Arch H. McCleskey Jr.
Farm Boy Flies Blimps in WWII
By Arch H. McCleskey Jr.
On Sunday, December 7, 1941, I was upstairs,at home on Breezy Hill Farm, operating my amateur radio station when I realized something unusual was going on. I ran downstairs and heard the radio announcement that "Pearl Harbor has been bombed!" At that time, a lot of people in the U.S. didn't know where Pearl Harbor was. I knew because the week before I had filed a Civil Service job application for a job at Pearl Harbor. The following day, while at work on the NYA (National Youth Administration), we listened to President Roosevelt address the joint houses of congress to declare war.
The following month, I heard Walter Winchell,on the radio, saying how our country needed men with technical radio experience. He stated that the Navy was offering qualified persons the rank of "Second Class Petty Officer." At that time I didn't know what the word "petty" meant. I thought any type officer was fine.
The following week I decided to investigate this offer.I was teaching radio and electricity on the National Youth Administration (NYA) program in Marietta, Georgia, at the time. Two of my best students, Eugene Abercrombie and Johnny Staples, had obtained their amateur radio license and decided to go with me.
We went to the Navy recruiting office in Atlanta and were told that they didn't know anything about the program; however, a Navy commander was coming in three weeks to explain the program and select/recruit members. We made an appointment and returned in three weeks to meet the commander. He explained that there were three different ways that one might qualify: by having radio service experience, by having UHF experience, or by possessing an amateur radio license. I met all three of the categories and my students were accepted due to their license.
Next, we had to go through a physical examination to see if we were physically fit for the Navy - which I failed. We were told that the test in Atlanta was just a preliminary test and that we would be sent on to Macon for a thorough exam. I had failed the heart rate test and speech tests. When we got to Macon, I expected a very thorough test and didn't think I had much chance of getting in the Navy. They checked my heart and said that was O.K. They also found that I was a little tongue-tied and couldn't say the word "three" properly. One of the petty officers examining me asked "What if you were on watch and sighted three planes?" I replied "I would say I see two planes - and there's another one." He laughed and said "O.K., you just passed your Navy physical."
Then, we were herded into a large auditorium, along with about 500 other guys, to be sworn in at the same time. After we were sworn in, the officer who swore us in said "You are all in the navy now; however, all of you, with the exception of eight names that I will call, may return home and await our call which may be in three to six weeks." He called the eight names and it included me and my two buddies along with five other rated men. At that time I started to wonder if coming in with a rating was such a good idea.
The following morning we were put on a train and shipped to Charleston, SC, for our indoctrination into the Navy.
We were assigned quarters. Our quarters were one large room with thirty double bunk beds, one over the other. I was fortunate enough to get a lower bunk.
We were issued our navy gear, which included our leggings that we had to wear at all times during our basic training - thus the name "boot camp." We were also issued the "Bluejacket's Manual," which all sailors need to know. I was issued my sailor's stripes and shoulder patches and was told to sew them on my uniform. I didn't know beans about sewing and made a terrible mess when I tried. Then I was told that I could take the uniforms and patches to the laundry and for a little money they would sew them on in a few moments. This I did and it was great. I never would have passed inspection the way I sewed them on.
Next, we were marched to the barbershop. The barbers asked each of us how we wanted our hair cut before they gave us the standard Navy crew cut.
The normal six-month basic training was reduced to three weeks. This was just enough time to get all our shots. We learned just enough about Navy procedures, drilling, etiquette etc. to barely get by.
I remember my first experience on the rifle range. When they checked my target there were holes in and all around the bull's eye as well as a few scattered around the target. The only trouble, there were more holes than I had shot. My buddy next to me had no holes in his target. His name was C.C. Smith, who had been a Georgia State Patrolman before the war. The next round of shooting, made it obvious who had shot out my bull's eye - and it wasn't me.
At the completion of the three weeks, while awaiting orders to go to school, I was assigned to the Charleston Navy Radio Station.
Distress Calls from Ships being Sunk
This was my first actual Navy duty assignment. We worked four hours on and four hours off, four on and four off etc. for 48 hours, then we had 36 hours off. I had never been able to sleep in the daytime before and this schedule was really hard for me to adjust to and get any sleep.
Because I could type, I was assigned to a teletype machine. I had never even seen one before, but I was told to sit down and start typing anything I wanted to. I started typing something like "Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of his country" when suddenly the darn machine went wild and started typing all by itself. I was amazed when it started asking me personal questions. Then I learned that I was talking (by machine) to a Marine over in Paris Island. I soon learned to use the teletype machine and enjoyed it.
A number of the sailors were monitoring commercial shipping air waves. They were using headsets; however, when they heard a distress message they would unplug the headset putting the message on loud speakers so we could all copy it. It was a surprise to me how many of our ships were being sunk by German U-boats at that time. I think that nearly every time I had the midnight to 0400 shift, there was at least one attack. I don't think the American public was aware of the damage being done by those German submarines.It was a terrible feeling to be copying a distress message and the sender turns on the automatic distress machine, then that goes dead. We could only assume that the ship went down and hope and pray that the crew survived. I later learned that One U-boat sank twenty-one supply ships in the month of March 1942. From January to June 1942, the German U-boats sank 397 merchant ships and naval vessels in U.S. coastal waters and killed 5,000 seamen.
University of Houston
We were sent to the University of Houston, Houston, Texas, for special training. This was a special course where they had taken most of the electrical and electronic classes from a four year electrical engineering course and they tried to ram them all into our head in nine months. It was rough. I kid you not. In fact, it was so rough that about 40% of the class of men who had met the qualifications to come in as Second Class Radiomen, failed the class. I'm not sure what happened to those who failed. We were told that if we failed we would be given a lower rating or released from service - but I don't think that happened. Johnny Staples, one of the men who enlisted with me was among that group. They sent Johnny to another school at Treasure Island, California and I didn't hear from him after that.
Houston was a really great liberty town. There weren't too many sailors there. Any time a service man visited a church on Sunday, someone invited them out for dinner. I enjoyed going to the First Methodist Church there because Dr. Charles Allen, who I knew and who had been a pastor at some of the local churches here, was the pastor there. I also enjoyed being invited out for lunch or dinner. I met some very nice people that way.
We were in Houston in the summer of 1942 and it was extremely hot. That was where I learned to enjoy beer. On Saturday, at noon, we would have to stand inspection in that hot sunshine. When inspection was over, we had liberty and would head for a bar downtown. There they served ice cold beer in cold frosty mugs and it really hit the spot. I admit that I didn't particularly like the taste of beer when I first tasted it; however, it didn't take long under those conditions to develop a real taste for it.
Although our instructors were all civilian university professors, we were still very much in the military; we had to march to and from classes, chow etc. We had to get up early every morning to drill and do calisthenics. The barracks we stayed in weren't bad. I was surprised at the air condition system used to cool it. To me it looked like a bale of hay with water pouring over it and a big fan pulling air through it - but, in that dry climate it worked.
We were never told what we were training for while at the university. We were just told, "That's classified."
Birth of Aviation RADAR
Upon completion of our course at the University of Houston, we received orders to Ward Island NAS Corpus Christi, Texas.
All of Ward Island was set up for some type of special training. There was a security fence around the whole Ward Island base. On the base, there was another security fence around another area called "The Compound." The compound housed all the training buildings and equipment. It was guarded and patrolled continuously. We were not allowed to take even a scrap piece of paper in or out of the compound.
We soon learned that the big secret was something called Radio Detection and Ranging or RADAR. The principle had been discovered when some scientist was trying to measure the height of the ionosphere when he received a reflected signal much too soon for the ionosphere and he realized that the reflected signal was from an airplane that was flying over at the time. They then learned that most objects, especially metal objects reflected radio energy.
By sending out large pulses of radio energy and measuring the time it takes for the pulse to go out and the reflected signal (echo) to return they could determine the distance to the object. The direction to the object could be determined by the direction the directional antenna was pointing at the time.
We learned that the British night fighter planes had first been equipped with RADAR and this had enabled the pilots to detect "see" the German bombers at night and shoot them down before they could drop their bombs on London. This resulted in Winston Churchill making his famous speech in which he stated "Never before in the history of our country have so many owed so much to so few." The "few" he referred to were the pilots using radar.
I was in the first aviation radar class taught in the United States. The first radar system we studied was a British made system called an ASV. This system was a little crude, some of the tubes were held in place by rubber bands, but it worked.
In England the oscillator tube (the heart of the radar) was assembled by hand. Girls in factories carefully installed the grids and other elements by hand. Our U.S. engineers went over to England and took measurements and with their slide rules determined how to mass produce these tubes. This they did, the only problem was that they wouldn't oscillate and wouldn't work. They never did get that particular type oscillator tube to work. However, our engineers designed and built other oscillator tubes that did work. They perfected the cavity magnetron tube that became the heart of most radar systems and is still being used today. In fact, most microwave ovens uses a magnetron tube.
