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The Ghost Blimp of World War II

Ghost Blimp

A blimp patrolling the California coast during WWII crashes, but crew members are not on board.

In 1942, the final outcome of World War II was still very much in doubt. The United States had every reason to fear that the Japanese would launch an all-out attack on the West Coast. Military historian & author Carroll V. Glines sets the scene:

“There were known to be Japanese submarines operating off the coast. There had been an attack on an oil refinery down near Santa Monica, near Los Angeles. There was a great fear that there would be more attacks.”

The Navy responded to the threat by putting together a fleet of twelve blimps to patrol the California coastline.  The mission of Airship Squadron 32 was largely uneventful. That is, until August of 1942, when one of the blimps crashed on a street in Daley City, California.  The two-man crew was not on board. That day, the legend of the ghost Blimp was born. Historian Ken Gillespie lived in Daley City at the time:

“It was almost impossible for the crew members not have been seen by somebody. But nobody saw them go, nobody saw them jump, and there are no relics of them at all. It’s a real puzzle.”

The legend of the ghost Blimp began in San Francisco on August 16, 1942. It was early on a Sunday morning when Flight 101 prepared to take off.  The pilots were 27-year-old Lt. Ernest DeWitt Cody and 34-year-old Ensign Charles Ellis Adams. Both were experienced and reliable, which made the events of the next five hours even more mysterious. Aviation machinist’s mate Riley Hill was supposed to go with Adams and Cody that morning:

“Adams had flow in the large dirigibles and was thoroughly checked out. But he had never flown in the small blimps. This was an indoctrination flight for him that Sunday morning.”

Just before departure, Riley Hill was ordered off the blimp for some unknown reason. Hill now believes that heavy moisture in the air was weighing the blimp down, making it unsafe to take off with three men on board:

“So I got out, shut the door and locked it, and they took off.”

The flight plan called for the blimp to leave Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, pass over the Golden Gate Bridge, then head to the remote Farallon Islands, 25 miles off the coast. From there, Flight 101 would continue north to Point Reyes, then south along the coastline.

The first leg of the patrol went smoothly. But an hour-and-a-half after take-off, Lt. Cody radioed squadron headquarters and said; “Position four miles east of the Farallones. Standby.” Four minutes later, Cody called again and reported an oil slick on the water.
According to Riley Hill, those were the last words ever received from Flight 101:

“When it came time for further explanation, and we didn’t get it, we just assumed, ‘Well, it was negative and they went on their way.’”

Three hours passed with no word from the crew. Flight commanders became alarmed.  Frantic attempts to contact the blimp went unanswered. Finally, a message was received, but it wasn’t from Flight 101. It was a report that the blimp had somehow drifted eight miles off course and had come ashore just south of San Francisco. Ken Gillespie recalls the event:

“There was a swimmer, a man named Mr. Capulvea, who was standing ready to go in the water when all of a sudden he saw this huge gray mass just coming out of the fog right at him. Remember, this thing is 47 feet wide and it wasn’t too high off the water. And he watched it come in. It dragged its wheel along the sand at the water’s edge, then hit a little sand knoll. It bounced up in the air and then moved up a little bit of a canyon and then hit rather heavily on the side of the canyon. This knocked off what turned out to be a depth charge.”

The collapsing blimp was seen by hundreds of people. Bunny Gillespie was 16-years-old at the time:

“I was on the way home from Sunday school and when I saw this big gray thing coming in through the sky, I was very surprised, as were a lot of other people, because things like that don’t happen in Daly City.”

Flight 101 quickly lost altitude and headed straight for the homes in the hills of Daly City. According to Ken Gillespie, one woman’s house almost became the point of impact:

“It was a Mrs. Appleton. She said that all of a sudden, this huge behemoth had settled and scraped across the top of her roof. She said it sounded like chains dragging. But the entire house was blacked out because of the size of this thing. She raced to the front window wondering what in the world was going on and she saw the rest of it. The gondola hit the cross arm, broke off part of the mechanism there, then it gradually settled down to the ground.”

Miraculously, no one was injured when the blimp landed in the middle of the street.  Almost immediately, Daly City officials were on the scene. When Navy personnel arrived, they were shocked to discover that there was no sign of Lt. Cody or Ensign Adams. The door was latched open, which was a highly unusual in-flight position. The safety bar, normally used to block the doorway, was no longer in place. And a microphone hooked to an outside loudspeaker dangled from the gondola.

Riley Hill, aviation machinist’s mate with the U.S. Navy, had prepped the blimp for flight:

“The ignition switch was still on. The radio was still on and working. Nobody had touched my fuel valves, they were set up just the way that I’d left them. We still had another 6 hours of fuel.”

Lt. Cody’s cap rested on the instrument panel, and two of the three life jackets on board were missing, suggesting the crew had put them on before take off, as regulations required. A locked briefcase containing top-secret codes was still in its place. It was as if Cody and Adams had opened the door and simply stepped out into thin air. Ken Gillespie:

“The machine gun was still there. The expandable life raft was there as well as one more life jacket. There was nothing missing.”

The Navy investigation revealed that Flight 101 was seen by several ships and planes between 7 and 11am. Some of the eyewitnesses said they were close enough to see Cody and Adams in the gondola and everything seemed normal.

Theories emerged almost immediately about what happened to the two men. Some believed that Cody and Adams spotted an enemy submarine.  When they descended to investigate, they were taken prisoner.  According to another rumor, the pilots were involved in a lover’s triangle with an unknown woman. Supposedly, one murdered the other during the flight, then fled when the blimp crashed.

Naval investigators came up with their own theory. They believed that one of the officers climbed out of the gondola to fix a mechanical problem and had some kind of trouble.  The second pilot came to his aid, and then both men fell overboard.

A year later, Lt. Ernest Cody and Ensign Charles Adams were officially declared dead.  The blimp itself was repaired. After the war, it became the Goodyear blimp, seen by millions at sporting events across the country. Few were aware that the airship circling overhead was the infamous ghost Blimp.