The fall of 1939 was the hospice care of the rigid airships. After a last intelligence-gathering mission LZ-130 had been permanently docked. Both Grafs were then spiked and strung up to collect pfennigs as tourists attractions (right). Someone observed they made far more money propped up and hanging empty then they ever did when full of passengers and freight.
That September, Admiral King worked with Commander Garlon Futon to compose a detailed report which recommended a mix of small Navy rigids and blimps for the US Navy of 1940 and beyond. Passionately presented, the King-Fulton report was blown off by the senior leadership. Garlon Fulton then retired and did not return to active duty, even during WWII. ZR-3 (LZ-126) had been officially decommissioned 30 June 1932, but was to remain in readiness on thirty-day notice. In mid-December, 1934, inflated with helium and with fuel and ballast, she was undocked for testing of mooring equipment. Mooring tests continued until USS Los Angeles was finally docked on 18 November 1937. The only surviving airship to launch and recover an airplane in flight, ZR-3 had briefly flirted with refurbishment hopes because she was still quite capable of serving as a training rigid. Then, John Towers, who’d narrowly survived an early aeroplane crash but still had little use for LTA, ascended to head both BuAer and NACA.
Towers supported LTA only as far as destructive testing of ZR-3. When a purposefully over-pressurized cell broke some of her girders, no one made a public connection to what happened to ZR-1 and her capped helium valves years earlier. Anton Heinien would not be quoted as saying “I told you so” nor would he make any other embarrassing anti-helium remarks in the newspapers ever again. Rosendahl had found a way to get the former German Zeppelin commander run out of the Navy Reserves.
With the Army’s reducing its manned LTA ops to a handful of motorized observation balloons, the Navy was the majority customer for the nation’s helium supply. Its staggering cost was certainly a consideration in long range planning, but the continued prohibition on hydrogen was much more than a financial challenge. Even the most helium-rich nation on the planet could not supply the rare gas in the quantity required to support airship operations as they had been known. As Buckley and Barkely wrote, “The development of the rigid airship would depend on hydrogen for several reasons.” These two officers had witnessed first hand how even K-type blimp erections had been held up awaiting the helium shipment from Texas. They were certainly aware of the Navy had no plan or resources to replenish large quantities of helium once the airships deployed overseas.
When it was clear the Nazi government was gearing up to start a war, the record shows a military request for ten Zeppelins. Hitler himself, who had been incensed when the Hindenburg’s fly-over of the 1936 Olympic games earned more applause than his own official entrance, would have not made such a request. The dictator was said to have ridiculed Zeppelins as very beautiful, but unusable because they were explosive. Top Nazi desire for, or indifference to, was not, however, the last action concerning Zeppelins.
Meanwhile, on August 31st, 1939, a swastika-emblazoned Lufthansa J52 D airplane dubbed ‘Karl Huchmuth’ took off for London, but soon crashed and burst into flames, killing all aboard. The Nazi propaganda machine did not consider that accident much of a loss of face; they struck no medal commemorating the sacrifice. They made no effort to redesign everything to use some rare and expensive alternative to aviation gasoline – nor have rumors of doing so been repeated in the literature. Indeed, no one would remember those fiery deaths, and for reasons other than no motion picture footage being taken of the accident, or a description being recorded on a platter. Why is the accident forgotten? Because, a matter of hours later, Fritz-Julius Lemp ordered torpedoes fired from his U-30, sinking the 13,581-ton passenger ship Athenia. Lemp had mistaken the liner for an armed merchant ship. 112 passengers and crew were killed in the initial explosion, or died later as a result of the sinking. The Nazi government denied any involvement and was all through saving face about anything. The horrors of unrestricted submarine warfare suddenly came rushing back to the British public – whose government could no longer launch airships in response.
Back at Lakehurst, quite indifferent to her possible value, disassembly of the USS Los Angeles began immediately even as the Nazis over ran Poland. ZR-3 was stricken from records just weeks later on October 24, 1939. It took until January to see all her cut- up duraluminum framing sold for scrap. (A few pieces of her were saved and are in various museum collections today.)