The next system we studied was the ASB system. This was the American version of the British ASV system. It was manufactured by Bendix. This was a very simple system. Two (directional) antennas were installed - one on each wing. In the search mode the antennas were aligned with the aircraft wings, sending signals at 90 degrees to the aircraft heading.
At the instant a microwave energy pulse was transmitted from the airplane, an electronic beam was started up an oscilloscope tube which was the radar indicator or "B" scope. A reflected signal from a target would appear on the scope at a position representing the distance to the target. When a target was detected, the aircraft had to change its course by 90 degrees to head toward the target.
The antennas had to be rotated 90 degrees, (hydraulically or by electric motors) toward the front of the aircraft.This selected the homing mode as shown below.
The pilot would home in on the target by looking at the "B" scope and keeping the blips balanced by turning the plane.
The security of the school remained extremely strict. We were not allowed to even mention the word "RADAR" outside of the compound. Also we were not allowed to discuss any type radio circuit or problem, even if it had nothing to do with RADAR. This was difficult because when a bunch of radio hams and service people get together. It's just normal to discuss some of their experiences and problems.
We had to stand guard duty in our barracks and take turns at guarding the compound. The gates of the compound were guarded by U.S. Marines, but we had to patrol (walk around) the compound security fence.
I considered it foolish, but the only weapon they provided us was a billy or nightstick. Toward the back of the compound there was a narrow road with the compound fence on one side and a bay on the other. One evening I was in that area and encountered a problem. Right in the middle of the road was a huge rattlesnake all coiled up with its head and rattling tail sticking up. There wasn't enough room to safely get by it on either side. I couldn't turn around and go back to try and get help, which would have been deserting a military post. I looked around and finally found a rock and a stick about two feet long. I hit the snake with the rock and it uncoiled. I started beating it on the head until it was about dead. Some marines in a jeep in the compound saw me beating the snake and came over to see what was going on. I gave them the snake and they cut off its twelve rattlers. I was told that if it had twelve rattlers it was twelve years old. I don't know, I just know that it was the worst looking snake that I had ever seen at that time. Later, in Africa, I saw Spitting Cobras, Pythons, one and two step Mambas, but none of them scared me like that big rattlesnake.
Our RADAR flight training was in a Navy PBY, the only aircraft available to the school at the time. In addition to RADAR, we learned about another system called Identification Friend or Foe (IFF). When a vessel carrying this system was struck by a radar pulse, it would transmit a coded signal so that the radar detecting it could determine that it was a friendly vessel. This system was even more classified than RADAR. It had a built-in detonator that would completely destroy the unit if it crashed in enemy territory. The first unit that we studied was the ABJ system.
Being young and the farthest away from home that I had ever been - I was lonesome. Before entering the service I had been dating a pretty little blond named Rushia Stowe. I called Rushia and asked her to come out to see me and she said "O.K.." Now, back in that day boy and girl didn't live together without being married. In fact, it was a disgrace if they were suspected of sleeping together one night. I got to thinking about it and decided that I shouldn't disgrace this young lady, so I called her back and asked her to marry me. She accepted, and I was hooked.
Some of my friends back home, who knew Rushia well, strongly advised me against the marriage. Who can tell a teenager anything? I also learned that my parents were much opposed to the marriage. But I thought "I'm a grown man fighting for my country, so why should I take anyone's advice?" Now! I know how wrong I was.
I rented a little efficiency apartment downtown Corpus. It so happened that on the weekend that Rushia was to arrive and we were to be married, a hurricane hit the coast of Texas including Corpus Christi and all passes were canceled. I went to see the chaplain and explained the situation to him. He spent about an hour trying to talk me out of getting married. After that failed, he arranged for me to get a special pass.
The night before the pass started, the storm hit with such force that we had to stay up all night packing towels and toilet paper in and around the doors and windows, trying to cut down the amount of rain blowing in. However, that 110-MPH wind still forced a lot of water into the barracks. We used mops and buckets to get up the water as best we could. That building rocked, squeaked and shook, but it withstood the hurricane.
The following morning the wind had calmed down a little, so I took my special pass and went to the bus station to meet my fiancee. I arrived at the bus station about an hour ahead of that bus from Georgia. That was a long anxious hour. When the bus finally arrived, Rushia was tired and sleepy after the long trip, but we were both all smiles and happy to see each other.
We found a Methodist minister who performed our wedding in his home. I think he used his wife and a neighbor for witnesses.
The honeymoon was very short. I had a one-day, two-night pass. Anyway, we thought it was great. However, I did wonder after the first night why she asked if I liked lettuce and carrots also.
Being in school, I was able to be home most weekends and two out of three nights. We enjoyed the beach, movies and being together.
When our classes at Ward Island were completed, we were given a list of assignments and asked to list our preference. Most of the places listed were on the West Coast; the only one listed on the East Coast was a lighter-than-air (LTA) unit at Lakehurst, N.J.. I didn't even know what lighter-than-air was, but I listed it as my first preference and got it.
Rushia came back to Georgia while I was sent on a troop train to Lakehurst, New Jersey.
LTA Lakehurst, New Jersey
When I first enlisted, I was a radioman second class (RM2c). While at Charleston, that was changed to aviation radioman second class (ARM2c). At Corpus that was changed to aviation radio technician second class (ART2c).
The first night that we got liberty after arriving at Lakehurst, two of my technician buddies and I went to town on liberty. While waiting for a bus to go back to the base that night, A Naval officer came by and gave us a ride back to the base. He asked about our ratings and we told him "Radio Technician." He said "Oh, then you must be my new RADAR people." We looked at each other in shock. This was the first time we had ever heard the word "RADAR" spoken outside the compound on Ward Island. Soon after that, the comic strip "Smiling Jack" told all about RADAR.
The following week we started to lighter-than-air school.
For those of you who may be interested in some of the basics about "blimps," I'll provide the following. During World War I the British used some small airships that collapsed when the gas was taken out; so they called them "limps." The most common patrol airship in WWI was type-B, the name soon combined into blimp.
The primary type airship we used in WWII for convoy and patrol work was the K-Ship. For flight training we used a smaller airship, with pusher type engines, called the L-Ship. Toward the end of the war, the Navy came out with a much larger airship called the M-1. As most of my experience was with the K-Ship, that's the one I'll talk about. I only flew in the M-1 once and that was an eighteen-hour flight, which was too much for me; however, the airship could stay up for three days.
The U.S. Navy used helium for lift instead of hydrogen which was used in the rigid ships like the Hindenburg, Akron and Macon. Helium is heavier than hydrogen; therefore, it doesn't have the lifting power of hydrogen, but it won't burn or explode like hydrogen, so it's much safer.
The K-Ship was a non-rigid airship. The elongated egg-shaped envelope, or bag, was made of a strong flexible material. This material was several layers of special fabric on a bias with a rubberized coating on each layer.
The following table covers the size and general specifications of the K-type airship:
Envelope volume ................................. 456,000 cubic feet
Air ballonets (2) ................................... 119,500 cubic feet
Length ................................................... 253.0 feet
Width .................................................... 65.0 feet
Speed .................................................... Maximum 67.5 knots
Speed .................................................... Cruising 50 knots
Endurance at cruise ............................ 59.0 hours
Range at cruise .................................... 1,910 nautical miles
Engines (2) ........................................... Pratt and Whitney R-1340-N2,425
Propellers (2) ....................................... Curtiss,3 blades, 12.5 feet Diameter
Average K-ship cost ............................ $299,000.00
The bag was divided into three compartments. The main compartment contained the helium and the smaller compartments, called ballonets, contained air. The air was used to trim the ship. If air was pumped from the forward ballonet to the aft ballonet it would force helium toward the front of the bag causing the nose to go up. Therefore, the air was like ballast, if pumped aft the tail would go down, if pumped forward the nose would go down. We controlled the air and helium by control cables on the flight station overhead control panel. The car, or gondola, was attached to the bag.
The car was approximately 42 feet long, 9 feet wide and 14 feet high. It was made of chrome-molybdenum tubing covered with sheet aluminum.
The pilot, or elevator man, position was on the forward port side. It had a large wheel at the right side to control the elevator - up or down of the ship. The copilot, or rudderman, was on the forward starboard side. It had a steering wheel to control the direction of the ship. In front and slightly below the pilot and copilot was the bombardier/forward lookout. Above the bombardier was the forward gunner. Just art of the copilot's position, was the Navigator's station.
Aft of that was the radioman's position. On the port side behind the pilot was the galley.
