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"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.