Lighter-Than-Air

Little-publicized but widely respected, the boys who fly the 'rubber cows' have turned in an enviable record in this war.

Lieut (jg) Wallace A Wydeen, a lighter-than-air pilot, was flying one of the Navy's big K-type blimps over the Carbbean Sea on a routine anti-submarine patrol. It was a fine quiet day, about noontime. There was nothing to indicate that within less than an hour he would be acting as traffic cop in one of the most prolonged aircraft-submarine battles of this or any other war.

The lookout in the forward gondola reported a disturbance far below on the water's surface. Closer scrutiny revealed that it was an altercation between a Navy patrol plane — a Mariner — and a Nazi submarine. An exchange of radio communications between Wydeen and Lieut Lewis D Crockett, pilot of the Mariner, brought out some additional information.

The Nazi was wounded so badly he could not submerge, and was battling viciously on the surface. Already one Mariner had been shot down by the sub.

Lieutenant Crockett had expended his bomb load and was spraying the deck of the sub with his machine guns to keep things warm while awaiting reinforcement from airfields on the mainland, a couple of hundred miles away.

"The krauts are ready with that AA"; warned Lieutenant Crockett on the radio, "keep that blimp out of range." Crockett was commanding as well as fighting the battle. "Another bomber — Ventura — is on the way. He ought to be here soon, if he can find me," he reported the blimp's radioman.

"He can find you," said Lieutenant Wydeen. "He can find me sitting up here and I'll direct him to you."

And that is exactly what the blimp's skipper did. Hovering near the scene of battle, high enough and big enough to be seen by any aircraft that came within miles, he directed them all to the scene of the scrap. In all, six Navy planes, one Army bomber, and a destroyer, were guided to the fight before the submarine rolled over and gave up the ghost — and sixteen prisoners.

The battle had lasted ten hours. Before arriving on the scene the blimp had been on the last leg of a long patrol. Lieutenant Wydeen exceeded his prudent limit of radius of action, and ran out of gas on the way back to base. Consequently, his blimp was lost, although the crew was saved.

Directing air traffic in battle and serving as a marker for planes to home on, are just incidental to the jobs the big blimps do in this fast-moving war.

"Our most spectacular task," says Capt Charles J McGuire, who heads the planning division of this branch of Naval aviation, "is rescue work at sea and in the jungle where no other type of flying craft can function. But we still do our most effective jobs on submarine search and convoy patrols."

Lighter-than — air has outgrown its mother base at Lakehurst, NJ. Time was — and not long ago — when LTA and Lakehurst were bracketed together in the minds of people just as are ham and eggs or arsenic and old lace. Today, Lakehurst still is the center of the operations. Rear Adm C E Rosendahl is Chief of Naval Airship Training and Experimentation headquarters at this station. In addition to directing the training and experimentation of the LTA's expansion program, Admiral Rosendahl is, perhaps, the world's most enthusiastic proponent of LTA as America's post-war commercial air vehicle. He points out constantly the advantages of this kind of air transportation, and then makes the argument doubly strong by calling attention to America's unique situation in having control over the entire helium supply of the world. LTA activities have already been widely extended. From Maine to Montevideo on the Atlantic coast, and at strategic spots along the Pacific coast, these big sausage-shaped bags can be seen floating in the sky, searching and observing. The Navy now operates nearly 150 of these new type blimps, and has more coming from the constructors.

Anti-submarine patrol work has been especially hazardous since the enemy switched his tactics to include antiaircraft firing from the decks of the submarines. This antiaircraft comes from guns designed and crews trained to operate against swift-moving, streamlined airplanes. After being prepared to fire against a sleek Avenger that dives and jinks in at more than 200 mph, shooting a blimp that looks as big as a cumulus cloud is like shooting fish in a barrel. However, bombing runs have been made by blimps and, on occasion, blimps have evaded the antiaircraft fire.

But bombing submarines is not the most effective things the blimps do in the anti-submarine war. Observing, spotting, getting out in all sorts of weather when airplanes are grounded, pacing itself to the speed of the slow-moving surface ships it is convoying, getting into and out of places where no other kind of aircraft can operate — these are the things that make the blimp an invaluable member of our aviation team.