The following April (1940), a former Zep Captain, then having been recalled to active duty, was ordered to prepare LZ-130 for a flight to Narvik. LZ-130 was to be loaded with supplies needed by the hard-pressed Nazi troops invading Norway. He was to be crash-landed there and cannibalized to turn the tide against the defenders. The bold mission was to be a replay of L-59’s WWI Africa flight, getting one last use from this unique asset in this new war. Yet the one Nazi hand was not aware of what the other Nazi hand was doing. Flying into Frankfurt, the officer found labor divisions of the Luftwaffe and the Reichsarbeitdienst in the final stages of demolishing their last rigid. The Zeppelin men had refused to tear the up LZ-130. For the most part the order that nothing be saved even for museum purposes was enforced, though a few pieces of him remain in museums today. The advanced engineering bundled into the unique power cars spent their final hours cast out in the weeds, their unique powerplants re-purposed.
One could base an entirely different timeline of rigid airship development had the second Roosevelt administration been pro-, rather than anti– airship. Another spend-ourselves-into-prosperity agency could have been created with the flashy goal of making America the world leader in luxury air transportation. The public spectacle of decisively reversing the order for helium promised to the Nazi regime (after the Munich crisis, obviously bent on conquest) could have been exploited for political gain. The new agency could have been sanctified with some wiz-bang slogan about Providence’s gift of helium for the arsenal of democracy, or some such.
That position remained unchanged as American observers were startled by the German U-boat’s stunning early success sinking a British battleship and several aircraft carriers. Advocates calling for a carrier that could not be torpedoed, mined or run aground were not given any press at the time. As the “battle of tonnage” targeted merchant ships tactics had to be changed, but few in authority looked to LTA ASW as much of the answer.
Back at Lakehurst, Detroit Aircraft’s single product was showing its advanced age. Once considered a rigid – at least for training purposes – the metalclad ZMC-2 was leaking helium and offered little confidence for safe flight. It too was stricken. No still photos, only home movies show of the ZMC-2 being torn apart for scrap in beginning one Sunday in 1940. ZMC-2’s “gondola” was suspended in Hangar #4 and used as a training “classroom” for mechanics well into WWII. (Scraps of the unique hull, some joined by its tiny rivets, are part of collections today.)
Even as the Americans were building two smaller hangars adjacent to Hangar #1 at Lakehurst, airplane ace and Luftwaffe czar Hermann Göring sought to erase any chance of a German airship revival. On the 3rd anniversary of the LZ-129 accident, the Frankfurt hangars were blown up, their never-used helium purification structure still visible.
In Washington, to be sure Franklin Roosevelt would not immediately veto any new airship request, SecNav Swanson had capitalized the words NON RIGID on a meager request for six copies of the prototype K-2, even as Goodyear-Zeppelin submitted proposals for a modest rigid within Roosevelt’s restrictions. It would take Goodyear a while to set up a manufacturing assembly line to make six more K-2s, the modest blimp that had been previously assumed to have been another one-off prototype. Claude Swanson died in office before the first blimp was completed. Roosevelt found his next appointee Charles Edison’s pleas for consideration of rigid airships an irritation. When Edison quit, Roosevelt selected newspaperman Frank Knox for Navy Secretary. Even as Atlantic U-boats were attacking and sinking destroyer escorts specifically designed to be victorious over submarines, calls for airships were not publicized. Undeclared or not, US sailors were in the war as U-boats torpedoed merchantmen and escorts alike, killing hundreds of Americans in the process. That Halloween the USS Ruben James was blown in half by a torpedo that saw it as just another hull in the water, and did not care it was an Anti-Sub Warship. There was still no published outcry for airship escort. Attention would shortly be switching to the Pacific.