The radar man's position was next. The flight engineer's station was on the port side about midway of the car. From there to the rear of the car were comfortable seats and bunks for off duty crew members to rest. The aft gunner/aft lookout was at the rear of the car.
The blimp carried four depth bombs. Two Mark 17's in the bomb bay under the cabin floor and two Mark 24's in the two outboard racks. A .50-caliber machine gun was mounted in the forward position and a s.30 caliber in the rear. We also carried a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) in the cabin.
While I was being trained to fly and maintain the blimps at Lakehurst; Columbia University, under the directions of some of the world's greatest scientists at the MIT, was developing a new type radar. This radar used a plan position indicator (PPI) and could show targets 360 degrees around the aircraft.
The antenna used for this was a large rotating dish about 30" in diameter. A hole was cut in the bottom of the gondola and in flight the antenna, with a large wood radome surrounding it was manually lowered into the airstream, using a hand crank. This was done after the one wheel landing gear had been manually retracted. The receiver/transmitter (RT unit) was mounted on the antenna mount. The radome was made from a material, like plywood, with a shiny light oak finish. The navy didn't like that shiny finish, so after I got to Richmond, they came out with an order to paint the radome navy gray. Of course that didn't work, the paint absorbed, or antiquated, the radar signal. I ran some tests in the shop and proved what was happening, so they reluctantly gave an order to remove the paint. Later they came up with a fiberglass radome that worked fine.
The Columbia University prototype unit worked really well. Based on these results, Philco Corp. built a commercial system designated the ASG system. Later when the Army/Navy standard nomenclature system came into being the system became the AN/APS-2A system.
In the early systems the beam in the PPI was rotated by rotating the deflection coils around the neck of the cathode ray tube in sync with the rotating antenna. Later, this rotation effect was accomplished electronically using stationary deflection coils.
Another very important electronic system used on the blimps was the Magnetic Anomaly Detection (MAD) system. This system could detect submarines under water, even if they were lying on the bottom of the ocean with their engines stopped. The system worked by detecting minute changes in the earth's magnetic field due to the magnetic field of another object, like a submarine. The field sensing detector (head) was located on the bottom of the blimp bag, about 30 feet in front of the gondola. This was well away from any metal in the airship. The output of the system was an ink recorder.
Sketch of a normal field
Sketch indication of a sub or sunken ship
If we detected something that might be a submarine, we would drop a flare. Then we would circle the blimp to crisscross the flair on all sides to determine the largest deflection which represented the location of the sub. We would drop another flair indicating the location of the sub. If the sub was moving, we could track it. At that time, we would manually arm the depth charges that the blimp carried and make a bombing run. During the first year of the war, this was not a precise procedure. The blimp commander had to estimate the wind, airspeed, speed of the sub, depth of the sub and all other factors affecting the accuracy of the bombing and give the command to release the charge. Later in the war we got the "Norden Bomb Site" which eliminated a lot of guess work.
After locating a sub, before making a bombing run, we would radio for back-up. Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard heavier-than-air would take over and finish the job if our four depth charges had not done it.
RADIO and other electronics
We used a high frequency (HF) radio with a long wire trailing antenna. The wire was on a reel and had to be extended and retracted manually. Most all the communications were by CW code. We also had a VHF radio.
At the beginning of the war we didn't have an intercom system, so communication aboard ship was by shouting and the navy bell system. Later, we got an intercom system, an electronic compass system, an electronic altimeter, an updated IFF, and even a directional sonar buoy system.
I remember well my first flight at Lakehurst.The flight was eight hours long. I enjoyed it and made it fine except for one problem. For some reason I could not urinate. I think it was because I was timid and had trouble using the facilities which consisted of a funnel attached to a rubber tube in the open gondola where the whole crew could see you. By the end of that flight, I was hurting badly. However, by the next flight I had overcome the problem and was never bothered by it again.
Soon after I arrived at Lakehurst, I rented a small apartment in Toms River, NJ. and my wife Rushia came up and lived with me during my four months of training.
I remember Christmas day 1942. I had to fly a 10-hour patrol. At least we had a nice turkey dinner aboard, even if it was cold. The day was no fun for my wife, who was alone all day and the weather was so bad that she couldn't even get out of the house.
At Lakehurst, I learned about all the systems as well as how to fly the airship.
In January 1943 we completed our training and received our orders. I was assigned to Zeppelin Patrol Squadron Twenty-one (ZP..-21) at Richmond, Florida.
Our troop train trip from Lakehurst to Miami was a memorable one. There were two "real characters" on that train. They had both been in the Navy and at sea for many years. They seemed to enjoy life without letting anything bother them. One was a first-class and the other a second-class radioman. I had gotten to know them during our LTA training. They played poker and drank beer from the time we left New Jersey until we reached Miami. Any time the train would stop in a town, one of them would hop off and run get more beer and try to get back on the train. There were times they had to run like heck to catch up to the train and we would pull him aboard. Just to illustrate how crazy these two guys were - after we got to Miami and they watched people driving around with just their bathing trunks on. So they made a bet and one Sunday afternoon they drove down Miami Beach and through downtown Miami with absolutely no clothes on - no towel across their lap or anything. And they got away with it, winning their bet. There's an awful lot that I could write about those two, but it might make this book too long and most people wouldn't believe it anyway. They certainly made Navy life interesting.
NAS Richmond, Florida
US Naval Air Station, Richmond, Florida, was placed in commission 15 September 1942. It was commissioned Fleet Airship Group One, Airship Patrol Squadron Twenty-one (ZP.-21) on November 1, 1942. I arrived there in early January 1943.
There were three huge blimp hangars on the base. These hangars were as high as a sixteen-story building. They were 1000 feet long, 237 feet wide and 150 feet high. They were so large that, occasionally, clouds would form and it would rain inside the hangars. They were constructed of large wooden beams (mostly 12" by 4") bolted together. We were told that these were the largest wooden construction in the world. Also, they were supposed to be fire proof and hurricane proof.
While at Lakehurst, I had been promoted to first-class. Two second-class technicians, Huey and Harris, were assigned to Richmond NAS with me. The day we arrived we reported to the squadron commander. I still remember his statement, he said "Good luck, but if I had my way about it, I would have all that junk pulled off the airship, because I don't think it's worth the weight that it costs us." I soon learned why he felt that way. They had nobody who really knew how to operate it. Some pilots had a little training but they had never had a system to operate satisfactorily in flight.
The United States Navy constructed Naval Air Station (NAS) Richmond in 1942. Shown here is the interior of one of the huge blimp Hangars as it neared completion.
Harris, Huey and I started working our "butts" off day and night to get that equipment working and changing people's attitudes. NAS Richmond was located just a few miles south of Miami.
This was great for me, because at that time a large part of my family was in the Miami area. My sister Nell ran a boarding house for single ladies, on West Flagler Street. My sister Gladys was one of those ladies living with her. My brother Fred, his wife Grace and their family lived in North Miami. My sister Ruth and her husband Jack lived in Hialeah (near the horse racetrack.) My brother Ray, his wife Nora and family lived just north of Miami in Hollywood. Only my parents and sister Martha were still on Breezy Hill Farm in North Georgia. My brother Earle was overseas "helping me win the war."
My first wife, Rushia, joined me for a short period of time. We soon realized that our marriage was a mistake and separated. I won't go into any of that.
Lighter-than-air, or the Blimp Navy, often called the S---bag Navy, was a close knit unique organization. I realized that at our first personnel inspection. This was an inspection by Admiral Rosendahl, who was head of lighter-than-air at that time. We spent over a week getting ready for this inspection and some of our officers were really worried about it. On the day of the inspection, I was standing between two older navy chiefs with gold hash marks all the way down their arms. (I was a slick sleeve chief). Anyway, when the admiral approached the chief on my left he stopped and said something like "Well, I'll be damned, it's Pappi Parker." He shook his hand and talked with him for some time. Then he stopped at the guy on my right and grabbed his hand saying "Inanicone! It's good to see you. How in the hell are you?" I was dumbfounded. These two friends, who I shared a room with, never once mentioned that they knew this guy who we were working so hard to get ready for. I learned that Parker had been his radioman and Inanicone had been his crew chief years earlier.
First Flight with ZP-21
After getting the equipment working, I arranged to fly the first flight. We took off before daybreak and the airship commander was Lt. Commander Harris, an Annapolis graduate.
After takeoff, I went up and asked the commander "Permission to turn on the radar, Sir?" He replied "You can turn the damn stuff on if you want to. We are going out to meet a convoy." As soon as I turned the equipment on it showed the convoy 29 miles away at 350 degrees. We didn't have an intercom system in those days so I walked up and told the commander. He replied "You mean you actually picked them up. I want to see." He came back to the radar and I showed him the indication on the screen. He was impressed but questioned the position of the convoy. He said the convoy should be straight ahead and wanted to know if the radar could be wrong. After I assured him the radar wasn't wrong he said "O.K. I'm going to change course, but if you are wrong I'll have your ass." A little bit later, he called me and said "You were right, I see smoke from the convoy straight ahead." I said "Yes Sir, there are 13 ships in the convoy." He said "What! Can you tell that on that thing? I want to see." He came back and I showed him the location of all the individual ships in the convoy and he said "Well I'll be damned."
