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Blimp vs. U-boat

Centennial of Naval Aviation

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A close-quarters slugfest between a U.S. Navy blimp and a German U-boat lit up the sea and sky off the Florida coast on the night of July 18, 1943, and produced moments of remarkable heroism by American sailors.

The German adversary was the Type VIIC U-boat U-134, a 220-foot, 769-ton (surfaced) raider that had once torpedoed a German merchant ship by mistake but was now on her seventh war patrol, with Oberleutnant Hans-Günther Brosin as captain.

Blimp crews were expected to find the foe and call for help, rather than to use this skimpy arsenal to engage the heavy anti-aircraft armament of a U-boat directly.

K-74 was the designation of the 252-foot airship, piloted and commanded by Lt. Nelson Grills, USNR, with a crew of nine:  Darnley Eversley, Ensign, USNR, navigator; John Jandrowitz, Aviation Pilot First Class, USNR, co-pilot; Isadore Stessel, Aviation Machinist Mate Second Class, USNR; Jonathan L. Schmidt, Aviation Machinist Mate Third Class, USNR; Robert Herbert Bourne, Aviation Radioman Third Class, USNR;  John F. Rice, Aviation Radioman Third Class, USNR; Gerrold M. Giddings, Aviation Radioman Third Class, USNR; Garnet Eckert, Aviation Ordnanceman Third Class, USNR; and John W. Kowalski, Seaman Third Class, USNR.

K-74 was operating as part of lighter-than-air patrol squadron twenty-one (ZP-21) at Naval Air Station Richmond, Fla. A K-class blimp was typically armed with four depth charges and a .50-cal. machine gun mounted in the nose of the blimp’s gondola – but blimp crews were expected to find the foe and call for help, rather than to use this skimpy arsenal to engage the heavy anti-aircraft armament of a U-boat directly.

K-Class Blimp

U.S. Navy sailors arm a K-class blimp at NAS Weeksville, N.C. Normal armament was four depth charges and a .50-caliber machine gun. National Museum of Naval Aviation photo

Shortly before midnight, the submarine surfaced and the crew threw open their hatches to vent carbon dioxide and take in fresh air. German sailors clambered topside to enjoy the tropical warmth. The U-134 was now in position to intercept two Allied merchant ships nearby.

K-74′s crew initially spotted the surfaced U-boat on radar, then emerged from cloud cover and made visual contact. The German submarine was on a direct course for the nearby merchant ships, and Grills was afraid that if he didn’t attack immediately, they would be sunk by the U-boat. Grills radioed to another blimp that he was pressing the attack.

Aviation Machinist’s Mate Third Class Garnet Eckert fired back with the gondola-mounted machine gun.

The submarine turned to port, and from the U-boat’s conning tower, 20 mm cannon fire rushed upward at K-74. The big and cumbersome blimp –readily visible in the moonlit night – initiated a bombing run at 250 feet of altitude. Aviation Machinist’s Mate Third Class Garnet Eckert fired back with the gondola-mounted machine gun.

As K-74 passed over the submarine, gunfire struck one of its engines. Grills’ radio operator got off an S.O.S. message. It appears today, in light of recovered documents, that Aviation Machinist’s Mate Second Class Isadore Stessel managed to drop two of the blimp’s depth charges.

K-Class Blimp

A U.S. Navy sailor mans a machine gun in the gondola of a K-class blimp. In the battle on July 18, 1943, Aviation Machinist’s Mate Third Class Garnet Eckert engaged a U-boat with the nose-mounted machine gun. National Museum of Naval Aviation photo

The airship caught fire. The crew managed to defeat the blaze but fought to remain airborne as they slowly lost altitude, the blimp’s envelope shredded by enemy gunfire. The airship touched water in a high nose-up attitude, and the crew began to evacuate, wearing Mae West lifejackets.

Grills helped others escape, but remained behind to dump secret electronic gear and classified documents overboard. By the time he abandoned ship he had become separated from his crew. Many hours later he was rescued only when a crewmember of airship K-32 spotted him in the water, largely by chance. The remainder of the crew clung to the deflated bag of the blimp. At dawn, a J4F-2 Widgeon seaplane from ZP-21 discovered them.

Tragically, before he could be pulled from the sea, Stessel was attacked by a shark and vanished in a crimson froth.

The sea state would not permit the Widgeon to set down on water. The J4F-2 directed surface ships to a rescue. Tragically, before he could be pulled from the sea, Stessel was attacked by a shark and vanished in a crimson froth. As if in requiem, K-74′s two remaining depth charges – now underwater with most of the blimp – detonated deep below the surface. The USS Dahlgren arrived on the scene shortly after, and sailors armed with rifles and Thompson .45-caliber submachine guns fired shots to keep sharks at bay while the crew were brought aboard.

Initially, Grills and his crew faced official disapproval since they had violated standing orders in attacking the submarine, but this changed after the squadron commander interviewed them at length. It wasn’t until 1961, however, that Grills received the Distinguished Flying Cross and his crew Navy Commendation Medals, after German records revealed that K-74 had damaged the U-boat.

K-Class Blimp

Mae West lifejackets are passed out in the gondola of a K-class blimp. The crew of K-74 had to take to the sea in their Mae Wests after being shot down by a German U-boat. National Museum of Naval Aviation photo

It is unknown whether the damage was severe enough to keep the U-boat from submerging, but in the hunt for U-134 after K-74 was shot down, the boat was damaged again in an air attack. It was finally sunk by a Royal Air Force bomber days later while attempting to limp home on the surface to Germany for repairs. K-74 was the only blimp downed by enemy action in World War II and Stessel the only crewmember killed by enemy action. Stessel’s family members did not receive his Purple Heart until 54 years after he died at sea.

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

  • John Madden

    This is the stuff that makes great films. I never knew these kind of actions took place in WW2. I was aware blimps were used, but had never heard of any attacks or downings. Thanks for a great story. I am happy to see these men were finally recognized for their heroism!

  • R Robertson, CDR, USNR (Ret)

    Naval Aviation is filled with these little-known stories. Bravo Zulu to the air crews of the lighter-than-air squadrons that kept our coasts safe, and the sea lanes open.

  • Robert F. Dorr

    It was a privilege and an honor to learn a little about the men who flew these lighter-than-air machines and waged war with very little recognition. Fortunately, a couple of excellent books are now available on the subject. Bravo Zulu indeed.

  • Chuck Oldham (Editor)

    Imagine the guts it took to bore in on a depth charge run at 55 knots maximum against anti-aircraft defenses that regularly shot down aircraft moving at six times that speed. It’s a shame it took so long to recognize the heroism of the men aboard K-74, but it’s a privilege to help get the true story before the public.

  • One of the crewmates john kowalski was a relative of mine. If anyone knows if there are any surving crew, I would love to know. Please send me a message.

  • Great history about the K-74. Another little-known event involving USN K-ships; namely, the first transatlantic crossing by non-rigid airships was featured in the Spring issue of Naval Aviation News to help commemorate this year’s Centennial of Naval Aviation (1911-2011):

    http://www.history.navy.mil/nan/currentissue/NAN_vol93_no2_KShips_feature.pdf

  • david giddings

    Thank you for remembering this battle, my father was on the k-74.