Since even Macon’s scouts could have spotted possible attackers 3000 miles away from Pearl Harbor, giving warning in plenty of time to prepare, the Japanese took the airship seriously. In fact, since Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s orders allowed the option of canceling the plan if the element of surprise was lost early on, a single flying carrier might have averted the surprise attack completely—without firing a shot. (In ZRS the novel, the old Macon is caught on weekend liberty at Ewa’s mast and destroyed by the Japanese attack.) In fact, the attacking Japanese on Dec. 7th 1941 did send a detachment to Ewa and what remained of the airship mooring facility was bombed. The photos show the mooring mast being converted to a control tower for the Marine Corps aircraft based there before WWII began.
It is strangely ironic, the US government’s position that helium was so vital it could not allow the gas to be sold abroad lest a charge of the gas be harnessed for war purposes – but it was not vital enough for America to build another rigid. Would the Nazis have used helium in combat when it was acknowledged in quiet background conversations that a war emergency would likely demand a return to hydrogen for American needs? Buckley and Barkley wrote of helium’s allure, “This desirability, so much emphasized in the United States, greatly loses its importance when other military aspects of the airship operation are considered … it is very likely that Germany would choose hydrogen over helium for military airship operations, even if both were available to her. If an airship were attacked by aircraft, it would make little difference whether it were filled with helium or hydrogen.” Their perception is supported by the helium crowd carefully avoiding a side-by-side test even in the early days. It is safe to assume that if the German government had paid for a shipload of helium and taken possession before invading Austria, the gas would have been at least partially supplemented by hydrogen by the time a practical military mission was conceived.
Buckley and Barkley continued, “It is of interest to note here that the refusal of helium to Germany in 1938, while it resulted in the abandonment of commercial airship service, did not prevent the operation of LZ-130 (Graf Zeppelin II) for the training of new airship crews. Prior to the German attack on Russia, LZ-130 had been persistently reported in operation, carrying war materials from Russia into Germany. Even this relatively small commercial airship (same volume as Hindenburg – 7,000,000 cubic feet) with range reduced to 2,000 miles, could carry better than 75 tons of payload.” Given the might of the American war machine, it’s difficult to understand why leadership entered WWII without the capability to fly high-priority cargo to Hawaii, when that capability had existed ten years earlier(!)
Like his boss, new SECNAV Knox had little knowledge of LTA. Unlike his boss, Knox at least once (in 1943) did take a K-ship ride, to survey the San Francisco Bay area. Frank Knox is not recorded of offering support for FADM King’s proposal to restart the ZRCV when America found itself at war in the vast Pacific. Goodyear nonetheless continued to offer its ZRCV design, and King would have preferred to have a flying carrier in the vast Pacific. However in the face of certain Presidential veto, King could do little more than support the non-rigid program.
Some historians have concluded the US Navy’s modern carriers being ordered to sea and all the old battleships left in port was just what was needed to shock the reluctant Americans into the war. Whatever else one might conclude about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, there is one fact not in dispute. The two squadrons of barrage balloons stationed there were not ordered to erect and position their balloons to protect battleship row. Not a single barrage balloon, long proven to deter low-level bombing attacks, was inflated anywhere in Hawaii.
Meanwhile, if any camaraderie was left between airshipmen across the Atlantic it likely ended when the K-3, one of a mere three sensor-less and mounted gun-less blimps delivered before Pearl Harbor, stumbled upon the remains of the merchant-man Noress. The tanker had been torpedoed by the U-123 on 13 JAN 42 off Long Island. The K-3 crew radioed rescue for the survivors and looked in vain for the sub, having nothing with which to detect it underwater had U-123 still been in the area. Had U-123 been present on the surface, K-3 had little with which to shoot at the sub.