Later on in the day as we were seesawing back and forth in front of the convoy, I noticed a small target about 15 miles away at 90 degrees to our course. I reported it to the commander and he said "Oh, that's (such and such) Island." I said, "I don't think so, but I need permission to shut off the equipment, because one of the invertors is getting too hot." While I was down changing the invertor, he tapped me on the shoulder and said "You were right, that was a target. We went over to investigate and it is a small fishing boat." After that, I had no problems with Lt. Commander Harris. He requested that I check all the pilots out on how to operate the equipment.
We three technicians rotated flights, one flying while the other two worked on the equipment, or two flying while one worked trying to repair the equipment. We checked out all the pilots and radio operators on the operation of the radar and MAD, so that they could rotate positions in flight.
Soon, all the pilots learned to really appreciate radar and did not want to fly unless it was fully operative. If it failed at night, the flight was discontinued until it could be repaired. It was a wonderful aid to navigation. On early flights, I won a few bets with navigators concerning our position. Of course all I had to do was look at the radar screen and compare it to a map to see exactly where we were. While the navigator had to calculate the airspeed, wind drift (which was a big factor with that big air bag) magnetic heading, deviation etc. The pilots, flying as navigators, soon learned to check their calculations by looking at the radar screen. The Navy didn't have navigators like the Air Force. Instead all pilots were checked out on how to navigate.
As the war progressed, we got more airships, more radar technicians as well as radar operators. The airship would not take off if the radar wasn't operating correctly, and would return if the equipment failed, especially at night. Lt. Commander Harris became the operation officer and he was really "rough." Most of the enlisted men and junior officers were really scared of him. Many a night, after an airship would return due to a radar problem, I would hear that "Mr. Harris is 'raising hell' and is on his way to our shop." That didn't worry me because Mr. Harris and I had respect for each other after that first flight. Usually, he would just ask what the problem was, what we were doing to fix it and how soon could they be ready to fly. I would tell him and he would say something like "Fine Mac, just keep me advised of any changes."
Later, Mr. Harris was promoted to Commander and as Executive Officer of ZP.-21. In keeping with his Annapolis training he made a lot of changes including Port and Starboard liberty, which was one night on and one off, one weekend on and one off, etc. The day after he put out that order I walked by his office and he called me in to see him. He asked what I thought about his new Port and Starboard directive. I told him "I don't like it worth a damn, Sir!" He said "O.K. Chief, I will issue you and all your people white liberty cards and you can arrange your own liberty; just make sure the job is always done properly." So, from then on, all my people and I had white liberty cards that would allow us to go on or off the base anytime we desired. I was able to keep a white liberty card for the remainder of my service.
Our routine flights were either convoy duty, normal patrol or search and rescue. On convoy duty we would pick up the convoy when they left a port and stay with them as long as they were at sea. Our blimp would zigzag back and forth in front of the convoy searching for submarines. By use of MAD, RADAR and visual observance we would "sweep" the path of the convoy. This sometimes became a little boring after doing it 12 to 14 hours; however, it paid off. During WWII not one ship was ever lost while being escorted by a blimp.
On normal patrol, we searched up and down the U.S. and Cuba coast lines searching for enemy submarines or other vessels. Sometimes these flights became very interesting,especially when we would fly low over areas where there were nude sunbathers. We always carried plenty of high-powered binoculars on board. Our normal route from the base to the ocean went directly over a number of apartments with flat roofs which were used as sun decks. If the sun was out, we could expect to see a number of young beauties getting complete sun tans.
The K-ship had 10 crew positions, but we usually carried a crew of 12, one extra pilot and one extra crewman, so that we could rotate positions and have some off-duty time during the long flight. The pilot, copilot, radar operator, navigator and radioman would rotate positions (where qualified), and the flight engineer, forward lookout/bombardier, gunner and aft lookout would rotate. A pilot usually made up the schedule at the beginning of the flight. The schedule was broken up in one-hour or two-hours spans.
A typical schedule for me on an eight-hour flight might be as follows:
One hour on the RADAR.
One hour on the Elevator (Pilot's position).
One hour on the Radio (Radioman's position).
One hour off (rest time).
One hour one the Rudder (Copilots position).
One hour on the Elevator.
One hour on the Radio.
One hour on the RADAR
Blimps have a pitch and roll, like a ship at sea. Many people get seasick on LTA flights. This normally did not bother me. In fact, with thousands of hours in the air I was never sick enough to upchuck but once and that was an unusual situation that I'll tell about. One night I had been "out on the town" drinking wine all night. I didn't get back to the base until after 2:00AM. At 4:00AM, I was awakened and told that I had to go fly. There was a plane down near Titusville, Fla. We had to go search for survivors. We took off at 0430. I was assigned to the copilot position. The command pilot, Ken, had a young officer friend with him and he wanted to show him the beautiful Miami Beach. Ken wanted to fly low over the beach near the hotels. He was flying about 50 feet above the ground and wanted me to fly over the beach close to the hotels. There was a strong wind blowing around those buildings that morning. This wind between the hotels would blow us out toward sea and Ken would tell me "Come in closer." With no wind due to the building cutting it off, our blimp would head straight for a hotel and I would have to steer like hell to keep from flying into a hotel. Then we would head out to sea again and I would have to fight to bring it back. This went on until I became so sick that I couldn't stand it any longer. I called for someone to take my place and I headed back to the "can" where I upchucked everything, including the wine from the night before. After that, I still felt bad but was able to perform my duties for the remainder of the flight.
The wind blowing around those hotels reminded of another flight. We were flying along the northwest coast of Cuba when we ran into a severe thunderstorm. Again I was at the rudder control when the blimp almost became uncontrollable. There was a time that I thought we were going to be slammed into one of those mountains in spite of all we could do. But, thank God, we finally got out of the thunderstorm and returned safely to our base.
Blimps do not handle very well in thunderstorms. Perhaps the worst scared I ever was in a blimp was one day when we were crossing the Florida everglades returning to the base. We normally tried to avoid all thunderstorms, but that day they were all around us and we soon found ourselves right in the middle of a bad one. We were flying at about 400 feet when suddenly we hit a down draft. That was a terrifying time. The downward wind pushed the bag down faster than the gondola. The blimp flipped 90 degrees, completely sideways. I was at the radar position looking out the window. I was looking straight down watching the everglades rapidly coming up to slap me in the face. A crew member broke out the life raft, but I don't know what good that would have done. The pilot called for full power and had full up elevator, but no response. Finally, when we were about 25 feet from that swampy everglades, the blimp gondola swung back to its normal position and we just bounced and started to climb. We all breathed a sigh of relief and "thanked God," because a moment before that we thought we were goners. From then on we were very careful to stay away from thunderstorms, if possible.On one flight, we had been out over the ocean for several hours when the starboard engine failed. Of course, this is no problem with lighter-than-air. We continued to fly but at reduced speed. Anyway, the flight mechanic, attached to a safety line, climbed out on the outrigger and repaired the engine (by replacing a mag., I think) and we continued our normal patrol. You sure couldn't do that with heavier than air.
There was another flight out of Richmond, which I wasn't on, that lost both engines shortly after takeoff. The airship was very heavy with a full fuel and bomb load, so they were losing altitude fast. They dumped some of their fuel, and possibly the depth charges (I'm not sure about that), but they were still too heavy, so they threw out some of the electronic gear to get light enough to stay in the air. Then, they repaired the engines and returned to base. I had to write up what happened to that electronic gear.
Isle of Pines Cuba
(Ilsa de Pinos)
As the war progressed, we expanded our patrol to cover the Caribbean, coast of Cuba and upper South America. To do this we needed a base of operation in the area. The Navy arranged to operate out of a cow pasture near the center of the Isle of Pines, an island off the south coast of Cuba. They had a blimp mooring mast installed in the pasture near an old barn that we were able to use as a maintenance area.
I went down on one of the first flights and set up a radio/radar maintenance shop in one room of the barn. We were located near the little town of Santa Fe, one of the two towns on the island. There was one hotel in the town and that is where we stayed. This beat any other Navy quarters that I knew of. This was a wonderful assignment; it was more like civilian life than military life. Strict Navy formalities were bypassed. I don't think anyone saluted anyone else the full time that I was there.
