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Tom Flanary

Tom Flanary

Tom Flanary is a Director on the Board of Directors, and maintains the website for GCRM. He has been involved in GCRM as a volunteer since 2011, and has been a director since 2012. If you have comments, concerns, or questions, please contact him directly at

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Monday, 10 September 2012 13:04

December Newsletter

The December Edition of the Steam and Steel Newsletter is now available for your viewing. It is located under the events tab, or by clicking on this link: Steam and Steel Newsletter

Monday, 10 September 2012 13:00

Yard Slug

We are currently collecting information on our RF&P Yard Slug #C. It was a 1948 Alco S-2 that was converted to a yard slug. If you have any pictures, history, or wish to help us refurbish this slug or any other of our lcoomotives, please email us:  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

RFP7-720114Potomac Yard

Monday, 03 September 2012 13:46

Ferdinand Magellan Grant



The first phase of restoration on the presidential railcar Ferdinand Magellan is now underway thanks to the National Railroad Historical Society (NRHS). We really appreciate our recent
 grant award from NRHS to assist with painting and upholstery work. An interior restoration has long been overdue for this valuable railcar.  Visitors are now seeing historically appropriate upgrades to the car’s interior.

In the last three weeks painting has begun on the presidential stateroom, presidential bathroom and first lady’s room.  Prior to painting, paint chips were removed from underneath fixtures or on the insides of closets to attain the original color used in the rooms. Then, those paint chips were scanned on a computer and the pigment adjusted for the age and natural fading to attain a paint mixture that would be completely accurate to the original paints used.

The painting has been going very slowly because the walls are so cracked from age and scared from years of mildew buildup.  Thus, a great deal of preparation, repair and priming were necessary. Amazingly, the walls were still stained with coal dust residue from over sixty years ago.  There were also a large number of miscellaneous fixtures which had to be removed for painting as detailing around them simply was not practical.  


 It has been very interesting to be working in those rooms.  There is an overwhelming sense of history as one spends time in those spaces. For example, it is amazing at how many specialized handles and inventive detachable railings that still exist in those areas which had been installed years ago for President Roosevelt to facilitate his disability.  All of those many handles and railings have to be removed before painting, then cleaned and finally reinstalled.


While the painting is going on we are finalizing bids for the upholstery work and some minor carpet replacements as well as designing some protective runners.


 The Museum also thanks board member and volunteer David McFadden for installing plexiglass panels over the openings of the staterooms.  These panels allow visitors to view the interior of the rooms without damage to their historical furnishings. 



Saturday, 01 September 2012 02:50

Winston Co. No. 48

 Alco (Cooke) Winston Co. No. 48 0-4-0T


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This locomotive was built as a 3 foot gauge locomotive in 1922 by Alco (Cooke) locomotives for the Winston Company based in Edgefield, SC. This company is believed to be the Winston Arm's company, but that cannot be confirmed. It stayed with the Winston Company for approximately 12 years, when in 1934 it was sold to a Locomotive dealership. After that, it was then again sold to Bona-Allen, Inc (1935) and the Georgia Lumber Company (Date Unknown). At the Georgia Lumber Company, it was renumbered to Locomotive No. 22, which it kept for the ramainder of it's career. Not much is known about the specific history of the Winston Company's No. 48 locomotive, except through previous accounts of the locomotive being used. One contributor wrote to GCRM and sent us a picture of him as a boy next to the No. 48 as it was working at the Daniel Boone Railway (1969-1983).   

 Additionally, an individual named Duane Butner commented on another page for the Winston Co. No. 48, and in which he stated, "You might also find it interesting to know that the lettering on the train was painted by an Apache Indian named “Apache Joe”. He painted most of all of the rides and signs for Mr. Freeland years ago. It was told to me that he also came from Arizona and when Apache Joe was nine years old he witnessed the US Army escorting Geronimo through the reservation when he was a small boy... Once there was an incident when the train engineer Mr. Warren Hall, who has since passed away was driving the train when he forgot to put water in the steam engine boiler. He had to stop the train and the conductor who was a man by the name of Delmar Tudor had to tell everyone to evacuate the train, or as he said “it’s going to blow up!” Needless to say, everyone ran screaming away from the engine. Fortunately the train did not blow up as Mr. Hall stayed with the engine and cooled down the boiler as to prevent the fire department from putting any water on the hot engine.
That was just one story I recall about this railroad." -Duane Butner