Their long hours of search frequently produce nothing. Occasionally, when they do produce, a scant paragraph tells about it. Here is the official report summarized for the LTA Newsletter:

Detachment 2 was inaugurated by the K-36 on January 7 on the occasion of a special search for enemy survivors of sunken blockade runners. The first flight lasted approximately 23 hours, with the ship landing at a base where it was serviced. Changing crews, it returned to the search, landing that evening at Detachment 2. The first flight was very successful and over the period of the search, which lasted several days, blimps operating from the aforementioned bases, plus some from Detachment 1, recovered approximately 75 per cent of the survivors.

Considering that 75% of the survivors were picked up, the announcement is couched in remarkably restrained language. Riding for 23 hours at a stretch over the South Atlantic in a weaving gondola is rugged work in anybody's war. The search was for survivors of three Nazi blockade runners that were hunted down by a squadron of Navy Liberators. In addition to the 75% rescue record, the blimps also picked up tons of valuable crude rubber that floated when the enemy ships went down.

Another squadron has distinguished itself in picking up personnel in a rescue operation. A Coast Guard cutter had foundered and sunk in a night storm off the Jersey coast. Next morning, a blimp under the command of Ens Walter Bjerre took up a search of the area. Ens Harry S Cook, Jr, on the rudder, spotted a blob in the water, and almost at the same time, Lieut William H Taylor, Jr, on the elevator, saw another such object. Closer investigation revealed that what Cook had seen was a life raft with 10 men on it; the other object proved to be three life rafts lashed together, with 26 men aboard. Bjerre stood by, flashed the information back to the station, and waited until surface vessels picked up the crews of the sunken ships.

A few days later, Ens H E DeVore, of the same squadron, in an all-day patrol located 21 bodies of men who went down on a Naval patrol ship — formerly a luxurious yacht. The patrol boat had sunk 60 miles off Cape May, after a collision with a merchant ship. The first victim sighted by DeVore was fouled in an overturned liferaft. DeVore notified surface craft and guided them to the position. A short time later 12 more bodies were found and surface craft were guided to them. That afternoon an additional eight were re- covered.

The northern coastal region of Brazil is a delightful-looking area from the air — broad patterns of green, carpety grass dotted here and there with nipa villages and coconut palms. Occasionally an aviator in trouble will pick out a nice grassy-looking strip in which to set his plane down. This, in northern Brazil, is an error of judgment. Almost invariably these trim-looking meadows — they look like good pasture land from the air — prove to be slimy, stinking swamps with dank, fetid tropical vegetation floating on top. Anywhere from a few inches to several feet of water lies under this green carpet, and beneath the water is usually soggy mud. It is not an ideal natural landing field.

However, the natives are friendly and cooperative and frequently able to render effective assistance, provided there are any natives available. Two flight officers of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Doherty and F B Clarke, recently bailed out of their airplane not far from the mouth of the Amazon River. Their plane had failed because of engine trouble, and the two flyers parachuted rather than attempt a landing.

For two days the two Canadians wandered through the swampy jungle, and for two days a group of natives who had seen them parachute down, wandered through the same jungle, searching for them. Finally they all came together. The natives took the officers in, fed them and bedded them down. Then the flyers spread their parachutes on the ground, hoping to attract the attention of any passing rescue plane.

Not long after this, a Navy Ventura on patrol, spotted the parachutes and circled low, but decided the hazards of landing were too great. But they notified the lighter-than-air base that two flyers were down at a certain village.

Next day a big K-type blimp, commanded by Lieut James N Davis, USNR, arrived over the village. He dropped a smoke bomb to observe the direction and force of the ground wind and eased down to a wheel landing. The wheels promptly sank to the hubs in the mud, without causing any appreciable damage. The flight officers had to walk only 50 feet to board the blimp.