The Navy had just then realized it could organize blimps into squadrons and groups: Airship Patrol Group One, under then-CAPT C. H. “Shorty” Mills, was formed with one 4-blimp unit, ZP-12, with then-LCDR Raymond Tyler as CO. It would take a few more weeks for the only other serviceable airships in the country—commandeered Goodyear advertising blimps and two former Army non-rigids—to be organized at Moffett Field. As the Army left what had been USS Macon’s ultramodern hangar, it was reoccupied by ZP-32, the newly formed ragtag band commanded by CAPT George Watson. One blimp was armed – with the pilot’s hunting rifle. What became Fleet Airships Pacific was later skippered by RADM Scott Peck. Zimmermann, Rosendahl, C.V.S.Knox and several others who’d stood watch on LZ-129 went on to senior positions in the wartime non-rigid effort. (All this and more is covered in our WWII DVD. )
On 11 MAR 42 the first of the sensorless airships to be delivered after America entered the war, K-6, was aloft with George R. Lee as command pilot; future blimp pilot Richard Widdicome was also in the crew. The Eastern Sea Frontier War Diary records, “At 1317, while searching for a wreck in the vicinity of 38°45’ N 74°39’ W, a submarine was sighted at 38-36N 74-38W.” #255: submarine “…surfaced directly south of the airship at a range of 2,000 to 3,000 yards. The K-6 proceeded at full power to attack…” Widdicome told the producer the wind just happened to be against them, so it took critical seconds to turn around and head for the U-boat, whose crew was scrambling back below. K-6 didn’t even have a machine gun to use when it lined up on the quickly disappearing sub; the attack was entirely dependent on its gravity bombs. Rosendahl wrote, “At 1317 the U‑94 surfaced directly south of the K‑6… approaching astern the blimp surprised the lookouts… sub crash dived but was not fully submerged when K‑6 dropped two depth bombs which exploded near the boat… U‑94 went to the bottom where damage report showed its port electric motor stopped, blocked stern planes and echo depth gauge out of order.” K‑6 had lost eyeball contact having no smoke marker to deploy, and of course did not have anything to detect a submerged submarine. The K-6’s radio calls failed to attract surface units’ attention in time. In a few hours, U‑94 had slipped away to deeper water to make repairs. (Though verified in German records, this first action of an aircraft of any kind against a U-boat in American waters is not acknowledged in the Navy’s histories to this day.)
Little more than helium was the difference between 1918 and March 1942, though a “friendly fire” incident just weeks later was happily not fatal as a similar WWI mistaken attack had been. As Rosendahl related, “One morning late in March 1942, the TC-13 was detailed to meet the battleships Pennsylvania and Tennessee and their three escort destroyers off the Farralone Islands at daybreak, and provide them antisubmarine coverage into San Francisco… unbeknownst to the TC-13, the destroyer Humphreys had escorted one of our own submarines, the Gato (SS-212), out of San Francisco and through the main ship channel to a prescribed buoy where the Gato was to conduct “trim dives” and then join up with a westbound convoy… Soon after eight o’clock, a TC-13 lookout reported sighting a periscope about 6,000 yards off the port bow of the Pennsylvania… It certainly was a submarine, and furthermore it was in an ideal position for an attack on the Pennsylvania. As the world then knew, and as Rieker recalled in a flash, only a month before, a Jap sub had brazenly sat on the surface and shelled oil field installations north of Santa Barbara. Was this underwater craft now beneath him another such brazen intruder? A quick check with his officers assured Rieker they had no word that any of our own subs were to be in that area. Johnny Rieker decided action was called for. Two depth charges plunged seaward from the TC-13, and then another two… in three minutes, a submarine did surface, and sure enough it was our own… The blimp’s depth charges had damaged the sub’s diving planes and knocked out a number of his instruments, forcing him back to the Mare Island Navy Yard for repairs.” (This action is also not mentioned in the Navy’s histories, go figure.)
Several action reports from these early weeks of the American ASW war have blimp crews noticing suspicious activities of small boats seeming to be laden with fuel drums. Likewise, tankers with scars and scuff marks lead to rumors that the small, shorter-ranged U-boats could only have such on-station time if they were receiving fuel locally somehow. Sailors eagerly listened to rumors that Standard Oil tankers did not seem to being targeted as often as other companies; some quickly believed connections made during the rigid’s days were being played out.
Within a few more weeks someone ordered the blimp’s numbers blotted out, a wise precaution since German logbooks show three separate U-boats reported holding submerged or crash-diving owning to spotting an airship in the area. Good thing they could no longer tell it was the same blimp, K-5, doubtless having no idea the Americans had only one airship available there in the Cape Hatteras area at the time. It was almost May before the first airship to be factory-equipped with a machine gun turret, K-7 (seen here after tying to erase its number), was delivered to Lakehurst.
