US Navy

The Fate of the K-14: Navy inquiry was fast, ignored key evidence



US Navy

A K-class airship, similar to the K-14 that went down off Mount Desert Island during World War II, patrols high above a convoy in the Atlantic.

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 final segment of a three-part series about what happened to the K-14.

Sequestered together in a single room in sickbay, in what today is the main building at the Bar Harbor Inn, the bruised, battered and hypothermic survivors of the crash of the blimp K-14 had no idea that their superior officers had ordered that a stenographer be hidden in a nearby closet to monitor their conversations and take down every word. However, no record of those conversations has ever surfaced, although the Bar Harbor base’s commander said in his memoir that “nothing” differed from the official transcript.

The only documentation of what the men said happened is contained in once-classified Intelligence reports that are as remarkable in what isn’t discussed as in what is said.

Lt. John Pear interviewed the men less than five hours after they had been plucked from the sea following a long night struggling to stay out of the 55-degree ocean water.

Each man was asked where they were when it “hit” or “crashed,” and to describe how they got out of the sinking gondola. They related their struggles to survive in extraordinary detail. And, although pilot Ensign William McDonnell was asked for his observations on how the ship was behaving just before it hit the water, he was never asked the proverbial $64,000 question – what did he think caused the 250-foot, lighter-than-air ship to go down?

There is no indication that any of the men were asked. If they were, what they said may be hidden away in documents that remain classified to this day, some 67 years later.

That, and the fact that the crew and everyone involved in the rescue and salvage efforts were given direct orders to not talk, combined with what he feels is a preponderance of evidence, add ups up to a cover-up, says Fred Morin of Plymouth, Mass., who has been investigating the incident for more than a decade.

He interviewed co-pilot Ensign Carl Levine, the last living survivor, in 2006 with several airship veterans in tow. “He said from the start he had been ordered not to talk about it, and until that command was rescinded, he would have nothing to say,” Mr. Morin said in a recent interview.

He believes, however, when the evidence is taken as a whole, there is only one logical conclusion.

“There may not be any smoking gun like the Navy would like us to find but everything points to the fact they were shot down.”

Mr. Morin noted that the same command structure that covered up the torpedoing of the Eagle, a Navy sub chaser out of Portland about a year later, ostensibly to prevent panicking civilians, was in place at the time of the K-14 crash. Some of the same officers were involved in the formal inquiry, he added.

“There is no doubt in my mind there was a cover-up.”

***

Although the Navy continues to insist there was no proof a sub was off MDI that July, investigators have found at least four other sightings in the Gulf of Maine over the three days following the incident. One of those was made by the crew of blimp K-15 sent to the K-14 crash scene.

The area where a pair of Southwest Harbor fishermen reported seeing a submarine on July 2 was frequented by U-boats. In fact, less than five months later, when U-1230 arrived off Mount Desert Island on a mission to drop off Nazi spies (see related story), it spent more than a week skulking offshore to the east of Mount Desert Rock waiting for the right time to move into Frenchman Bay.

According to declassified FBI reports of the interrogation of the spies, Erich Gimpel and William Colepaug, the sub cruised back and forth beneath the surface at night and hid on the bottom during the day. “During the daylight hours, the boat always bottomed, usually in about 100 meters (328 feet) of water,” the report quotes the spies as saying. “After dark, she proceeded, submerged, on electric motors except for the normal period immediately after dark and before dawn when the schnorchel was used for ventilating and charging the batteries,” it continued. “The captain always attempted to remain in sight of Mt. Desert Rock.”

The report also states the crew of the U-boat was constantly worried about being detected. “Several times during these six days, fishing boats were heard, or once or twice, these boats passed directly over the U-boat.”

***

The evidence that points to enemy action, according to Mr. Morin, is persuasive and includes at least eight independent reports of gunfire and two explosions from points all around the crash area about the time the blimp went down, he said. “Some of those reports noted rounds going up from the surface toward the sky,” he said.

Curiously, those reports were not allowed into evidence during the official inquiry, he said.

Shell casings in the gondola, two missing depth charges, and multiple bullet holes in the blimp envelope add up to only one thing, he continued.

A piece of the K-14’s skin, with holes described in early reports as being the same diameter as anti-aircraft rounds used by German U-boats, was sent to the state police crime lab in Massachusetts for forensic examination. Investigators were asked to determine if the holes were made by bullets or shell fragments. A report labeled “Exhibit 8” by Massachusetts state police Lt. Joseph Walker said there was no difference in trace metallic content between the samples with holes and control swatches from elsewhere on the bag. However, he goes on to note that “spectrographic analysis of known holes in fabric caused by 50 cal. and 20 mm projectiles showed that no significant traces of foreign matter are left on the edges of the holes.”

