It began as a routine surveillance mission in the early months of World War II and ended in a mystery that remains unsolved after eight decades.
At about 6 a.m. on August 16, 1942, the United States Navy blimp L-8 took off from a small airfield on Treasure Island, an artificial island built in San Francisco Bay for a recent world’s fair. On board were two men: Lieutenant Ernest DeWitt Cody and Ensign Charles Ellis Adams.
Five hours later, the L-8 crashed on a suburban street in nearby Daly City, California, scraping rooftops and dislodging power lines along the way. Local fire crews left a blaze in the nearby hills to rush to the site, put out any flames and try to rescue the blimp’s crew. But they quickly discovered there was no one to save. Both pilots had somehow vanished from their ship.
The wreckage of the L-8 had barely been packed up and hauled away before newspapers gave the aircraft the nickname it carries to this day: the Ghost Blimp.
At the time, the U.S. had been at war for a little over eight months. Americans were on edge over possible Japanese attacks on the West Coast, so to watch for Japanese submarines, the Navy assembled a fleet of airships there, just as it did on the East Coast to patrol for German U-boats.
Most of the airships the Navy relied on for these purposes were blimps. Unlike rigid airships with a metal framework inside, such as Germany’s zeppelins, blimps consisted of little more than a gas-filled balloon, called an envelope, with a control car, or gondola, attached underneath. Because of their simplicity, blimps could easily be operated by small crews. They could even stay aloft and float along crewless (as the L-8 demonstrated) unless their envelope was punctured and the gas leaked out.
“Blimps had the perfect operational capabilities for coastal patrols,” says aviation historian Dan Grossman. “They could stay in the air for long periods of time, fly slowly and fly at very low altitudes, hover over targets, and operate in conditions of low visibility and low cloud ceilings, all of which were things that the fixed-wing airplanes of the time could not do.”
The L-8 was a former Goodyear blimp that the tire company had built for promotional purposes. In early 1942, the Navy took it and four other L-series blimps and stationed them at Moffett Field in Santa Clara County, California, which already housed several enormous airship hangars. Other L-series blimps went to Lakehurst, New Jersey, site of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster.
Cody and Adams were both experienced airship pilots. Cody, 27, had graduated from the Naval Academy in 1938. Adams, 34, had been in the Navy for over a decade and was recently commissioned as an officer. He had already survived one famous airship disaster: the crash and sinking of the U.S.S. Macon off the California coast in 1935.
A third man, machinist’s mate James Riley Hill, was briefly on board, but Cody ordered him off just before the L-8 left Treasure Island. Hill believed Cody was concerned about the added weight.
The first hour and a half of the flight seem to have been uneventful. Then, at 7:50 a.m., the men radioed that they had spotted an oil slick in the water—a possible indication of a submarine—and were investigating it. That was the last time the outside world heard from them.
Worried when the L-8 failed to report back, the Navy sent out search planes to look for it. Fears eased when a nearby military base reported that the blimp had landed there and two pilots had gotten out—news that soon proved false.
Instead, the blimp had touched down on a beach about a mile away. Bystanders said there was no one on board. Several of them tried to restrain it, but it rose again and began drifting toward Daly City.
Police and fire department rescuers in Daly City found the door to the blimp’s control car open but no signs of fire or other damage. The ship’s radio was in working order, and both men’s parachutes were untouched. The blimp was missing one of the anti-submarine depth charges it normally carried, but that soon turned up on a nearby golf course. Besides the two men, the only things missing were their lifejackets, colloquially known as “Mae Wests” after the bosomy actress and comedienne. That in itself was unsurprising, as it was standard practice for pilots to wear their lifejackets in flight.
The mystery only deepened as investigators probed further. The waters off San Francisco that day were busy with fishing boats as well as Navy and Coast Guard ships, so the blimp’s movements were observed by numerous people. According to accounts the investigators pieced together, the blimp had dropped two smoke flares over the oil slick to mark its location, then rose to a higher altitude. A passing Pan Am Clipper seaplane observed it in flight. A search plane spotted it at 2,000 feet, twice as high as it normally flew, before it dropped back under the clouds.
Meanwhile, on the ground, hundreds of bystanders followed the deflating and increasingly misshapen craft as it drifted through the skies. One later described it as looking like a “big broken wiener.” Some observers took photos, which the police did their best to confiscate.
As is often the case, witnesses gave contradictory accounts. Some claimed they saw no one on board the blimp. A woman who was horseback riding in the area said she’d used binoculars to spot not two but three men aboard. Others reported seeing men parachuting.
The Navy continued to search the waters off San Francisco for days. One optimistic theory was that Cody and Adams had been picked up by a ship that hadn’t been able to report their rescue yet because it was maintaining radio silence. But no trace of either man, or their lifejackets, was ever found.
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster and for decades to follow, numerous theories emerged. The men had been captured by the Japanese. They had defected. They had been murdered by a stowaway. They had killed each other in a fight over a woman. They had been abducted by aliens.
Many experts today subscribe to the more mundane theory that they simply fell out, possibly when one went to repair something outside the craft and lost his footing, followed by the other man attempting to rescue him and falling as well. The Navy favored that explanation, too, but admitted it was only “a matter of conjecture.”
Others have suggested that one man fell from the blimp and the other jumped into the sea to assist him. Grossman, for one, rejects that idea. “It is certainly possible that both officers accidentally fell into the ocean,” he says. “But if one officer had accidentally fallen, the other would have remained in the blimp to radio for assistance (the radio was functional) and ... mark his comrade’s location. There is a well-ingrained instinct in any Navy man not to abandon his ship unless absolutely necessary.”
“Indeed,” he adds, “‘Don’t Give Up the Ship’ is the U.S. Navy’s unofficial motto.”
After being repaired, the L-8 returned to service with the Navy. Following the war, it went back to Goodyear, where its control car eventually became part of the Goodyear Blimp America. With that blimp’s retirement in 1982, the control car went to the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida, where it remains on display. (Currently, the museum is open only to Department of Defense ID card holders.) A similar control car from a more fortunate blimp, the L-5, resides at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.