With the count of lost vessels and the death toll of crews already exceeding Pearl Harbor many times over, it was clear the American ASW airship effort had been too little, too late. The 77th Congress, appalled by shocking losses to U-boats, passed public law 612 on 16 June 42. Not only did they authorize up to 200 airships, but they suddenly removed the restriction against these vessels having backbones, or even rigid hulls. “200 airships, of any type, to be delivered immediately” carried nothing like the earlier “at the discretion of the President” clause. The Congress seemed to dare a Presidential veto.
There could at last be rigid airships to carry submarine detection gear, radio homing HF/DF to locate U-boats by their transmissions, and carry fighter-bombers with serious armament to sink them. Even small rigids would have the legs to escort the convoys through the mid-Atlantic “gap” unreachable by shore based airplanes. With nothing more than USS Patoka-like mast-equipped tenders in the harbors of Bermuda and the Azores, just a few rigids would have been able to catch the U-boats when they rendezvoused with their “milch cow” tankers to refuel. Hopeful plans were published, but Roosevelt did not have to veto any bill to thwart this new effort. By keeping Goodyear on the lowest priority, 4, strategic material would be withheld. Amid tens of thousands of airplanes being manufactured with the same model rolling off multiple lines of different manufacturers, after making only 134 K-ships, the nation’s one and only airship assembly line ran out of materials. The official Naval Historian, Morison, nonetheless claims Goodyear “had influence” (!) and this is not disputed to this day in official records.
Even with no more than a couple dozen airships aloft at any moment during the height of operations, the K-ship squadrons were an amazingly safe and cost-effective asset against the submarine menace as they fanned out across hemispheres. Crossing the Equator and occupying half the giant Zep hangar at Santa Cruz, Brazil, ZP-42 sailors re-purposed Zeppelin equipment to service K-ships at the renamed Camp Mellow. The same re-worked German fireman’s wheeled extension ladders that once were used to reach parts of their rigid airships found themselves employed for K-ship engine changes, fin wire tightening and batten adjustments. Hopping the Atlantic, ZP-14 would set up shop in WWI-era hangars in Cures, France. Versailles reparations, two former Zeppelin hangars had been relocated and spliced into one, and WWII sailors employed the available equipment therein. German POWs were even tasked to help the sailors on the long lines.
The producer’s ten-year effort Airships vs. Submarines attempts to tell the complete story of the two craft’s parallel evolutionary paths to becoming rivals, as well as both wars’ records of their many encounters and struggles. In the final analysis, WWII was the last time in the 20th century rigid airships were even halfheartedly considered for use against their undersea cousins. For a six minute synopsis of the K-type airship history, WWII though atomic testing and the Cold War, click on the play arrow:
For two iconoclast Navy Lieutenants, ASW was a secondary rigid airship employment. They had the intestinal fortitude to speak out that the time for the ZRCV had passed. They proposed a much more ambitious fleet of 50-fighter-bomber carrying, hydrogen-lifted 20 million cubic foot flying carriers. In addition to publishing their own book on the subject, future Captains Frank Buckley and Richard Barkley penned an article for the USNI Proceedings, “Carrier Crisis.” No one controlling the purse strings could appreciate their vision. The last year even the most meager rigid airships were in official US Navy plans and projections was 1947.
Master modeler John Mellburg’s masterpiece LZ-130 miniature, on display at the Milwaukee’s Billy Mitchell airport for more than a decade, was in July 2020 moved to its new home in Oshkosh’s EAA Museum. It’s a thought-provoking image of what was.
Australian author Rowan Partridge released his masterpiece, the historical novel ZRS, in which he has created an alternative history that so easily might have been. We hope you’ll join with us and help make Rowan’s vision a near reality on the digital motion picture screen, at last giving the rigid airship flying carrier the chance it could – perhaps, should – have had.
Read on to How You Can Help Make ZRS The Major Motion Picture
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