Six days later the same blimp, commanded by the same pilot, rescued seven army flyers who had gone down in the jungle. The two Mitchell bombers they were flying had crashed. On this occasion, Lieutenant Davis was assisted by another blimp of his squadron. As soon as the downed flyers were located, one of the blimps swooped low in a slow run near the ground, and Boatswain John Francis Desmond dropped off from a rope ladder. Within 15 minutes he had organized the boarding party, had cut down some particularly tall bushes that would interfere with the blimp's maneuvering, and had put the downed Army flyers on the low-flying blimps. Four separate landings were required to take the entire party aboard.

The Navy's LTA, as might be imagined, has the respect, admiration and cooperation of the Army in the areas in which it works. Many gratuitous letters from local Army commanding officers to blimp squadron commanders indicate the general feeling about the work of this branch of the service. On at least one occasion, the Army demonstrated its attitude in a more practical way.

A blimp of another squadron headed for the South Atlantic area under the command of Lieut Charles C Newman. It had expected to tie up at an Army air field at 7 o'clock in the morning, and arrangements for handling it already had been made. However, a tail wind shoved the crew along, and they arrived at 3 AM. Due to long range communication difficulties, they were unable to signify a change in their expected time of arrival until after 1 o'clock, leaving a very short time for the Army personnel, inexperienced in this kind of work, to get ready for the landing.

Upon coming to the vicinity of the field, Lieutenant Newman asked the tower when he could expect help to land.

"We are ready now," came the reply — and they were. Having made elaborate preparations the evening before, the soldiers pulled the blimp ropes and secured her "without incident," as the report so modestly puts it.

Blimp crews never know what their missions are going to develop. One blimp operator spotted a life raft floating in the vicinity of the convoy he was patrolling and immediately set about the usual rescue. After a lot of work, however, he discovered that the raft had been put over the side of one of the ships on purpose and that the situation was under complete control.

Another time a blimp flying in really tough weather off the Florida Coast spotted something on the water's surface below. Investigation revealed the object to be a boat, in which sat a man.

"If you are in distress," megaphoned the blimp skipper, feeling that this was another false alarm, "raise an oar."

Immediately the man in the boat raised his oar. The blimp stood by, and signalled the base. An hour later a Coast Guard boat came along and picked the lonely mariner up.

According to his story, the man had been fishing off shore in the row boat. When he got ready to return he found wind and current against him too strong. so he anchored and went to sleep. When he woke up, he found that his anchor line had parted and he had drifted out to sea. He had been away for 30 hours when the Coast Guard rescued him. This unfortunate fellow received the final crusher when the FBI jailed him for staying out at sea all night without permission of the Coast Guard — a necessary wartime precaution.

On one occasion the Army asked for lighter-than-air aid in searching for a Liberator bomber that was overdue and believed to be down in Dutch Guiana. Lieut A M James was in command of the blimp that made the search. After hours of fruitless hunting, the crew passed over a small village and noted that the natives were making frantic signs to them. When the village chief saw he was being observed by men on the blimp he began pointing toward the canal and making violent gestures with his hand. The ship went in the direction the chief pointed, saw nothing, and then circled back to the village.

This time the chief made signs that unmistakably indicated a crash. Ens R C Bywater, co-pilot of the blimp, dropped a piece of paper on which he had drawn a picture of a plane crashing into the jungle. The native response to this was noisy enthusiasm, after which the chief lighted several matches, which Ensign Bywater took to mean that the plane had not only crashed but burned.

Convinced they were on the right track, Lieut James made a slow approach and dropped Ensign Bywater near the village for further investigation. The natives could speak no language that Bywater could understand, but he gathered from further and more detailed signs that the plane had indeed crashed and burned, and that there were no survivors as far as they knew.

This information, however, did not satisfy Army headquarters, so the following day the blimp returned to the village with an interpreter.

"It was not an airplane at all," the interpreter explained later. "What they had seen was a submarine — a real German submarine — cruising leisurely down the canal. A big white airplane dropped fire on it; everything was fireworks, much explosion and much smoke. The submarine went away, the airplane went away, and nobody was hurt."

Just where the big white airplane came from remains a mystery. The Army plane was never found.

This article was originally published in the October, 1944, "Naval Aviation At War" Special Issue of Flying magazine, vol 35, no 4, pp 126, 240, 244.
The original article includes 1 photo.
Photo credited to US Navy.

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