Hotel and Food
Hotel Santa Fe was old but very comfortable. The hotel bar was great. Of course we got to know the bartender really well. I think that rum was cheaper than coke on the island. The first rum and coke one ordered would be about like a normal strong drink in the States. However, as the time went on the drinks got stronger and stronger. By the end of the evening or after about the fourth drink, a rum and coke became a glass of rum with a skim of coke on top. Also, they had a native beer there that was very good. I don't remember the name of it, but it had a picture of an American Indian on it. When that Indian winked at you, it was time to stop drinking until the next day.
When we first arrived there, the food, especially the meat, was awful. The meat would look good, but before I could get a bite up to my mouth, the smell was so horrible that I could not eat it. The third day that we were there they had fried chicken. I thought "Great! That will be something that I can eat." But, like the other meats, it smelled bad also. I learned that the natives did not let the animals bleed when they killed them. After we complained, the Navy sent an American dietitian there to be in charge of the kitchen, and it really made a different - everything was fine after that.
Blimp Operations from a Cow Pasture
We used local native men and boys to help pull the blimp down and get it to the mooring mast. The flight crew tried to return to the area about the same time each day - between 4:00PM and 5:00PM. The native ground crew would be there waiting. I don't know what the Navy had to pay these people to help pull the blimp in, but I'm sure it wasn't much.
After the ship landed and was moored, we performed necessary maintenance. One of the biggest problems was refueling. We had no refueling truck, so most of the refueling had to be done manually. All the fuel had to be filtered through a chammois cloth to remove the water and other impurities. This was done during the day as we pumped the fuel from a large tank into fifty gallon drums on a flatbed truck. This was a slow operation, but we had plenty of time during day. The fuel had to be pumped from the drum to the ship using a hand-operated wobble pump.
I had enough electronic spare units, "black boxes," that I could replace the box and repair the removed unit the next day that I wasn't flying. I usually flew every third day, but would fly more often when needed.
Operating out of the pasture didn't cause too many problems. The blimp did not require a paved runway for landing because it was usually light and the wheel didn't touch until the blimp was pulled down. On takeoff, however, we had to take off like heavier-than-air, because with a full fuel load and bomb load we were definitely heavier than air. We had a long flat, reasonably smooth, area that we used for takeoff. One morning we had a full load of bombs and fuel, and it was cool and raining and it had been raining for some time so the bag was covered with water. We started a normal takeoff run but that ship stayed on the ground. We gave it full power and full up elevator and continued to roll. I saw a barbed wire fence in front of us and just knew that we wouldn't make it over that; however, by that time the wind had blown a little water off the bag and we tipped but cleared that fence. We breathed a sigh of relief and continued our mission, which was patrolling the coast of Central and South America that day.
There weren't many Americans on the island, but those who were there appeared to be "laid back" and easy going, enjoying the slow easy life on the island. One of the men on the island was a multi millionaire, who had come to the island as a beachcomber. He came to the island in the early 1920's and got a job taking care of the fruit orchards and banana groves. Then around 1926 times were hard, there was as bad depression and a hurricane hit the island. Most of the American owners fled the island leaving the groves to the caretaker. This caretaker stayed on and became the owner of a large part of the island. By 1943, when I was there, he was a multi millionaire. I don't know what happened to him when Castro took over Cuba.
Another interesting person, who I got to know really well, was Mr. Rice. Mr. Rice had a watch repair shop in his home, the only watch repair place on the island. His story of how he happened to settle on the Isle of Pines interested me. He had taken over his father's watch repair shop in Canada after his father's death. One day he needed a little silver, so he took the back off an old pocket watch that he found in the shop. When he started to scrape some silver off the inside cover he was amazed to find a tiny treasure map. He studied that map and determined that it was an island in the Caribbean Sea. From then on he was assessed with the idea of locating that treasure. He sold his home and business in Canada, bought and equipped a large boat, then he and his family set out to find the treasure.
When they were south of Cuba, they ran into trouble. Both engines failed and the ship developed a leak, so they were sitting out in the sea slowly sinking. He radioed the Coast Guard and they rescued them and towed them into Nueva Gerona, Isle of Pines. While waiting for the boat to be repaired, he started repairing watches for folks on the island. He and his family fell in love with the island. He bought a nice place in Santa Fe and considered it a paradise. His watch repair business was very good. He had a small lathe and other equipment where he made many of the parts he needed. This was faster and easier than trying to get them from the States. They had been on the island more than 15 years when I knew them. He said that he still had the map and planed someday to continue his search for the treasure.
The owner of the Santa Fe hotel, where we stayed, was a big fisherman. One day when I returned to the hotel, there were two huge barracuda fish, more than ten feet long, on the front porch. Needless to say, the hotel served a lot of fish the next few days.
There were some pretty Cuban girls on the island, but most of them had bad teeth and did not speak English. Once a friend and I were going to church on the island. As we were entering the church, I noticed a beautiful young native lady, who I pointed out to my friend. He said "Yes, but I bet she doesn't have all her teeth. We were astonished when she turned around and in perfect English stated "I have all thirty-two of them, thank you!"
There was one tavern in the town. It was very much like what I imagine the early bars out West were like. It had a dirt floor, a hitching post out front and wooden swinging doors. Like the hotel bar, rum was cheaper than coke, so Rum and Coke soon became Rum and Rum. My friend and I used to frequent the tavern and at about midnight we would stagger out. We would walk down the middle of the dirt road to the hotel singing songs like "Behind Those Swinging Doors" and "Bless Them All."
Return to Richmond
After about six weeks, I returned to the states and Huey replaced me. We made some special arrangements concerning spare parts and booze. Each time another blimp would go to island, I would send spare parts in a special container "confidential radar parts." Huey would remove the parts for spares in the shop. Then he would fill the container with good island rum, seal and return it. I would meet the ship and remove the "confidential spare parts." Often I would walk out to the airship with the U.S. customs officer. I would pick up my "confidential spare parts" (booze) and walk off while he checked the rest of the airship.
When I returned to Richmond, it was at night. I had left my car parked by the hangar for the six weeks I had been gone. I got in the car and started to backup when "BAM!" I hit something. When I got out to look - it was a fire hydrant. I was reminded of a cartoon that I had seen where this guy had backed into a fire hydrant and water was shooting up and he was saying "Who put that darn thing behind me?" Well, it actually happened to me. Someone installed a fire hydrant behind my car, while I was away. I didn't see anyone around and the fire hydrant wasn't broken, just bent. So, I got back in the car, worked my way around the hydrant and sheepishly drove away.
Our Blimp Shot at By Nazi Submarine
On 18 July 1943, shortly after midnight, one of our blimps (K-74) was on a routine patrol off the Florida Keys when they came upon a surfaced German U-boat. The blimp approached the submarine, but was met with heavy anti-aircraft fire. Early in the war German submarines were not equipped with anti-aircraft guns, but this one was. One of the crew members told me later that it was a really pretty sight, seeing all those tracer bullets flying in the air.
As the blimp approached the sub, the machine gunner on the blimp temporally cleared the deck of the sub. Then at the proper time, Bombardier Stessel released the depth charges from the blimp. The depth charges were probably set at 30 feet. Therefore, they would have been 30 feet deep in the water before exploding. It wasn't known how effective they would be on a surfaced vessel, because normally we were dropping on submerged vessels. The crew did not see any effects of the charges exploding because they were going away from the sub at that time. Some believed that, in the excitement of the moment, bombardier Stessel may have failed to pull the arming levers before pulling the release levers
1915 - 1943
WWII Blimp K-74
I was happy to learn from an article by Robert Nolen in the Sunday Magazine of the Sun-Sentinel, March 8, 1998, that the charges did explode and do some damage to the sub. The article DUEL AT MIDNIGHT stated "The truth finally merged in 1960, when the British government declassified certain war documents. They showed that Stessel did drop his bombs, and with accuracy. The British had intercepted radio transmissions from the Nazi sub describing how its ballast tanks had been damaged by the blimp's bombs. Forced to remain on the surface, the sub abandoned its hunting grounds off the U.S. coast and chugged toward a base in North Africa for repair. Tracking its radio signals, two Royal Air Force bombers located U-134 off the African coast, on the surface and exposed. The RAF pilots strafed and bombed and sent the sub to the bottom, taking with it 49 Germans."
Getting back to the battle, the blimp circled and started to make another pass. This time the sub shot out one engine and so many holes in the forward ballonet (air compartment) that the helium rushed to the nose of the ship causing it to go nearly straight up, rendering the controls useless. The blimp then settled into the water tail first. All the crew members were able to get out of the gondola; however, the pilot and bombardier got separated from the rest of the crew, who stayed together hanging onto a small life raft.
I was called as a part of a search crew. We took-off at 02:15. At daybreak, we arrived at the point where the airship went down. We learned by radio that eight of the crew that stayed together had been picked up by a surface ship, but the command pilot and bombardier were still missing - apparently still in the water.
