Posted on Mon, Aug. 12, 2002
The ghost blimp
Ex-Akron man, crewmate disappear on WWII flight; airship drifts back pilotless
By Mark J. Price
Beacon Journal staff writer
Goodyear Collection, University of Akron Archives
A crowd gathers around the wreckage of Navy blimp L-8 after its mysterious crash-landing August 16, 1942, in a residential area of Daly City,
California, near San Francisco. It's two-man crew was missing, along with two life vests. The men were never found despite a Navy search.
There's no way we'll ever really know what happened.
We can read every document, examine every photograph and explore every theory, but we'll still be no closer to learning the terrible truth.
Sixty years ago, two men vanished into thin air.
Navy airship L-8 was on routine patrol off the coast of San Francisco, searching for Japanese submarines in the Pacific Ocean. A few hours after its
morning launch on Aug. 16, 1942, the blimp floated back to shore -- minus its two-man crew -- prompting one of the greatest mysteries of World War
Where did the pilots go?
The bizarre incident was of great interest in Akron, where the L-8 and other naval blimps had been built. It was regarded as a local tragedy because
one of the missing pilots was a former Akron resident whose in-laws still lived in town.
The L-8 wasn't intended to be a military craft. It was supposed to be a Goodyear blimp.
It was built in 1941 to replace the 1940 Goodyear Ranger, which had been sold to the Navy. The war intervened, though, and the new airship was turned
over to the Navy as well.
Blimps were highly prized in coastal defense. Armed with machine guns and depth charges, they were quite capable of locating, tracking and bombarding
Goodyear delivered the L-8 in February 1942 to Moffett Field, Calif., the Navy base named for Adm. William A. Moffett, who was killed in the 1933
crash of the USS Akron zeppelin. In the world of airships, there are always Akron connections.
Lt. j.g. Ernest D. Cody, 27, pilot of the L-8, had lived in Akron and was married to the former Helen Haddock, daughter of Akron Goodyear employee
Richard L. Haddock and his wife, Juanita.
Cody was an experienced pilot who in April 1942 may have changed the course of history by guiding the L-8 to a rendezvous with the USS Hornet in the
Pacific. The naval blimp dropped off a 300-pound load of parts for the B-25 bombers that Jimmy Doolittle's Raiders would use to pound Tokyo and boost
Four months later, Cody would make history again.
He and Ensign Charles E. Adams, 38, took off in the L-8 about 6 a.m. on Aug. 16 from Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. They set a course for the
Farallon Islands, about 30 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge.
An hour into the flight, Cody radioed to his base that the pilots had spotted a possible oil slick on the water's surface and were going to
investigate. He was never heard from again.
Shortly before noon, bathers on a beach near San Francisco looked up to see an extremely low-flying blimp. It snagged briefly on a rocky outcropping
before breaking away and continuing eastward.
``It was dished on top and appeared to be drifting with its motors off,'' witness Bruce McIntyre told a reporter in 1942. ``It came in over Mussel
Rock very low, then over the hill back of us. It was so low I could see shroud lines almost touching the hilltop.''
The sagging L-8 landed a few miles away on a street in nearby Daly City, Calif., after hitting a house and two cars. Onlookers raced to help the
pilots, but there were no pilots to help.
The gondola was empty.
Volunteer firefighters tore open the blimp's envelope to see if the men might somehow be inside. They weren't. The fabric flattened out across the
road as hundreds of spectators gathered.
``The Navy is positive the men were not in the ship at any time during its derelict flight over land,'' the Navy announced.
Investigators were baffled. The gondola's door had been propped open. The throttles were set at idle. There was no evidence of foul play or fire. The
radio was in working order.
A life raft and parachutes were still in the cabin, but two life vests were missing. If something had gone wrong, why hadn't the men radioed for
Ships searched up and down the coast for weeks, but the pilots could not be found... nor would they be.
The Navy announced it ``was at a loss'' to explain the incident. Theories flew, but nothing seemed to fit.
Did a Japanese submarine capture the men? There was no such evidence.
Did the men get into a fight and accidentally fall out? Unlikely.
Did one man lose his balance, hang from the gondola and then drag his would-be rescuer with him? No one knew.
Cody's Akron relatives couldn't understand how such a tragedy had occurred.
``My son-in-law was a level-headed and unexcitable sort of person,'' Juanita Haddock told a reporter in 1942. ``He would have used his head in any
emergency, I believe.''
The L-8 quickly acquired the nickname of ``the ghost ship.'' Tales of the mysterious disappearance were embellished to include improbable details
about half-eaten sandwiches and still-warm cups of coffee found in the cabin.
The theories would later grow to include UFO abductions and Bermuda Triangle-like disturbances.
``There are plenty of stories -- wild and otherwise -- without having to resort to aliens,'' said Eric Brothers, a local authority on airships who
works at the University of Akron Archives. ``A conjectured Japanese submarine, a love triangle and other speculative theories have emerged.''
But nothing definitive.
One year after the incident, Cody and Adams were officially declared dead.
The L-8 would fly again, though.
It was repaired shortly after the crash and continued to serve the Navy as a training vessel. When the war ended, it was returned to Goodyear.
The gondola was stored at Wingfoot Lake for decades until it was finally rebuilt in 1968 for the Goodyear blimp America. The cabin where Cody and
Adams met their fate would be used to televise sporting events.
Despite the new configuration, it couldn't quite shake the old nickname. The ``ghost blimp'' flew over Texas from 1969 until 1982, when the
Houston-based America was retired.
Today, the former L-8 cabin is back in storage at Wingfoot Lake, waiting for another opportunity to soar into the sky.
Perhaps someday the ghost blimp will fly again.