Editor’s Note: On the night of July 2, 1944, the crew of the 251-foot airship K-14 failed to report in as scheduled while looking for a German sub off Mount Desert Rock, 20 miles offshore from Mount Desert Island. Just a handful of survivors from the crew were found clinging to wreckage the next day.
While the U.S. Navy’s still-classified reports claim the crash was caused by pilot error, there are many airship experts who believe that there is ample evidence to prove the blimp was shot down and the truth hidden to prevent panicking the citizenry. The following is the second of a three-part series about what happened to the K-14.
Trapped in a sinking 30-foot aluminum gondola with only one exit – a hatch, locked from the outside – the crew of the doomed airship fought to live.
Pilot Ensign William McDonnell yelled to the others to get out, as the craft settled into the water tail-first.
“I remember saying to myself, ‘Oh, my God, this is it. I’m going to die,’” he said according to an official debriefing transcript. “When I hit the water there was no question of helping anybody else. It was just a case of trying to get clear without looking for anybody else to help.”
As the blimp went in, the gondola quickly tilled with water. It was late at night and the folds of the massive gas bag were settling over the cab, cutting off any vestige of starlight and reducing the odds the crew would be able to find air, even if they could make it to the surface.
Ensign Carl Levine was in one of the K-14’s claustrophobic bunks when he felt the crash. The skin of the gondola in that area was a single layer of canvas. “I pushed my way through keeping clear of the props,” he said. “I was fighting for air and all I got was water,” he told investigators. “The only reason I am here is that in bobbing up and down I fell into a pocket of air underneath the bag … I used my knife to cut myself free and when I came to the surface, there was Mac [Ensign McDonnell].”
Co-pilot Ensign Ernest Sharp, who was at the controls when the K-14 went down, headed toward a small open window in the radar man’s compartment. Despite getting ensnared in wires from the radar equipment, he was able to make it out.
Machinists mate Chesley Johnson reported that he did not remember how he escaped. “When we hit I was so excited. I thought of my wife, naturally, and thought, ‘My God, this must be it.’ I couldn’t believe it. The fellows went down. I started back up. I was pushing up and the first thing I knew I saw light.”
A fifth crewman, Aviation Metalsmith Third Class Edward J. Drzewiecki, also managed to get out but quickly became weak and unresponsive. He remained alive throughout most of the night but died just after the arrival of the first rescue boat. Five other men never came up.
As the survivors popped to the surface in the 55-degree water, they gathered one by one on an aluminum tailfin that remained afloat; and they tried to stay warm. Even in July, however, the temperatures offshore are far from balmy. “My feet got so cold I couldn’t wiggle my toes,” reported Mr. Johnson. “It seemed like every joint in my body was aching.”
The survivors, unaware there was nothing to fear from the wildlife in the Gulf of Maine, also worried about being attacked and eaten by sharks.
Alone, bobbing quietly on a calm sea, the men abandoned one tail fin for another and then another as each honeycombed fin slowly took on water and slipped beneath the surface. Finally, their last chance for refuge was the still-floating front section of the gas bag – but it was slowly getting smaller as it lost helium. They swam to it, climbed up, and waited.
Meanwhile, radio operators back at the Naval Air Station in South Weymouth, Mass., had become increasingly concerned as several hours passed with no contact with K-14. Around 2:30 a.m. on July 3, officials in Boston contacted headquarters in Bar Harbor to request help in contacting the K-14. All ships in the area were asked to be on the lookout for the blimp.
At about 4:45 a.m., the Navy patrol craft Patriot spotted a rounded shape through the patchy morning fog just east of Mount Desert Rock.
The crew sent a terse message to Bar Harbor: “Blimp crashed … four survivors.”
Aircraft and another blimp were dispatched, other vessels rushed to the scene and scoured the waters for up to 10 miles around the wreckage, but no other survivors were found. While crews on recovery boats tied ropes to what was left of K-14 to keep it from sinking, the survivors – reported to be “bruised and suffering from exposure” – were taken to Bar Harbor
Wrapped in blankets, the men were rushed to sickbay where they were put in a room by themselves with orders not to talk to anyone about the incident.
Navy reports from the time indicate that Capt. Alexander Moffat, commander of the Bar Harbor, ordered a stenographer to be hidden in a closet adjacent to the K-14 crewmembers. According to his book, “A Navy Maverick Comes of Age” he wanted to record their discussions hoping that “when they talked to each other, not knowing their words were recorded, we might get a clearer picture of the sequence of events than they would recall later,” Capt. Moffat wrote.
No record of what the stenographer overheard has ever surfaced, although Capt. Moffat insisted the crewmembers’ comments did not differ from official accounts.