We started a systematic search, starting at the area of impact and zigzagging back and forth over the area that we figured the wind and ocean current would take them. We searched all day long without any luck. It's very difficult to see an individual with just a life vest on in a rough sea, as it was that day. At 17:30, we spotted one of the crew members in the water. We dropped flares and directed a surface rescue ship to pick him up. After they picked him up, we talked with him by radio. He was the command pilot. He stated that he had witnessed Stessel being attacked and killed by sharks.
During the entire war, the "Blimp Navy" only lost this one man to the enemy, but we don't know how many hundred American lives they saved. We do know that before RADAR and the Blimps, hundreds of American ships were being sank each month. Some statistics are given in a later chapter.
Painting of the Battle between K-74 and U-134 off the Florida Keys
19 July, 1943
The early part of 1945, I received TDY orders to go to ZP-21, Detachment one at Houma, La. I was told that the admiral had requested me by name. Which was a shock to me because I didn't know the admiral and I was sure that he didn't know me.
Houma is located in the lowlands about 40 miles southwest of New Orleans.
This turned out to be the best duty that I had in the Navy. My room was with another chief in a room in the side of the hangar. It was fixed up very nice. We had a bathroom, a stove and refrigerator. A seaman was assigned to take care of the area. He kept the area clean and was a very good cook. He would go to the mess and get food and kept our refrigerator well stocked. Any time we didn't want to go to the CPO mess, he would cook for us. This was really a great set-up. This base really treated CPO's great. At the CPO mess we would go in and sit down and a seaman would bring a menu and we would order just like in a fine restaurant. The cook or seaman would bring out the food prepared just the way we ordered it. It was always good food. I don't know how they did it, but it was much better than normal Navy chow.
The second morning that I was there, I slept in. At about 10:30AM, I woke up when the executive officer came in. I just knew I was in trouble, so I started scrambling to get up, but he said "No, no! Chief, go back to sleep, I was just looking for a beer in your refrigerator." I told him to help himself. There was always plenty of beer there. That's just the type duty station it was. When there was work to be done, we all pitched in and got the job done.
The liberty in this little town of Houma was the greatest. Before I went on my first liberty, another chief told me "Mac you need to carry a stick to fight off the women in this town." Well! I found that he was right; however, I didn't carry a very big stick because I didn't want to fight them off too much. I was there for Mardi Gras that year, and that was a celebration like something I had never seen before - or since. I wont say any more about liberty there other than to say it was so great that I ran my health down to a point that they put me in the hospital. After a week in the hospital, I was released and returned to Richmond.
We also operated (part time) out of the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. I was TDY there only once during the war. This was for a short period of about a month. The little town of Caimanera, just across from the base was, as I understood it, just one big "Red-light District." For some reason, I didn't go there - maybe it was off limits at that time.
One weekend, some of my buddies and I went to Havana. That was an experience not soon forgotten. We went from Guantanamo to Havana on a local native bus with a native Cuban driver. That road wound through the mountains. It was narrow, full of sharp curves and potholes, and there were no guard rails. The driver drove like a bat out of Hell. To my surprise, we made it without going off the side of one of those mountains. Havana was a beautiful city. We saw many of the beautiful parks, hotels, churches, forts etc. I was impressed at the sight where Theodore Roosevelt led the Rough riders on the famous charge up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War.
At night, we toured the night clubs and other hot spots. My buddies and I had a little bet between us, and I won it with a count of nine. We returned to the base the same way we came, but this time even that terrible road and driver didn't upset me, I was too tried and sleepy.
One day while I was at Guantanamo, an airship from the states arrived around noon. It was very light, having used most of its fuel on the trip down. The runway extended to the edge of the island. The blimp came in about 20 feet over the water. As soon as it got over the end of the runway, it picked up heat from the hot payment and it went straight up. On the attempt, we got more men to grab the short lines and long lines as soon as it approached the runway. We kept it near the ground a little way down the runway; however, when the gas in the bag picked up that superheat, up it went again. All LTA handlers are taught that any time the line starts lifting you off the ground - turn it loose. After a number of more attempts, the crew finally had to valve helium so we could pull them down. The Navy didn't like for us to valve helium because it was expensive, but in cases like this we had to.
I was at GITMO one Christmas when Bob Hope and his show came down to entertain us. He really did a terrific job. He could poke fun at our top brass, the base, Navy chow or any other gripes we GI's had. And not being edited, he could express himself in the way we all appreciated. I had previously attended one of his Christmas shows at Lakehurst, NJ. He was a wonderful entertainer.
What did Blimps do in World War II?
Most of the people in the USA today do not know the part the blimp played in "The Battle of the Atlantic" during WWII. The following is a little history and facts covering this operation.
When the war started, December 1941, we did not have a Lighter-than-air (Blimp) fleet. In January 1942, Germany decided to send their submarine fleet of U-boats to destroy our merchant fleet and as much of our Navy as possibly. On the way over, one of the submarines, U-123, sank the 9,076 ton British steamer, Cyclops, 300 miles east of Cape Cod. From mid January to June 1942, the German U-boats sank 397 merchant ships and naval vessels in U.S. waters and killed 5,000 seamen. By comparison, we only lost four ships and 2,403 people during the attack on Pearl Harbor.
During the last half of 1942, the U.S. Navy had acquired enough blimps that the Navy directed that all ship convoys would be escorted by blimps. This action effectively nullified the U-boat's activities between Maine and northern Florida. So the Germans moved their operations to the Gulf and Caribbean. In May 1942, forty-one ships were lost to U-boats in the Gulf of Mexico. Then in June and July 1942 the U-boats sank forty-two ships in the Caribbean.
To combat this action, the Navy opened Blimp Squadron Twenty-one (ZP-21) at Richmond, Florida, about 20 miles south of Miami. (I was assigned there on the first of January 1943.) We had detachments at The Isle of Pines, Cuba and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. We also had squadrons of four ships each at Jamaica, B.W.I. and Houma, La.
We became operational almost immediately with convoy and patrol flights on the Florida east coast. We soon expanded to cover Florida's west coast, the Florida Keys, Mexico's east coast and all of Cuba. Again, the blimps had successfully discouraged the U-boats, so they moved on to South America.
So, we established three blimp squadrons, with seven detachments along the west coast of South America. We also sent a squadron of blimps to Port Lyautey, French Morocco, Africa. However, three days after the blimps got there, the Germans decided to cease submarine activities. The blimps, using MAD gear, were used to locate mines in that area.
In addition to antisubmarine warfare, the blimps performed a number of other valuable missions during the war such as search and rescue. In 1943 blimps found fifty downed planes and disabled vessels. In one case, two blimps sighted and assisted in the rescue of fifty U-boat victims. In 1944 more than 80 search and rescue missions were successfully completed by blimps.
In one case a blimp, K-124, actually towed a disabled eight-ton army launch seven miles to safe waters. In other cases persons were actually rescued from dangerous situations on the water by use of a rope ladder from the rear of the car.Blimps were also used to drop medical supplies and other needed items to ships at sea. To sum up what the blimps did in WWII, I would like to give you the following quote from the records.
*From January 1942 to 15 May 1945, the fleet of 134 airships made 37,554 flights; flew 378,237 hours; escorted more than 70,000 vessels and never lost a ship to enemy action. Seven airships with a total 35 fatalities were lost due to accidents.
These figures came from the book "Blimps and U-Boats" by J. Gordan Vaeth. However, a computer website* lists 55,900 operational flights for more than 550,000 hours and escorted 89,000 surface ships during the war*. The difference may be due to the fact that the first reference only went to 15 May 1945, the other to the end of the war.*
Hurricane Demolished NAS Richmond
September 1945, we heard that there was a hurricane in the Caribbean moving into the Atlantic and heading in our direction. First, all the blimps were moved into the hangars with the portable mooring masts. Next, all the military heaver-than-air (HTA) aircraft in the area parked in the hangar "for protection." Next, they parked all the government vehicles in the hangars. Then, they allowed all the base personnel to park our private owned vehicles (POVs) in the hangar "for protection." I had a beautiful 1940 Mercury that I had bought from my brother Fred. I had customized that thing so that there was not another one like it in the world.
Due to the Florida heat, the plastic trim on the dashboard had deteriorated and looked bad. I replaced all the trim with marbled plexiglass that I had made at night in the plastic shop. It really looked sharp. So, I was very happy to get it in the hangar "for protection." There was still a little space in the hangar, so the Navy allowed some civilians to put their privately owned planes in the hangar "for protection." In addition to the blimps, there were a total of about 300 other aircraft and 100 cars and trucks.
The hurricane which hit South Florida in September of 1945 devastated NAS Richmond. Shown here is debris surrounding what was left of Hangars One and Two.
