In August 1942, a U.S. Navy blimp took off from Treasure Island near San Francisco on a routine reconnaissance run, but its ordinary wartime mission took a turn for the bizarre, and became one of the strangest unexplained occurrences in military history. A few hours after taking flight, the half-inflated dirigible drifted listlessly to earth in Daly City. When rescuers rushed to the blimp’s cabin, they found it empty. The crew of the L-8 had vanished midflight, never to be seen again.
A Routine Mission Begins
During the early days of World War II, the U.S. feared that the Japanese would launch an all out assault on the West Coast of the United States. Japanese submarines had been spotted prowling the Pacific from Oregon to Mexico, and a Japanese sub had even shelled an oil drilling operation near Santa Monica, California. So tensions were understandably high.
To combat the threat, the U.S. Navy created Airship Squadron 32, a unit of 12 Goodyear-manufactured blimps designed to patrol the West Coast and spot Japanese submarines.
Early on the Sunday morning of August 16, 1942, Lieutenant Ernest DeWitt Cody and Ensign Charles E. Adams left on a planned flight from Treasure Island near San Francisco on a routine mission. Both men were experienced and dependable pilots, with thousands of hours of flight time between them. The weather was calm, and the departure was entirely uneventful.
Cody and Adams’ flight was scheduled to last four hours. The blimp was to head to the Farallon Islands, 25 miles off the coast. From there, it would continue north to Point Reyes, then south along the coastline, with the men watching for submarines all the way. The blimp was armed with a machine gun and two depth charges to drop on enemy subs.
An hour and a half after takeoff, Cody radioed in to report that the blimp was near the Farallone islands, as scheduled. Four minutes later, he radioed to report an oil slick on the water. It was the last transmission from the blimp.
Hours passed with no word from the crew, and the Navy began to worry, repeatedly hailing the blimp by radio. The crew never responded.
A Swimmer Spots A Derelict Dirigible
Mr. Capulvea was an avid swimmer, and he got up early that Sunday to take a sunrise dip in the waters south of San Francisco. As Capulvea was getting ready to enter the bay, a huge, gray shape appeared from the fog, heading right for him.
The blimp was floating just over the surface of the water, and as it made land, its bottom wheel drug across the sand. The ship then lazily drifted into a knoll and bounced into the air. It hit the side of a canyon hard, and one of its depth charges was knocked off and fell onto a golf course. Free of the weight of its bomb, the blimp ascended and the wind blew it toward Daly City.
Pandemonium In Daly City
Hundreds of people watched the massive hot air balloon float toward the city. The gathered crowd gasped and screamed as it scraped the roof of a house, was briefly entangled in some power lines, and eventually crashed down in the middle of Bellevue Street. Its engines were mangled by the impact, and gasoline from its fuel tanks spilled onto the road.
Police and firemen rushed to hold off onlookers and organize a rescue operation for the ship’s crew, but when they opened the doors of the blimp’s intact gondola, they were met with an eerie sight: Everything inside looked completely normal. But the crew was gone.
The parachutes were stowed in their usual spot. The lifeboat was still on board. Everything was working perfectly, from the engines (which still had six hours of fuel left), to the instruments, to the radio, which was still turned on. A briefcase of classified documents was undisturbed. One of the pilot’s caps was sitting on the instrument panel. The machine gun had not been fired. There were no signs of an attack against the ship at all.
Strange Sightings Of The Tragic Aircraft
The navy began searching for the missing pilots immediately, sending planes and boats to scour the seas along the blimp’s flight path. They found no trace of the men. No scraps of lifejackets or bloated corpses.
Navy investigators learned that many people had seen the blimp between the time it took off and its crash landing in Daly City. It was on a very populated route, so witnesses watched the blimp from boats, airplanes and the shore.
Wesley Frank Lamoureux, a sailor on the cargo ship Albert Gallatin, said that he’d watched the blimp circle above two flares that it had dropped, most likely to mark the location of the oil slick. Sailors from a nearby fishing trawler watched too, and pulled in their nets, worried that the blimp was about to drop a depth charge on an enemy sub.
But no charge was dropped. Instead, the blimp circled the oil slick for nearly an hour. Lamoureux told investigators that the blimp came down so close to the sea it “seemed to almost sit on top of the water.”
Fearing a submarine, Lamoureux called a general alarm, and the Albert Gallatin sped away, but not before Lamoureux watched the blimp pull its nose from the water, ascending into the sky.
The blimp was seen returning toward San Francisco by several observers on planes and in boats, who reported that nothing seemed amiss about its flight path. But soon, more troubling eyewitness reports came in. People could clearly see that the blimp was deflating.
Here where things get strange. While the blimp was listing and deflating, seemingly out-of-control, witnesses were certain the pilots were still inside it. 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.”
Telephone operator Ida Ruby spotted the low-flying blimp as she was horseback riding on the beach. She reported that she was certain she saw three men in the gondola of the blimp.
No one has ever determined how two experienced officers could have vanished from one of the most heavily trafficked areas between San Francisco and the Farallon Islands while their blimp was being tracked by ships, planes, and people on the ground. After an extensive investigation, the Navy concluded that there was “no fire, no submersion, no misconduct,” and that “no missiles struck the L-8.”
With no concrete answers, the Navy eventually classified it as “100% Unknown/ Undetermined,” a classification that still stands to this day. Investigators could offer only the following cryptic conclusion: “Careful analysis of the evidence indicates no reason for voluntary abandonment of the airship…the board therefore believes that abandonment was involuntary.”
…Or Was it an ALIEN ABDUCTION??
The mysterious disappearance of Lieutenant Cody and Ensign Adams has led to any number of theories: They were swept out to sea by a rogue wave. They were Japanese spies, and the submarine they spotted picked them up and ferried them to Asia. A stowaway on the blimp murdered both men and threw their bodies overboard before jumping out himself. One pilot murdered the other over a woman and then jumped into the sea himself. The blimp was secretly testing experimental radar, and poorly shielded microwaves overpowered the men, causing them to fall out of the cabin.
While we will probably never know the fate of Cody and Adams, we do know what happened to the blimp. It was quickly repaired and flew more missions. After the war, it was given back to the Goodyear company, where it flew over sporting events from 1969 to 1982. Who could have guessed that the advertising blimp flying over the 1976 Daytona 500 was at the center of one of the most compelling wartime mysteries in US history?