Alco (Cooke)

Build Date:


Construction No.:


Empty Weight:


Weight on Drivers:


Driver Diameter:


Tractive Effort:


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Built For:

The Winston Co. #48 at Edgefield, SC



Birmingham Rail & Locomotive Co. (dealer)



Bona-Allen, Inc. at Buford, GA



Georgia Lumber Co. #22



Lake Lure Scenic Railroad #22 at Lake Lure, NC



Daniel Boone Railroad #22 at Hillsborough, NC



James Wells at Fairfax, VA

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Monday, 30 July 2012 11:35


Monday, 30 July 2012 11:24

New Volunteer, David Oliva

davidThe Gold Coast Railroad Museum welcomes David Oliva to our volunteer force. David has worked at our museum for several months now and has done an outstanding job.

Monday, 30 July 2012 11:21

Recent Board Elections


On June 10th the Gold Coast Railroad Museum held its fifty-fifth Board of Director’s election. A total of 294 ballot nominations were mailed to members and 60 completed ballots received back for counting.

Saturday, 28 July 2012 00:44

First Hand Account

First Hand Account of the 1945 Hurricane that demolished NAS Richmond

By Arch H. McCleskey Jr.

Hurricane Demolished NAS Richmond

September 1945, we heard that there was a hurricane in the Caribbean moving into the Atlantic and heading in our direction. First, all the blimps were moved into the hangars with the portable mooring masts. Next, all the military heaver-than-air (HTA) aircraft in the area parked in the hangar "for protection." Next, they parked all the government vehicles in the hangars. Then, they allowed all the base personnel to park our private owned vehicles (POVs) in the hangar "for protection." I had a beautiful 1940 Mercury that I had bought from my brother Fred. I had customized that thing so that there was not another one like it in the world.

Due to the Florida heat, the plastic trim on the dashboard had deteriorated and looked bad. I replaced all the trim with marbled plexiglass that I had made at night in the plastic shop. It really looked sharp. So, I was very happy to get it in the hangar "for protection." There was still a little space in the hangar, so the Navy allowed some civilians to put their privately owned planes in the hangar "for protection." In addition to the blimps, there were a total of about 300 other aircraft and 100 cars and trucks.

On 15 September 1945, I had the Officer-of-the-Day duty in Hangar #2. We kept listening to the radio and plotting the hurricane course. At one time it was headed for Miami, but off the coast from us it turned due west. I advised folks that it was headed straight for us. We still felt pretty secure being we were in a "hurricane-proof" building. Then it hit! I had never heard such a noise. We were watching a wind speed indicator until the wind reached 175 mph. At that time the anemometer blew off. I don't know what speed the wind gusts actually reached.

At that time, I could see breaks in the roof, and I headed for the radar shop, which was on the side of the hangar a short way from the duty office. About that time "all hell broke loose." I and my fellow technicians dived under a large heavy duty workbench by a four-foot brick wall at the side of the Hangar. That terrific wind ripped that huge arched roof, which made up 90% of the building, to pieces. Unfortunately we were on the lee side of the building, so the falling structure came our way; however, most of it went over us and piled up outside. At that time, the side walls of the building, up to the top of the shops, were still standing.






NAS Richmond after the 1945 HurricaneAfter the hurricane and fire. This is what was left of the debris that I had to climb over.

Picture courtesy The city of Surfside, FL

After the majority of the hangars blew down, that terrific wind started blowing the blimps, autos and airplanes all over the place, causing gas tanks to be ripped apart spilling gasoline all over the deck. Then, the gasoline ignited, probably due to the metal scraping the concrete producing sparks.

While this was happening, we were under a heavy workbench and my fellow chief was really praying out loud. I was doing some praying also, but mine was silent. It was pitch dark and so noisy you couldn't hear yourself think. I crawled out from under the bench to try and see what was going on. One of the technicians asked "What can I do chief?"

I answered "For now, get back under there and help the chief pray." Then "POW!" the whole hangar lite up in flames. I told the men who were with me "Guys, you are on your own, I'm going to try to get the hell out of here. Good luck!" I threw a chair through the window and started climbing out, while the other chief discharged a fire extinguisher toward the door of the shop keeping the flames back.