On 15 September 1945, I had the Officer-of-the-Day duty in Hangar #2. We kept listening to the radio and plotting the hurricane course. At one time it was headed for Miami, but off the coast from us it turned due west. I advised folks that it was headed straight for us. We still felt pretty secure being we were in a "hurricane-proof" building. Then it hit!
I had never heard such a noise. We were watching a wind speed indicator until the wind reached 175 mph. At that time the anemometer blew off. I don't know what speed the wind gusts actually reached. At that time, I could see breaks in the roof, and I headed for the radar shop, which was on the side of the hangar a short way from the duty office.
About that time "all hell broke loose." I and my fellow technicians dived under a large heavy duty workbench by a four-foot brick wall at the side of the Hangar. That terrific wind ripped that huge arched roof, which made up 90% or the building, to pieces. Unfortunately we were on the lee side of the building, so the falling structure came our way; however, most of it went over us and piled up outside. At that time, the side walls of the building, up to the top of the shops, were still standing.
After the majority of the hangars blew down, that terrific wind started blowing the blimps, autos and airplanes all over the place, causing gas tanks to be ripped apart spilling gasoline all over the deck. Then, the gasoline ignited, probably due to the metal scraping the concrete producing sparks.
While this was happening, we were under a heavy workbench and my fellow chief was really praying out loud. I was doing some praying also, but mine was silent. It was pitch dark and so noisy you couldn't hear yourself think. I crawled out from under the bench to try and see what was going on. One of the technicians asked "What can I do chief?"
I answered "For now, get back under there and help the chief pray." Then "POW!" the whole hangar lite up in flames. I told the men who were with me "Guys, you are on your own, I'm going to try to get to hell out of here. Good luck!" I threw a chair through the window and started climbing out, while the other chief discharged a fire extinguisher toward the door of the shop keeping the flames back.
Being on the lee side of the hangar that blew down, broken hangar beams from the main structure of the building fell on that side. I started climbing over that wreckage. At one point, I fell down through that wreckage. The sharp splintered beams cut me to pieces; however, that didn't bother me at the time. In fact, I hardly realized I was cut; my thoughts were on getting out of there. I still remember some of the thoughts that came to my mind at that time.
I was wearing an ID bracelet on my right wrist. I visualized my right arm sticking up above the wreckage and rescuers coming by the next day identifying my body by that ID bracelet. I thought, "Because I have no wife or children, it's not as bad for me as for some of the other guys who do have wives and children." Anyway, I managed to work my way up to the top of the wreckage again and across the debris and wreckage of the building. By that time I was out to the runway and felling the full blunt of the storm. The rain drops felt like shots or small pebbles hitting my body with great force. Then, "swash!" a gust of strong wind actually lifted me off the runway and was blowing me through the air like a leaf.
I remembered hearing about winds so strong that they could drive a straw through a tree. I could just see ole' Arch being driven through a tree at the end of the runway. I knew I had to do something to get down. So, I arched my body like going into a dive and dove to the ground. This may have been when I broke my hand. I may have landed on it. I was now laying on the runway listening to the roar of that terrible wind and still being hit by flying debris.
Due to lightning or the light from the burning hangar, I saw a mound of dirt beside the runway so I rolled behind that mound of dirt. This protected me from the wind and flying debris. I watched large pieces of wood and other junk fly over my head. I was downwind from the hangar; so, as the fire from the burning gasoline, aircraft, autos etc. increased, so did the smoke coming my way. The smoke became so intense that I had to give up my safe haven behind that pile of dirt. There were some woods nearby, so I worked my way over to them. The wind had broken most of the trees off about two feet from the ground. I crawled behind the largest stump that I saw. Then with the flashing of lightning, I saw a larger stump and worked my way to behind it. I repeated that several times until I found a tree stump that was large enough to protect me from the fury of the storm. I stayed there until the eye of the hurricane arrived.
Suddenly the howling winds stopped blowing and it became deadly still and calm. There wasn't a breath of air stirring. I came out of the woods to see what was going on. The hangars were engulfed with flames; I didn't want to go back there. About that time six other guys who had been weathering the storm in the woods came by. One of them knew where the ammunition dump was and said that we could find safety there for the other part of the hurricane. That sounded good to me, so I was happy to join them.
To get to the ammo dump, we had to leave the base by the back gate. Of course, there was no guard on the gate at this time. Starting down this road we passed a home that was still standing. This was a low, flat roof, wooden building that was well built and had previously been a store. It had withstood the first half of the hurricane and the family was out surveying the damage when they saw us in the road. They insisted that we come in and ride out the other half of the storm with them. They took one look at me and said "Oh my God! We must do something for you." They started cleaning my cuts and bruises. They cleaned the cuts with hydrogen peroxide and bandaged me up stopping most of the bleeding. This was done using a flashlight and a kerosine lamp for light. They put me to bed, gave me some medicine for pain and I don't remember much about the other half of the hurricane except for the noise and feeling the building rock.
As the wind subsided, base rescue personnel were out looking for survivors. They put me into a jeep and rushed me to the base hospital, which was still standing and using emergency power. To my surprise, there were not a lot of injuries, only thirty-eight, and only one death. Sailors on the opposite side of the hangar from us were able to get into the stairways of the hangar's concrete pillars for protection from the storm. The death was a civilian fireman who was out in the hangar inspecting the early roof damage, when the whole thing came down. Falling timbers got him.
Soon after I arrived at the hospital, two bus loads of volunteer doctors and nurses arrived from Miami. But, due to the relative small number of casualties(32), the Navy didn't need a lot of help. The chief surgeon started working on me. He was working using emergency lights and power, but that didn't slow him down. He was displeased that the nice people at the farm house had used hydrogen peroxide to clean my cuts, but I was happy that they had. He gave me a shot and knocked me out. Then, he cut away some of the torn skin and tissues and sewed up all my serious cuts. They found a large bone broken in my left hand; so, they put a cast on that.
The above is what was left of the debris that I had to climb over.
After a few days in the hospital, I learned that our Chief's Club, which was in our barracks, was going to close and needed to get rid of all our stock. To do this, they had decided toopen the bar to all chiefs - free drinks! Anything, any time we wanted it until the stock was gone. When the doctor came by I asked him "Being that I'm just lying around here doing nothing, why can't I do the same thing in the chief's quarters?" He said "O.K. Chief! If you will promise to just lie around, take it easy and come back here once a day so we can check you over." Then he laughed and said "You probably won't need as many pain pills there." He was right and that was a much nicer atmosphere for recovering than lying around in a hospital.
The following weekend I went on liberty, even if I did look like a mummy. My hand was in a cast, both arms and both legs were bandaged up and one knee bandaged so I couldn't bend it. Of course, I couldn't drive, but I didn't have anything to drive anyway, because the hurricane and resulting fire had completely destroyed my mercury. I rode a bus and my family was shocked to see me in that condition.
Auto insurance became an interesting issue. In the spring of that year while I was in Houma, La., I took out auto insurance with Government Employees Insurance Company (now known as GEICO). About a month later, I received a notice stating that I had taken out collision and liability but not comprehensive. They recommended that I add comprehensive for a cost of only $4.50 a year. They included a form to check if I wanted it, and said I would be billed later. I checked the form and mailed it back but never was billed for it. When the car was destroyed by the hurricane, I filled a claim. The company wired the adjuster that I was not covered by comprehensive. When I told them about the form that I had sent back six months earlier, they apparently found it and wired the adjuster to pay for the total lost. I decided that GEICO must be a pretty good company to pay on such a thin claim; so, I have been with them ever since and never disappointed.
Some reports years later stated that the hangars withstood the hurricane and all the damage was due to fire. Well, I'm here to tell you "that isn't so, as I was in one of those hangars I know that the hangars blew down then the fire started." Perhaps the discrepancy was due to a report that stated "just the roof blew off." The way that hangar was made, the roof was the hangar.
One fatality and 38 injuries
212 navy aircraft
21 non-Navy U.S. Government aircraft
125 privately owned airplanes
An unknown number of privately owned automobiles
(Most all of us on the base that owned cars)
One chief couldn't get his car started to get it in the hangar.
I think that it was the only privately owned vehicle left on the base after the hurricane.
NAS Glynco, Georgia
After Richmond was destroyed, I was transferred to the blimp squadron at Glynco, Georgia, near Brunswick. My job there was that of "Leading Chief." This gave me a lot more responsibility concerning the overall operation of the airship and the squadron. I was in charge of the ground crew with the responsibility for launching and recovering the airships. This was a position that I didn't like. As we were moving a ship out of the hangar one morning, I had the usual number of men on the lines on each side of the blimp. When the ship was about half way out of the hangar, the wind suddenly shifted from port to starboard. The men on the starboard side couldn't hold the ship. I gave the command and the men on the port side immediately shifted to the starboard side to control it. These were good experienced men. The least experienced person was giving the commands. Several blimps were damaged or destroyed due to the same type ground handling and wind problem at other bases during the war.