Meanwhile, offshore, U.S. Coast Guard boats and Navy vessels began the tedious process of towing the wreckage back to shore. Officials gave top priority to security and searched for the best place to beach the wreckage – the moving folds of the deflated bag made it too dangerous for divers to operate offshore.
With several warships providing antisubmarine coverage and crews in a boat from the Coast Guard Lifesaving Station on Islesford following in case a body surfaced, the boats slowly headed north toward the mainland. “It was decided not to beach on Mount Desert Island due to the fact that the wreckage would attract an unnecessary number of people and no doubt the nearby residents of large estates would protest the placing of wreckage on a bathing beach,” a report by Lt. John Shyne states.
The decision was made to take the wreckage to Bunker’s Cove on the east side of Islesford “due to the small number of people on the island and the fact it would “afford the greatest amount of security.”
The flotilla arrived just before 10 a.m. on the Fourth of July.
In a paper for the Islesford Historical Society, historian Hugh Dwelley shared what he was able to learn about the salvage efforts by interviewing people who had been on the island at that time. Islanders, he wrote, were well aware of the presence of German subs off the Maine coast. Many fishermen had spotted subs and, on occasion, debris and bullet-riddled lifeboats, and sometimes dories with survivors from ships sunk by subs washed ashore on Islesford.
The arrival of the K-14’s 20-foot-high silver bag of helium and a fleet of small recovery vessels caused quite a stir. Coast Guardsmen kept gawkers off the beach, but folks were allowed to gather on the porches of nearby homes and an inn to watch.
Various vessels with cranes were brought in and divers were sent down to try to attach cables to lift the gondola. Four more bodies were recovered. The body of the last man, Aviation Radioman Third Class William H. Munro, was missing although his dog tags were found hanging from a hook in the cabin.
However, in late July, Islesford residents were reminded of the tragedy when a young girl out for a walk found a body washed up on the beach at Bunker’s Head Cove. Coast Guardsman Calvin Alley from Southwest Harbor was part of the crew that recovered the body from a tangle of seaweed and turned it over to the military.
The Navy official inquiry transcript, dated Aug. 16, 1944, however states that Radioman Munro “remains missing.”
A search of Navy and other records from the time fails to provide any other clue to the identity the dead man, who was described as “dressed in blue.”
Mr. Dwelley himself, then 13 years old, reports he gave up a week of going to Boy Scout camp to stay home and watch the salvage operation which took several days.
Over the years he interviewed several people about the incident and eventually published an article in Down East Magazine. A man from Caribou, Maine, who had been on the Navy salvage crew read the article and contacted Mr. Dwelley. A running light salvaged from the wrecked airship was donated by that crewmember to the Islesford Historical Society.
During the salvage efforts, officials kept meticulous records of the lengthy and complicated process. Several key pieces of evidence noted in the reports have been used to bolster theories that enemy action, not pilot error, downed K-14.
One was the fact that inside the gondola, salvagers found numerous empty bullet casings from the .50-caliber machine gun that was part of the blimp’s standard armament. Two depth charges were missing and, from the placement of the wires used to arm them when they were deployed, officials state they appeared to be live and ready to explode at a depth of 50 feet when they left the cab.
No evidence of concussion damage that would signal that the depth charges went off when the blimp hit the sea could be found on the wreckage or seen on the bodies of the deceased crew, reports state.
Several independent observers on the night of July 2, however, reported hearing two big explosions, and gunfire, in the vicinity of blimp’s patrol. (See related story.)
“No offhand explanation could be given for the failure to find two known depth charges in the after racks and no accounting was given for the dead fish in the area of the crash,” wrote Lt. P.G. Jameson in a confidential report written on July 12.
Perhaps most telling was the fact that the rear of the airship’s 250-foot envelope was missing entirely. That, according to experts, had never happened in previous crashes.
And a discovery made when the deflated gas bag was spread out on the ground to dry at the Coast Guard base in Southwest Harbor seemed to confirm some of the worst suspicions.
According to reports, there was a series of mysterious and perfectly round holes in the bottom of the rear of the gas bag with corresponding holes, approximately 20mm in size, closer to the front on the top – holes the same the size, about half an inch in diameter – of the standard antiaircraft weapon on many German submarines.”
Lt. Jameson’s report states frankly: “About 15 to 20 small holes were found in the underpart of the bag aft of the car which could have been caused by bullets.”
The Navy to this day stands by its position the holes were made with grappling hooks during the salvage operation.
But like numerous reports of gunfire and explosions on the night K-14 went down, none of that information, mysteriously, was introduced at the Navy’s Court of Inquiry. And that court’s split decision, with at least one of the officers sitting in judgment believing the cause was not pilot error, continues to cloud the truth of what really happened to K-14 to this day.
Next up: At the official inquiry, Navy brass do not consider evidence a battle took place. Doubters fight to have case reopened.