Being on the lee side of the hangar that blew down, broken hangar beams from the main structure of the building fell on that side. I started climbing over that wreckage. At one point, I fell down through that wreckage. The sharp splintered beams cut me to pieces; however, that didn't bother me at the time. In fact, I hardly realized I was cut; my thoughts were on getting out of there. I still remember some of the thoughts that came to my mind at that time. I was wearing an ID bracelet on my right wrist. I visualized my right arm sticking up above the wreckage and rescuers coming by the next day identifying my body by that ID bracelet. I thought, "Because I have no wife or children, it's not as bad for me as for some of the other guys who do have wives and children."

Anyway, I managed to work my way up to the top of the wreckage again and across the debris and wreckage of the building. By that time I was out to the runway and felling the full blunt of the storm. The rain drops felt like shots or small pebbles hitting my body with great force. Then, "swash!" a gust of strong wind actually lifted me off the runway and was blowing me through the air like a leaf. I remembered hearing about winds so strong that they could drive a straw through a tree. I could just see ole' Arch being driven through a tree at the end of the runway. I knew I had to do something to get down. So, I arched my body like going into a dive and dove to the ground. This may have been when I broke my hand. I may have landed on it. I was now laying on the runway listening to the roar of that terrible wind and still being hit by flying debris.

Due to lightning or the light from the burning hangar, I saw a mound of dirt beside the runway so I rolled behind that mound of dirt. This protected me from the wind and flying debris. I watched large pieces of wood and other junk fly over my head. I was downwind from the hangar; so, as the fire from the burning gasoline, aircraft, autos etc. increased, so did the smoke coming my way. The smoke became so intense that I had to give up my safe haven behind that pile of dirt. There were some woods nearby, so I worked my way over to them. The wind had broken most of the trees off about two feet from the ground. I crawled behind the largest stump that I saw. Then with the flashing of lightning, I saw a larger stump and worked my way to behind it. I repeated that several times until I found a tree stump that was large enough to protect me from the fury of the storm. I stayed there until the eye of the hurricane arrived.

Suddenly the howling winds stopped blowing and it became deadly still and calm. There wasn't a breath of air stirring. I came out of the woods to see what was going on. The hangars were engulfed with flames; I didn't want to go back there. About that time six other guys who had been weathering the storm in the woods came by. One of them knew where the ammunition dump was and said that we could find safety there for the other part of the hurricane. That sounded good to me, so I was happy to join them. To get to the ammo dump, we had to leave the base by the back gate. Of course, there was no guard on the gate at this time. Starting down this road we passed a home that was still standing. This was a low, flat roof, wooden building that was well built and had previously been a store. It had withstood the first half of the hurricane and the family was out surveying the damage when they saw us in the road. They insisted that we come in and ride out the other half of the storm with them. They took one look at me and said "Oh my God! We must do something for you." They started cleaning my cuts and bruises. They cleaned the cuts with hydrogen peroxide and bandaged me up stopping most of the bleeding. This was done using a flashlight and a kerosine lamp for light. They put me to bed, gave me some medicine for pain and I don't remember much about the other half of the hurricane except for the noise and feeling the building rock.

As the wind subsided, base rescue personnel were out looking for survivors. They put me into a jeep and rushed me to the base hospital, which was still standing and using emergency power. To my surprise, there were not a lot of injuries, only thirty-eight, and only one death. Sailors on the opposite side of the hangar from us were able to get into the stairways of the hangar's concrete pillars for protection from the storm. The death was a civilian fireman who was out in the hangar inspecting the early roof damage, when the whole thing came down. Falling timbers got him.

Soon after I arrived at the hospital, two bus loads of volunteer doctors and nurses arrived from Miami. But, due to the relative small number of casualties(32), the Navy didn't need a lot of help. The chief surgeon started working on me. He was working using emergency lights and power, but that didn't slow him down. He was displeased that the nice people at the farm house had used hydrogen peroxide to clean my cuts, but I was happy that they had. He gave me a shot and knocked me out. Then, he cut away some of the torn skin and tissues and sewed up all my serious cuts. They found a large bone broken in my left hand; so, they put a cast on that.
The above is what was left of the debris that I had to climb over.

