feet.
A few minutes later the blimp began to descend, disappearing in the clouds. Nothing indicated that L-8 was not in controlled flight, but 2,000 feet was close to the blimp’s pressure height, the altitude where its valves would automatically open and vent helium, to prevent its gas cells from bursting. Normally, the crewmen would have avoided surpassing pressure height, but for some reason they had apparently ignored this restriction.
Sunday morning golfers at San Francisco’s exclusive Olympic Club stopped to watch the blimp limp by overhead. They probably didn’t realize that the remaining depth charge could only be detonated by water pressure, which is why they gave it a wide birth. One club member reported having seen a parachute descending from L-8 while the blimp was still offshore—and he wasn’t the only one to see something of the crew.
Seventeen-year-old C.E. Taylor told the San Francisco Call-Bulletin, “I put my binoculars on it and could see figures…inside the cabin.”
The blimp then drifted into the suburbs. By this time, thousands of people had gathered to watch the aircraft’s progress, which was only halted when it crashed into a utility pole.
Luckily, no one was hurt in the crash, and the blimp managed to avoid starting a major fire when it collided with the electrical wires. Policemen and firefighters rushed to the scene, in hopes of aiding the crew, but when they had cut through the wreckage, the rescuers found their efforts had been in vain: Cody and Adams were nowhere to be found.
How two naval officers vanished from one of the most heavily trafficked areas between San Francisco and the Farallon Islands while their blimp was being tracked by ships and planes, not to mention people on the ground, remains a mystery. Word soon surfaced that warm coffee and a half-eaten sandwich had been found in the control car, a rumor that later proved to be untrue. But a hat belonging to of the crewmen was discovered resting on the flight controls. And L-8’s radio was in perfect working order.
An inspection soon revealed that all three of L-8’s parachutes were still on board, along with its single life raft. Two of the blimp’s five smoke bombs were missing, but those were accounted for because the crew had used them to mark the oil slick. A briefcase containing classified material was found behind the pilot’s seat. L-8’s engines were in perfect working order. The ignition switches were on, and the blimp’s instruments and flight controls operated normally, with four hours of gas remaining in the fuel tanks. In other words, there was nothing whatsoever wrong with L-8 except that it lacked a crew.
Unofficial answers for the ghost blimp’s missing crew range from an enemy attack to alien abductions
An explanation that falls somewhere between aliens and abductions is that one of the men fell out of the blimp while it was investigating the oil slick and the other had leaped out in an attempted rescue, and himself drowned in the process. If the rescuer had hoped to quickly save his comrade, he wouldn’t have bothered to radio in or toss the confidential papers overboard..
The only hole in this theory is that the L-8 had an audience while it was circling the suspicious area. The crews of both the Daisy Gray, a fishing trawler, and the Albert Gallatin, a cargo ship, had observed the blimp as it flew low to investigate the oil slick and not a single sailor had noticed anything amiss.
Whether it was aliens, Axis spies, or a simple accident, Cody and Adams were never heard from again. The ghost blimp, however, became one of the Goodyear blimps and toured around the nation during sporting events until 1982.
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