This job also stuck me with the administrative role of the squadron, being in full charge when the commanding officer wasn't there.
The insurance company had paid for my car destroyed in the hurricane, but having money didn't get you a car in late 1945. There were no new cars because none had been built for the past four years. For the same reason, there were practically no used cars available. During my first week at Glynco, I took some time off and caught a bus to Atlanta to try to find a car. That bus trip from Brunswick to Atlanta took about 12 hours.
I spent many hours going from one used car lot to another, but all I could find was high-priced junk. When I walked out of one lot, a man on the street approached me and said that he had a car for sale, so I went to see it. This guy had taken three wrecked Ford cars and made one. Actually, it wasn't too bad. The engine sounded great and the car drove O.K. It did look a little odd with a step on the rear fender for getting into a rumble seat which this sedan didn't have. This was the only reasonable transportation that I could find. We went to the state capital to try to get a title on this handmade car. The official asked "What do you call this car you built?" The guy said that it was a '36 Ford, so they gave me a title.
On the way back to Glynco that night, I ran into a rainstorm and the windshield wiper blew off. I just had to wait until the rain stopped. Fortunately it stopped in time for me to get back to the base by 0700 to go on duty.
This car turned out to be unusual and interesting. When I got it, there was no heater; however, there was a heater case around the manifold, but no plumbing or connectors. I carried it by our sheet metal shop and a friend said "Just leave the car here for about an hour." When I returned, that car had a heater system installed like you wouldn't believe. He had built a large air intake and welded 2" pipes to and from the manifold heater. That was the hottest, most efficient car heater that I ever saw. The only trouble was that it was so hot that even with the valve turned off, it would still burn you up. Even in the coldest weather, I still had to ride with the windows open.
The war was over, so our only flights were search and rescue and training flights. I didn't fly much at Glynco, only enough to get my monthly flight-time in. I have lost my flight time logbook, but I think that I logged more than 3000 flight hours during the war.
By the first of December I had enough points to get out of service. But for some reason the Navy couldn't just discharge me there and let me go home. I had to be shipped to the discharge center at Key West, Florida. There wasn't a lot to do at Key West as we waited for the slow wheels of progress of the Navy to process everyone out.
On the weekends, I would drive the 155 miles back to Miami. One Friday night I was out in the middle of nowhere on the way to Miami when I had a flat tire. I had a spare but I couldn't loosen the lugs with my old worn out L-shaped lug wrench. I didn't know where I was, but thought I was near Marathon where there was a service station where I might be able to get help. At that time there was no civilization between Key West and Homestead except Marathon and Tavernier. I started walking toward Marathon. There was nothing except some bushes and a lot of water on each side of the road. I had an uneasy feeling but didn't know what I was concerned about; however, I opened my little penknife (the only weapon I had) and walked along with it in my hand. After walking about three miles, a man in a pickup truck heading for Key West stopped and asked what my trouble was. When I told him, he told me to get in and he would see if he could help me. As we drove back he told me that the previous week he was passing there and about where my car was parked he saw a huge black panther. Maybe that was what I had planed to fight off with my penknife. Anyway, his wrench worked fine as he helped me change tires and get on my way. I checked my odometer and found that it was nine miles to Marathon - a long lonesome walk.
As time moved along in the slow Navy discharge business, it began to look as if I wouldn't be out by Christmas. On 19 December 1945, my number came up for my discharge. There was a Navy commander there who tried to get me to stay in the Navy Reserves. He said "Chief, you are a damned fool for not staying in the Reserves!" I replied "That may be so but I'll be a FREE DAMNED FOOL."
It was about 5:00PM when I finally got out, got loaded and headed for Miami. I was about 35 miles from Key West when I crossed a bridge and heard what sounded like a double barrel shotgun "Bang bang!" Both rear tires blew out at the same time. I had one spare, but not two. Then a fine fellow from Homestead came along and offered his help. He lent me his spare tire, which fit my old Ford, and we traveled together to Homestead. There I was able to get a tire repaired, returned the man's spare and drive on to Miami. The following day, my sister Nell, who worked with the ration board, got me coupons so I could get two new tires. So, I did get home for Christmas 1945.
Most veterans talk about how bad they had it during the war. However, one can see from the above narrative that I'm probably one of the luckiest people in the world. The experience and training I received during the war can't be beat. I'm sure that I gained more than I gave, and I enjoyed it. I have no regrets about my service.
The only person that I know who had a better racket than I did during the war was my nephew Sam Reeves, Jr. Sam was the captain of a crash boat. I was off one day and went out with him on his normal duty. His boat was tied up in the Miami river and his crew was six Army enlisted men. We went out into Biscayne Bay and up to Baker's Haulover. We went out into the ocean there, and his job was to patrol the area out from Baker's Haulover to keep civilian boats or personnel from coming in the area near the beach there. The reason for this was that the Army firing range was on the beach in this area and occasionally a wild shot might go into the ocean. So, we fished and trolled up and down the area all day - and caught some fine fish, I might add. At the end of the day we went home. Of course, occasionally there would be a crash and he and his crew would go out and assist as needed. If one liked to boat and fish, like Sam did, it would be hard to beat that duty.
After getting out of the Navy, I enrolled in Georgia Tech. The second week that I was there, I received a note stating "Report to the Dean's office as soon as possible." I wondered "What in the heck have I done now?" I reported to Dean Griffin and found him to be one of the finest men I ever knew. He said that he had reviewed my records and found that I had been a chief in the Navy and they badly needed a chief in the Georgia Tech Reserve Unit. They met every Thursday night and he insisted that I join them. I explained that I lived up in Marietta and it would be difficult to get to and from the meetings. He said "That's no problem, I will personally come get you and take you home after each meeting." Now, can you imagine a Dean of a University driving 60 miles each week to transport a freshman? I thanked him for his offer, but declined.
About two weeks later, I was called out of a class to report to Dean Griffin immediately. When I got to his office, Dean Griffin introduced me to the commanding officer and avionic officer from the Atlanta Navy Air Station. He said "You refused me, but this is in your field of aviation, so will you talk with these gentlemen?" Well, I did and I did what I had previously sworn I would not do, I joined the Organized Navy Reserve. This was a good deal. We met one weekend a month and got four days pay. This pay was a big help because I was going to school under the GI bill which allowed me only $50. a month ($75 after I got married).
I really enjoyed the Navy Reserve unit that I was with. Our squadron operated the Navy R4D (C-47 or DC-3) type aircraft. We had a great group of guys in that unit. Jack Medley, a very close friend of mine since we were in the forth grade together at Blackwell School, was in that unit. Jack's brother Nat was also a chief in our unit. We usually rode together to the base. Jack's brother Riley was a Station keeper (full timer) on the base. I was offered and considered the job of station keeping, but it wasn't for me.
After I finished Georgia Tech and started working as an instructor at Television Tech, I got out of the active (organized) Reserve. I didn't need the extra money so badly and I wanted more time with my family. I could, and should, have gotten out of the inactive reserves at the same time. I only had three months until my enlistment was up so I just let it ride. Unfortunately, the Korean War broke out during that three months, and they froze all enlistments.
I received a notice concerning my call to active duty. It didn't give a date - just stated that I would be called. I showed that to my boss, J.D. Muse the owner of Television Tech, and he said "Let me borrow that." He called a friend of his, U.S. Senator Richard B. Russell. After that I received my discharge from the Navy Reserve.
That ended my Navy career.
Arch H. McCleskey, Jr.
After working two years as an instructor at Television Tech, I moved to the Lockheed Aircraft Co. at Marietta, GA. I worked as a supervisor of all the electronic laboratories for six years.
This period of my life is covered by my booklet "AFTER THE WAR."
Then I made a move that completely changed my life. I moved into Customer Field Service, the most exciting, interesting and challenging jobs anyone could have. This job involved my travel in 49 states, 54 countries on five continents. I have written a long book "ADVENTURES OF A WORLD TRAVELING TECH REP" covering some of the interesting experiences my family and I were involved in during our 25 years of travel. It covers unusual problems while living in the Congo, Zaire, Nigeria, France, India and other places. It covers: being caught in a military coup, rescuing an aircraft from the high Himalayas, a team member being eaten by a crocodile, narrow escapes from a number of places, investigating C-130 aircraft accidents around the world, humorous and exciting experiences while working with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marines, U.S. Air force, Air Force Reserves, Air National Guards, civilian aircraft companies and Foreign Military. It was a great life and I enjoyed sharing it.