After a few days in the hospital, I learned that our Chief's Club, which was in our barracks, was going to close and needed to get rid of all our stock. To do this, they had decided to open the bar to all chiefs - free drinks! Anything, any time we wanted it until the stock was gone. When the doctor came by I asked him "Being that I'm just lying around here doing nothing, why can't I do the same thing in the chief's quarters?" He said "O.K. Chief! If you will promise to just lie around, take it easy and come back here once a day so we can check you over." Then he laughed and said "You probably won't need as many pain pills there." He was right and that was a much nicer atmosphere for recovering than lying around in a hospital.
The following weekend I went on liberty, even if I did look like a mummy. My hand was in a cast, both arms and both legs were bandaged up and one knee bandaged so I couldn't bend it. Of course, I couldn't drive, but I didn't have anything to drive anyway, because the hurricane and resulting fire had completely destroyed my Mercury. I rode a bus and my family was shocked to see me in that condition.

Auto insurance became an interesting issue. In the spring of that year while I was still in Houma, La., I took out auto insurance with Government Employees Insurance Company (now known as GEICO). About a month later, I received a notice stating that I had taken out collision and liability but not comprehensive. They recommended that I add comprehensive for a cost of only $4.50 a year. They included a form to check if I wanted it, and said I would be billed later. I checked the form and mailed it back but never was billed for it.

When the car was destroyed by the hurricane, I filled a claim. The company wired the adjuster that I was not covered by comprehensive. When I told them about the form that I had sent back six months earlier, they apparently found it and wired the adjuster to pay for the total lost. I decided that GEICO must be a pretty good company to pay on such a thin claim; so, I have been with them ever since and never disappointed.

Some reports years later stated that the hangars withstood the hurricane and all the damage was due to fire. Well, I'm here to tell you "that isn't so, as I was in one of those hangars I know that the hangars blew down then the fire started." Perhaps the discrepancy was due to a report that stated "just the roof blew off." The way that hangar was made, the roof was the hangar.


One fatality and 38 injuries
25 blimps
212 navy aircraft
21 non-Navy U.S. Government aircraft
125 privately owned airplanes
An unknown number of privately owned automobiles
(Most all of us on the base that owned cars)

One chief couldn't get his car started to get it in the hangar.

I think that it was the only privately owned vehicle left on the base after the hurricane.

The hurricane which hit South Florida in September of 1945 devastated NAS Richmond. Shown here is the debris surroundings what was left of Hangars One and Two.

Picture courtesy The city of Surfside, FL
Source of information on this page is from

Saturday, 28 July 2012 00:39

The Night Richmond Burned


by YN1 Anthony D. Atwood

Naval Air Station Richmond was the gem of the Caribbean, the Navy's largest Airship Station, short of Lakehurst. It was home to ZP-21, the largest squadron of airships in the Navy. Five more squadrons and a dozen smaller K-Ship bases reported to NAS Richmond. Its overhaul facilities were state-of-the-art; the three hangers were the largest wooden buildings on earth. The Navy's first giant M-Class Airships were assigned to NAS Richmond for testing and deployment. From its headquarters, NAS Richmond oversaw the defense of the Panama Canal, and prosecuted the secret, anti-submarine war of the Battle of the Atlantic in the Gulf Sea Frontier.

NAS Richmond disappeared.

Overnight. It went up in smoke.

So sudden, and so complete was its disappearance that at the mention of NAS Richmond, people assume it was in Virginia.

When World War II broke out the naval defenses of our shores were not prepared. Wolf packs of enemy submarines were quick to bring the war to America. Nazi U-boats simply waited offshore and sank our shipping with impunity. From Halifax to Brownsville, Americans witnessed our merchantmen being torpedoed before their eyes, often in broad daylight. The shipping losses were catastrophic, at the crucial time the Allies could least afford it. One shot, one sinking. Enemy submariners called it "The Happy Time."

Navy blimp command rose to the crisis.

200 of the doughty K-Ships were authorized and a string of coastal airship bases began to emerge. One of the first was NAS Richmond, Florida. Set in a pinewood forest 15 miles south of Miami and named for the Richmond sawmill on-site, its location was strategic. Its size was vast; 2100 acres. It needed every advantage it could get. Five miles away was the coast and one of the favorite hunting grounds of the enemy: The Florida Straits.

Through the Straits must pass Gulf shipping bound for the Atlantic seaboard and Europe, going north. Atlantic ships heading for the Panama Canal and the Pacific had to pass through going southward. The Straits and the rest of the Caribbean channels; Windward Passage, Mona Passage, Yucatan Channel; these became shooting galleries when the U-Boats appeared in February. The approaches were soon littered with dozens of merchantmen gone to the bottom.

