Misled Zeppelin

During WWII, a blimp and two pilots went sub-hunting off San Francisco. Only the blimp came back.

Minus its crew, U.S. Navy blimp L-8 floats over Daly City, Calif., on Aug, 16, 1942, several hours after taking off from Treasure Island on a sub-hunting mission.
Minus its crew, U.S. Navy blimp L-8 floats over Daly City, Calif., on Aug, 16, 1942, several hours after taking off from Treasure Island on a sub-hunting mission.

The early months of World War II were a time of heightened paranoia on the West Coast. The Japanese had unexpectedly attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Could they strike closer to the mainland?

To protect the California coast, the U.S. Navy flew routine submarine-hunting blimp patrols from San Francisco’s Treasure Island and other airfields. One such flight lifted off on the morning of Sunday, Aug. 16, 1942 — and created one of the state’s greatest unsolved mysteries.

The Navy blimp L-8, with experienced pilots Lt. Ernest Dewitt Cody and Ensign Charles Ellis Adams in the fully enclosed control car hanging from the airship’s helium-filled gasbag, headed off the coast on a routine patrol flight. Its course was set for the Farallon Islands, 30 miles west of San Francisco. About 90 minutes into the flight, the pilots radioed that they’d spotted what appeared to be an oil slick. A possible submarine telltale?

No one knows. The two men were never heard from again.

A couple hours later, a low-flying blimp, its gasbag partly deflated, was spotted over beaches just south of San Francisco. Eyewitnesses thought they saw men in the cabin as it drifted overhead. Finally, the 150-foot-long blimp crash-landed in a residential neighborhood in Daly City, coming to rest on a parked car on Bellevue Avenue. “It looked like a big broken wiener,” a witness told the San Francisco Chronicle many years later. 

Neighbors rushed to the wreckage, but no one was aboard. The controls and radio were in working order; there had been no calls for help. One of the crewman’s caps rested on the instrument panel. The blimp’s parachutes and lifeboat were still in place, though two of its three life jackets — routinely worn by the crew in flight — were missing. A briefcase full of top-secret documents, weighted to be abandoned if the blimp ran into trouble, was still in place. But no crew.

Search parties found no clues. A weeklong U.S. Navy inquest heard from 35 witnesses and concluded that “no fire, no submersion, no misconduct, and no missiles struck the L-8.” Shortly after the crash, the local press quoted a Navy spokesman saying flatly, “Nothing the Navy knows now has given a satisfactory explanation of what happened.” It was an unsettling mystery for a jittery, war-obsessed state.

Seventy-five years later, speculative theories about the fate of the L-8 abound. A fatal encounter with a Japanese sub? A dastardly stowaway in the tiny cabin? A murder-suicide stemming from a lover’s triangle? A secret military technology experiment gone awry? Alien abduction? Did the two men simply just fall out, perhaps because of a broken safety latch on the door? No answer has ever been determined. 

One piece of the strange tale of the L-8 remains intact: the ill-fated blimp’s control car. Rescued from the streets of Daly City, it was repaired and used for training during the war, and later flew for many years as the cabin for the Goodyear blimp America. It now resides in a naval museum in Florida — a memento of a mystery.

Mark Potts was the founding managing editor of Alta.
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