Reprinted from the Jack Knight Air Log - The Zeppelin Collector - July 2010
The 1944 U.S. Navy Airship Transatlantic Mail
by Cheryl Ganz and Don Kaiser
Map showing the first transatlantic routes of non-rigid airships. In 1944, the first six US Navy airships crossed via the northern route from South Weymouth to Port Lyautey. In 1945, two blimps used the southern route from Weeksville to Port Lyautey via Bermuda. These eight blimps from ZP-14 were the only K-ships sent overseas during World War II.
To conduct anti-submarine warfare operations around the Straits of Gibraltar, the United States Navy sent a squadron of non-rigid airships across the Atlantic during World War II. Between May and July of 1944, six K-ships of Blimp Squadron 14 flew across the ocean to Morocco and thus became known as The Africa Squadron. The squadron also conducted Mediterranean escorts, rescues, and mine-spotting operations in cooperation with surface minesweeping craft. The transatlantic flights were the first by non-rigid airships and the first to carry transatlantic non-rigid airship mail.
To identify the flown mail, check for Squadron 14 and dates. This particular card, dated while the K-123 was already on its transatlantic flight, is still a desirable card and recently sold on eBay.
On May 31, 1944, blimp K-123 with the first transatlantic mail on board, was the first blimp to take-off from Lagens Field in the Azores on the final leg of the first transatlantic flight by non-rigid airships. Ens. William K. Kaiser, co-pilot, is in the forward lookout position and Ens. Warren H. Ireland, co-pilot, is looking out the starboard window manning the rudder. Behind Ens. Kaiser is Lt.(jg) Homer B. Bly, pilot, on the elevator.
On June 1, 1944, after completing the first transatlantic flight by non-rigid airships, Ensigns Ireland (left) and Kaiser (right) emerge from the K-123 with the first transatlantic mail carried by blimps. These parcels contained regular mail for Blimp Squadron 14 personnel that was forwarded from the squadron's previous base at Weeksville to Lakehurst and finally to the K-123 and the first transatlantic flight.
The first two airships K-123 and K-130 left South Weymouth, MA, on May 28, 1944 and stopped in Newfoundland and the Azores for refueling, maintenance, and crew changes before flying on to Port Lyautey, French Morocco, on June 1, 1944. The entire trip covered 3,145 nautical miles in 80 hours with 58 hours of actual flight time at an average altitude of 500 feet.
The K-123 carried mail. There was no special cachet or marking because the bundle was personal mail for crews that had been picked-up before departure rather than mail prepared for the flight. This mail is difficult to find because it was personal mail and crew members undoubtedly destroyed many of the envelopes after they read the contents. Only the notations of the squadron, postmarks of the departure points, and postmark dates can indicate whether a piece of mail could have been on the first transatlantic flight.
On June 15, K-109 and K-134 arrived, and on July 1, K-101 and K-112 arrived. The ZP-14 airships also operated from Gibraltar, France, Algeria, Tunisia, Malta, and Italy. The government document History of Blimp Squadron Fourteen Overseas explains the work of mine spotting. "A particularly delicate job of mine plotting was undertaken by the airship on 25 November when the French requested the blimp to plot a channel through a minefield so that construction material - bricks chiefly - could be shipped from the small port of Bandol to Toulon to repair war damage. The blimp spent three days plotting the channel through 19 mines that were placed across the 1.5 mile entrance to the bay. The work of plotting mines this accurately was painstaking (pages 30-31). In addition to mine spotting, Squadron 14 patrolled for submarines, performed aerial photography, and searched for missing aircraft. Escort missions included the convoy carrying Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill to the Yalta Conference in early 1945. After the end of the war in Europe, Blimp Squadron 14 continued operations until the end of 1945.
For further reading:
Grossnick, Roy A., Kite Balloons to Airships: the Navy's Lighter-than-Air Experience (Washington, DC: U.S. Navy).
Kaiser, Don, Blimp Squadron 14, This website provides an interactive map, details of the flight, videos, and the 60-page government document History of Blimp Squadron Fourteen Overseas. Webmaster Don Kaiser's uncle William Kaiser was a co-pilot on the K-123.
Kline, R. C. and Kubarych, S. J., Blimpron 14 Overseas, (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, Navy Yard).
Shock, James R., U.S. Navy Airships 1915-1962 (Edgewater, FL: Atlantis Productions, 2001).
Shock, James R., American Airship Bases & Facilities (Edgewater, FL: Atlantis Productions, 1996).
Vaeth, J. Gordon, Blimps & U-Boats: U.S. Navy Airships in the Battle of the Atlantic (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1992). This book has an entire chapter on The Africa Squadron with insightful stories.
Vaeth, J. Gordon, They Sailed the Skies: U.S. Navy Balloons and the Airship Program (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2005).