In 1940 Navy planners, weighing just such a wartime possibility, had visited south Florida. Now they returned in earnest. By April, 1942, construction of NAS Richmond was underway, 1500 civilian workers going full blast to set up Caribbean LTA (Lighter than Air) headquarters. Railroad lines were fed to the site, hauling in trainloads of tough Douglas fir from Oregon for the hangers. These would be 1000 feet long by 270 feet wide. A colony of naval and civilian specialists from Akron, Ohio, set up A & R Division shop in Hanger One.

Airships were soon overhead. The first touched down on rough pads that summer. On September 15, 1942, the base was commissioned. For the next three years NAS Richmond operated around the clock to recover the sea lanes and keep them open.

As Fleet Airship Wing Two, NAS Richmond-based ZP-21 combined with ZP-22 patrolling Texas and Louisiana, and ZP-23 covering Jamaica and Panama. ZP-21 Detachments flew from Key West and Banana River (Daytona Beach) on the Florida coast, San Juan, Puerto Rico, and four NAF's in Cuba. ZP-51, ZP-41 and ZP-42, stationed from Trinidad to Rio all looked to NAS Richmond for support. Its 16 story-high hangers looked down on acres of tarmac launch pads. Nestled in the pine forest left standing for camouflage were barracks, warehouses, BOQ, fire station, hospital, and even a bowling alley for the thousands of airdales assigned to NAS or passing through. PBY's, fighters, and other HTA's (Heavier than Air) routinely landed at NAS Richmond's airstrip.

The naval battle for the Caribbean is a hard-fought story unto itself. All hands worked ASW Convoy Duty; LTA's, escort carriers, destroyers, Coast Guard. Airship Wing Two alone logged 114,649 hours flying in 7750 missions, suffering six blimps lost during operations and one blimp lost in combat. The battle was won.

May 7, 1945, Nazi Admiral Doenitz surrendered the beaten remains of the once-mighty Third Reich. September 2nd, the Japanese Empire surrendered. The war was over. The Navy stood down.

It was the dawn of peace. But the red dusk over Nagasaki foreshadowed a similar dawn in the Caribbean. "Red sky at dawning, Sailor take warning." Nature had its own storm with which to close out the books. A hurricane was coming. In those days hurricanes were not named, but no one stationed at NAS Richmond would ever forget the hurricane of September, 1945.

NAS Richmond was prepared. It had been built with such a occurrence in mind. The three mighty hangers had been constructed to withstand winds of 120 mph. The four pillars at the corners of each hanger were poured concrete, the hanger doors were iron.

From 7th Naval District Headquarters in Miami the hurricane warnings went out. September 14th the storm skirted the Northern coast of Cuba, heading due west. The naval installations of south Florida were ordered to a condition of storm readiness. Naval air forces were directed to NAS Richmond for safety.

At the time south Florida was an armed camp. Because of its strategic location, the region was a training and transshipment depot for much of the personnel and materials of the war effort. It excellent climate made it especially suitable for aviation, of which the Navy had plenty. From NAS Fort Lauderdale, NAS Opa Locka, and NAS Key West a stream of TBMs, F-4 Hellcats, Widgeons, patrol and cargo aircraft converged on NAS Richmond. ZP-21 made ready to host them.

14 K-Ships stood moored in the cavernous hangers. Another 11 airships were deflated inside and crated for space. The HTA craft were brought in around them, 213 naval aircraft in all. Nor were these the only boarders.

Eastern Air Lines Captain Fritz Compton of the Air Transport Command requested hanger space for his aircraft. While technically "civilian," the Air Transport Command was then as much a part of the military as USNS vessels are today. Embry-Riddle Aviation School, which had trained thousands of military aviators also appealed for safe haven for its fleet of Steerman trainer biplanes. The Base granted permission and 152 more planes joined the Navy blimps and aircraft in the hangers. The private SM Beech plane of Commodore Mills, USN, the 7th District Commandant joined them.

This stupendous assembly of 391 flying machines was topped off by 100 automobiles and trucks of base personnel squeezed in for good measure. NAS Richmond was full. The rain began around noon on September 15th. The hanger doors were slid shut. The wind was picking up.

