Stories of ghost ships adrift in the vast expanses of the ocean have existed since man first took to the sea thanks in large part to water’s ability to swallow ships, airplanes, survivors, and wreckage into its depths, never to be seen again. Without any evidence left behind to help us to understand what happens on ships like the Mary Celeste, the mysteries prove enduring, and like a fine wine, often get better with age. And some ghost ships, like the L-8, are of the airborne variety.

 

The Fateful Mission Begins

Nazi U-Boats proved to be a significant threat to allied naval efforts throughout World War II, prompting a number of novel approaches to spotting and combating submarines before they could sneak up on our ships. One such approach was the use of L-Class blimps, which could float above the ocean and spot submerged enemy vessels.

On the morning of August 16, 1942, Lieutenant Ernest Cody and Ensign Charles Adams climbed aboard their L-8 Airship, a former Goodyear Blimp that had been procured by the Navy in April of that year to deliver equipment to the carrier USS Hornet (CV-8) while at sea. Their mission was simple: head out to sea from their post on Treasure Island in California and look for any signs of enemy submersibles.

L-18 blimp
Prior to the August flight, Lt. Cody had flown the L-8 out to the Carrier Hornet to make one last delivery as the ship, and 16 B-25 bombers, headed across the Pacific, bound for Tokyo. (National Archives)

A little over an hour into their patrol, the two men radioed that they had spotted an oil slick on the water and were moving to investigate.

“We figured by that time it was a submarine,” said Wesley Frank Lamoureux, a member of the Navy’s Armed Guard Unit who was aboard the cargo ship Albert Gallatin. “From then on, I am not too positive of the actions of the dirigible except that it would come down very close over the water. In fact, it seemed to almost sit on top of the water.”

According to his testimony, the blimp dropped two flares and circled the area. This was in keeping with protocol when investigating the possibility of a German sub. The Albert Gallatin cargo ship, believing the blimp could have located a U-Boat, sounded the general alarm, manned her guns, and made a hasty exit from the area. It would be the last time anyone would see the L-8 operating under the controls of its crew.

 

The L-8 Returns, but Something Is Amiss

A few hours later, the massive air-ship approached the quiet town of Daly City, California. The sagging blimp eventually came to rest after getting snagged in power lines and crashing onto Bellevue Avenue. Crowds quickly amassed in the chaos and a number of people approached the wreckage in hopes of saving the crew… only to find the cabin empty.

L-8 blimp

The pilot’s parachute remained where it had been stowed before the trip; the lifeboat was still there as well. The pilot’s cap sat atop the instrument panel, and its payload of two bombs was secured. A briefcase containing confidential documents, which the crew had orders to dispose of if compromised, also remained on board. The only things out-of-place were the blimp itself, and its missing crew.

Like the Mary Celeste, the L-8’s crew had seemed to vanish without a trace, prompting its own slew of theories. Some assumed that the pilot and ensign had simply fallen out of the vessel, though it would have been nearly impossible to do so without both crew members leaving the cabin of the ship while it was still airborne. If there was something damaged on the external hull of the vessel, which would have required both men to address, the wreckage provided no evidence to suggest what it could have been.

L-8 blimp disappears
The blimp finally came to rest atop Richard Johnston’s freshly waxed car in Daly City, CA, just South of San Francisco. (National Archives)

According to another theory, the two men, in the course of investigating the oil slick, lowered their blimp enough to be taken prisoner by the crew of the U-Boat or a Japanese vessel. Still, others postulated that the two men were embroiled in a love triangle that drove one to kill the other and then escape by diving into the sea. Despite a thorough investigation, no conclusion could ever be drawn.

So what really did happen to the two-man crew of the L-8? Did they simply fall out of their blimp or did a more nefarious fate befall them? We’ll likely never know – leaving the story of the L-8, the ghost ship in the sky, to be filed under the heading “unsolved” like so many ghost ships before it.

 

This article was originally published in 2017. It has been edited for republication.

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