A ding in a propeller from K-14 did not appear to be a bullet hit, he said.

Mr. Morin also noted that had the depth charges gone off accidentally during a crash as the Navy suggests, they would have blown the gondola and the crew to smithereens. Reports state no evidence of “concussive damage.”

“They were armed when they went into the water. Someone would have had to do that manually,” Mr. Morin said.

In fact, the entire tail section of the blimp appeared to have broken off and was never recovered. According to Mr. Morin, that never happened in any other crash involving a K-class blimp.

And then there is the discovery of a half-mile long slick of heavy oil, containing dead fish and debris, found by a Navy patrol boat about a mile from the floating wreckage of the airship. “It was nothing that came from the blimp,” Mr. Morin said.

Another telling move was the fact that the pilots, Ensigns McDonnell and Carl Levine, were never charged, disciplined or ever had to face a court martial, even though a crash of an aircraft under their command resulted in the loss of a very expensive piece of military hardware and claimed six lives. “Less than a week after the inquiry, they all were reassigned to a number of other units and that was that.” Reassignment, he admits, was common practice.

***

Just four days after the K-14 went down, the official Navy Court of Inquiry convened in Boston. After reviewing intelligence reports that were admitted and hearing from the survivors in closed-door sessions, it issued a finding that the airship had been lost as a result of pilot error.

However, the final word on the matter was issued by the “Convening Authority,” the commanding officer of the Northern Group, Eastern Sea Frontier, Rear Admiral R.A. Theobald, on Aug. 12.

“The evidence does not conclusively substantiate the presumptions that the cause of the crash and loss of K-14 were due to “personnel failure and not mechanical failure,” he wrote. “Furthermore, there is nothing in the evidence that conclusively or definitively discloses the cause of the disaster.”

He mentions several times the crash could have been caused by a mechanical failure. “There is no evidence to indicate that these officers were derelict in the performance of their duties,” he wrote. The resulting deaths occurred “in the line of duty and were not due to their own misconduct.”

The one positive note from the disaster is that Navy Captain Smith Cobb ordered that the bolt locking the airship’s single hatch from the outside be replaced with “a positive, quick-acting fastening,” on all remaining airships in the fleet.

For Mr. Morin, perhaps the most compelling proof is what he has been able to gather from interviews with those involved and their families.

One piece is a special menu from the Bar Harbor base on the 4th of July, two days after the blimp went down. It is autographed by the crew and some of the unit’s officers to Ens. McDonnell. The late Ens. McDonnell’s family still has the original.

Ens. Levine wrote “Our first one, buddy. It looks like staying together pays off…..” Crewman Chesley Johnson, who presumably would be less than happy with Ens. McDonnell had pilot error actually caused the crash, signed it “to the best skipper ever.”

But it is the inscription from Victor Colby, a crewman aboard the U.S.S. Patriot, the vessel that rescued the crew and where reports of gunfire and explosions were logged at the time of the crash, that raises the most eyebrows. It says “Congratulations Rb (jg) Macdonald! [sic] Wishing you the best of everything although your [sic] the only one that refused a boch [slang term for German] sub.”

Several officers of Squadron Z-11, the K-14’s home base, were told by the commander of that base after the crash “not to believe everything they were going to hear about the incident,” Mr. Morin noted.

Perhaps the one statement that has haunted Mr. Morin the most, and has energized his efforts to get the findings changed, was the last thing he was told by Ens. Levine at the end of what would be his final interview. “I was alone with him and I asked him ‘tell me the truth; the accident couldn’t have happened that way, could it?’” Mr. Morin said. “I said to him ‘you were shot down.’”

“His answer was ‘Of course we were. But sometimes it’s best to leave things alone.’”

Editor’s Note: Should the cause of the loss of the K-14 ever be determined to be enemy action, the members of the crew would be eligible to be posthumously awarded Purple Hearts for having been wounded or killed in combat.

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Earl Brechlin

Editor at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander editor Earl Brechlin first discovered Mount Desert Island 35 years ago and never left. The author of seven guide and casual history books, he is a Registered Maine Guide and has served as president of the Maine and New England Press Associations. He and his wife live in Bar Harbor.

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