The 137 officers and 830 enlisted men rigged for heavy rolls. About fifty sailors, mostly junior and unmarried, were stationed in each hanger for damage control watch. The rest of the garrison fell back to the barracks. Some married men who lived off base with their families in the suburbs of Miami were given special liberty to go and ride out the storm at their homes.

About mid afternoon the hurricane came ashore. Of all places, NAS Richmond was directly in its path, ground zero for the blow By 5 p.m. the base was being lashed by 94 mph winds. A phenomenon of hurricanes is the drop in atmospheric pressure accompanying the storm. The drop is so sharp that if an opening is not left in a building to equalize the pressure, the force without and the vacuum within can cause the structure to burst. In the case of the NAS hangers, condition Yoke was set, all hatches battened down tightly.

The "Big Bang" next is history.

The wind began peeling the tarpaper from the roof of Hanger One. At 5:30 p.m. watchstanders reported roof planks blowing off into the wind. A minute later the fire alarm in the hanger went off. As Sailors searched vainly among the blimps and aircraft and cars for the cause, the automatic sprinkler system overhead engaged. Power went dead at 5:36 p.m., plunging the crowded hangers into eerie darkness.

Hanger One burst into flames at 5:42 p.m.

One curious aspect of the storm was the absence of torrents of rain at this point. What was present was the counter-clockwise wind gusting to 126 mph, carrying giant tongues of flame. Within minutes all three hangers were blazing from stem to stern.

Helpless Sailors tied themselves together with line and fled from side doors into the blasting wind, fighting their way down the sides of the burning hangers to take refuge in the inner stairwells of the concrete piers. The holocaust outside could only get worse. Not merely the lumber of the largest wooden buildings on earth was ablaze, but the contents as well; hundreds of aircraft, blimps, cars, canvas, paint lockers, vats of benzene, fuels and ferrous metals. All packed together and fanned by the winds of a hurricane.

They did what they could. NAS Opa Locka dispatched its fire trucks, but the distance and the roads being blocked with fallen trees would delay help until dawn. Likewise, the city fire department, occupied with its own emergencies. Though the fiery glow of burning Richmond lit up the horizon and was clearly visible 20 miles away.

NAS ships' company fought the good fight. 26 were wounded in the inferno. Nor was the fire content without the sacrifice of one hero's life. NAS fire chief Harry Shulze, a retired Chicago fireman and Navy base civilian, led the doomed charge into Hanger One. The roof collapsed on him, killing him. The fire burned out of control through the night.

With daybreak the hurricane was gone, and so was NAS Richmond. The smoldering hangers and their contents were a total loss. It was the largest fire of 1945, assessed at 30 million (in 1945 dollars). The damage constitutes the biggest peacetime loss of federal property, in the shortest time, on record. ZP-21 was decommissioned soon after.

What caused the disaster?

Was a door closed too tightly? Perhaps a roof beam falling 16 stories to the hanger bay below crashed through a fuselage, shooting a spark into a gas tank. Or triggering a round mistakenly left in a plane's machine gun magazine, sending a tracer ricocheting through the packed bay? Did frayed wiring in the hanger short? Or all these things at once? The cause will probably never be known.

Such was the burning of Richmond.

YN1 Atwood is assigned to Navy Recruiting District, Miami headquarters. He is writing a book on NAS Richmond and is cochairman of the "Friends of NAS Richmond", an association of blimp veterans, cadets, and historians who are establishing a permanent exhibit at the site of the disaster.

This article was completed 11 May, 1996 and originally appeared in the May-June, 1996, issue of NAVAL AVIATION NEWS.

Saturday, 28 July 2012 00:38

Battle between the Blimp and Sub

The Battle Between the Blimp and the Sub

by YNC Anthony Attwood

No study of naval warfare or aerial combat can be complete without looking at the night fight that occurred off the coast of Islamorada in the Florida keys on 18 July, 1943; the battle between the blimp and the sub.

Nazi U-boats prowled U. S. shores and the "slot" of the Florida Straits was a favorite hunting ground and transit channel for them. Navy blimp squadron ZP-21 out of NAS Richmond, Florida, patrolled the straits to stop them. The silvery, nonrigid airships, graceful but enormous, were used for spotting and reporting surface ships and aircraft. The "K" ships were armed with four depth bombs and a .50-caliber machine gun mounted in the nose of the blimp car... not that these were expected to see much action. Blimp patrols were usually long, tedious and uneventful, until the night of 18 July, 1943, when the German submarine U-134 slipped into the straits.

