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.
THEN CAME THE SHARKS
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.