At dusk on the mainland, the flight briefing concluded for the two blimps scheduled to patrol that night, during which two "friendlies", a tanker and a freighter, would pass through the straits in convoy. K-74 and sister blimp, K-32, would screen the slot. The destroyer Dahlgren out of Key West was on station in the straits. The two blimp crews readied for takeoff. K-74's crew consisted of Lieutenant Nelson Grills, pilot; Chief Aviation Pilot Jandrowitz, copilot; Ensign Damley Eversley, navigator; AMM2c Isadore Stessel and AMM3c Schmidt, mechanics/bombardiers; ARM3c Eckert, rigger/gunner; ARM3c Robert Bourne, radioman; ARM3cs Giddings and Rice, assistant radio operators; and SN Kowalski, assistant rigger.


The K-ships taxied and soared above the base. K-32 turned south by southwest to fly over Key West and sweep northward up the straits. Lt. Grills and his crew in K-74 headed straight over the Atlantic, then turned south and into the annals of Naval Aviation history!

Night fell and the U-134 rose from beneath the sea. It was a quiet evening. The sea was mild and the winds light. The sub's crew threw open the hatches to vent carbon dioxide and take in fresh air, then clambered topside. The long hours passed while 500 feet above, K-74 was approaching on an overhead course.

About 23:30, a bright spot appeared on the blimp's radar. The possible contact was encrypted and transmitted back to base. In the cramped gondola, the 10 Navy men took stock of their weapons and the impending situation. The blimp headed toward the radar contact.


K-74 sailed out of a cloud bank and found the U-boat cruising below. The blimp circled as her skipper weighed the realities: the sub was on a course heading right for the two merchant ships which were sailing down the straits, 30 minutes behind K-74. The merchant ships were at risk and K-74 had the element of surprise in her favor. Grills transmitted his intention to attack. At 23:50, K-74 dropped to 250 feet and began her bombing run.

As the distance closed, the watchstanders aboard the U-boat sighted the blimp. The Nazis opened fire with 20mm machine guns located aft of the conning tower. AOM3c Eckert returned fire from the car's nose mounted machine gun. Then, theGerman 88mm deck gun commenced firing.

U. S. Navy tracers ricocheted down the length of the sub's deck, while enemy fire thumped into the airship bag. A round punctured the shield beside Eckert's gun. He slapped another belt in and continued firing prolonged bursts.

When the airship passed over the U-boat, antiaircraft fire hit the K-74's engines. The starboard engine burst into flames. As AMM3c Schmidt turned to extinguish the fire, ARM3c Bourne dashed off the squadron's mayday signal: "Urgent, Fired On." The airship was now directly over the sub. AMM2c Stessel pulled the bomb releases, but the bombs did not leave the rack.

With enemy fire punishing her undefended stern, K-74 limped out of range. Schmidt had extinguished the fire, but both engines were damaged. The airship was losing altitude. The crew dumped gas and jettisoned the tanks. No help. K-74 slowly descended. At 23:55, the tail of the airship touched the water and began to settle. The battle had lasted five minutes. It's harrowing aftermath began.


Wearing their "Mae West" inflatable vests, the crew entered the water through the doors and windows of the flooding blimp car. The life raft, tossed out without a tether line, immediately deployed and drifted away with the Gulf Stream. They were on their own.

Grills swan back around the sinking car to make sure all crewmen had escaped. In so doing, he separated from the others and the same strong current carried him away. When he got his bearings, the blimp was nowhere in sight. Instead, a dark shape was bearing down on him at flank speed. It was one of the merchant ships coming down the slot, oblivious to the battle that had occurred. Grills recalled, "It was coming right at me and I was frantic to get out of the way, shouting and waving my hands. I saw the watch on the fantail, smoking a cigarette." The ship passed in the night, leaving Grills alone in the water.

The rest of the K-74's crew stayed together beside the settling blimp bag. They held on to each other in two bobbing masses adrift at sea.

Through the long night they did not know if the Nazi sub would return to capture them as prisoners or finish them off. They had no idea how much damage Eckert's marksmanship had done. Nor did "Sparks" Bourne realize his Mayday transmission was picked up by K-32's ARM2c Turek, who realized it must be K-74 in trouble and relayed the message to NAS Richmond.

At first light, a Grumman J4F Widgeon amphibian from ZP-21, took off to begin the search. At 07:49, the aircraft was over the scene. The sea was getting rougher, while nine men splashed and waved. The aircraft saw them and dipped its wings, but it was too choppy to land. The aircraft flew off to find the Dahlgren and lead her to the scene. Rescue was on the way.


Stessel had become separated from the rest when the men had let go of each other to wave. The others saw the shark fin break the surface and head straight for him. There was no time to warn Stessel before the shark attacked. The sailor went under. Momentarily, he reappeared, bathed in crimson. The water frothed as he went under a last time, spreading a red cloud on the surface. The rest of the crew positioned themselves, back to back, and drew their knives.

At 08:15 on 19 July, K-74 finally sank; the only airship lost to enemy action in World War II.

From under the sea came somber volleys fired in requiem for Petty Officer Stessel. K-74's armed depth bombs detonated, exploding in a mournful salute, as if, paying homage to this Navy hero lost in battle.

Dahlgren soon arrived and the Jacob's ladder was thrown over the side for the survivors. Small arms fire kept back the circling sharks while the crew of K-74 climbed to safety. A launch of bluejackets, with a Thompson submachine gun in the bow, searched in vain for any sign of Stessel.

Meanwhile, the K-74 pilot continued to drift miles away. Grills struck out towards the Florida keys on the horizon. It was late in the day and the aviator was severely sunburned and nearing exhaustion when K-32 passed over. Keen-eyed AMM3c Max May, saw the struggling swimmer, and the K-32 dropped flares. Grills had swum six miles before he was sighted, picked up by a launch from a local rescue unit and transported to Dahlgren. He had been in the water for 19 hours.

After the war, German Submarine Command records revealed U-134 reported downing a U. S. Navy airship. The sub cited sustaining battle damage to her No. 5, main ballast tank and No. 4 diving tank. After surviving two more attacks, U-134 was ordered to return to base in France for repairs. Enroute in August, her luck ran out when two Royal Air Force bombers intercepted her in the Bay of Biscay and sent her to the bottom. A blimp for a sub: the wages of war.


If the airship had not joined the battle, the U-boat would have come upon the tanker and the freighter before Dahlgren or shore based aircraft could have intervened. Because of the blimp crew's actions, the merchant ships got through.

Grills and Bourne were awarded the Purple Heart. After their release from active duty, radiomen Bourne and Turek received Letters of Commendation from the Secretary of the Navy for their quick actions as did AMM3c May his sharp lookout. Twenty years after the event, Grills was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Chief Attwood is Youth Programs Coordinator at Navy Recruiting District, Miami, Florida.

This story was originally published in the March-April, 1997 edition of Naval Aviation News

19 July, 1997 - 54 years after the loss of AMM2c Isadore Stessel, as a result of enemy fire, 12 family members, former crewmembers, and invited guests of the Friends of NAS Richmond, returned to the Gulf Stream to commemorate his death. Aboard a 41 foot, U.S. Coast Guard, patrol boat, the somber party left the dock at Coast Guard Base, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at 09:00, Saturday, 19 July, 1997. They proceeded several miles offshore for Divine Services at Sea, En Momento Mori. On station by 09:30, YNC Anthony Attwood brought the group to order, and the Chaplaincy pennent for the Jewish faith, was hoisted on the after flag staff. Chief Attwood then reiterated the conditions of Seaman Stessel's death. Mr. Robert H. Bourne, former ARM3c, radioman aboard the K-74 read a verse of the Navy Hymn followed by a verse each by Peter Simpson and Francis Brophy LT James McGibbon then read the committal service. A ceremonial wreath of red, white and blue carnations, was put over the side by Mr. Nelson G. Grills, former Lieutenant and pilot of K-74, and Mr. Saul Stessel, cousin of Isadore Stessel. Accompanied by Chief Attwood on guitar, all aboard sang three verses of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. The service was concluded by Chief Attwood, and the boat returned to Fort Lauderdale. In attendance were Nelson G. Grills and his wife Reva M. Grills, Robert H. Bourne and his wife, Earline Bourne, Leonard Simpson, Sally Simpson, and Peter Simpson, Saul Stessel, Timothy Brophy, Susie Brophy, Francis Brophy, Francis E. Brophy, LT James McGibbon, YNC Anthony Attwood, and CAPT Charles M. LaBow.