For lobstermen Ernest and Merrill Stanley on the Frolic out of Southwest Harbor, July 2, 1944, started out as just another day hauling traps on a calm sea about a dozen miles southeast of Baker Island.
Their morning routine, however, was shattered shortly before 11 a.m. when they spied a periscope sticking out of the water several hundred yards away and moving toward Mount Desert Rock at a speed they estimated at 12 knots. From their position they could also make out what appeared to be the hull of a submarine 60 to 90 feet long about 20 feet below the surface.
According to declassified reports, the fishermen had decades of experience on the sea and were familiar with the appearance of submarines both in and out of the water. “Both me are considered very reliable,” an operational intelligence report stated.
Fearing an attack to prevent them from raising the alarm, the fishermen continued with their work as normal, hoping the crew in the sub would think they had not been spotted. Apparently, the sub’s captain also hoped to slip away unnoticed and the periscope suddenly disappeared as the churning water of the sub’s wake quickly faded away.
When the men returned to port that afternoon, they dutifully notified the Coast Guard station in Southwest Harbor, and Navy units in the Frenchman Bay area went to high alert.
With a vital naval communications base at Schoodic Point, substantial military assets were deployed along the coast of Hancock County during World War II. The Navy established a headquarters in what is now the Bar Harbor Inn, and facilities for aircraft and airships were constructed at the airport in Trenton.
In response to the Stanleys’ sub sighting, the patrol vessel USS Patriot, a lightly armed, converted private yacht, and the patrol vessel YP 600 were ordered to conduct a grid search in the area off Mount Desert Rock. Army crash boat P103 was ordered to stand by near Pond Island off Schoodic “to observe and prevent any possible landing attempts.” Other vessels were assigned to patrol the waters from Schoodic Point to Petite Manan.
While many reports of submarines off the New England Coast ended up being wild goose chases, fears of enemy action were real. Less than a year earlier off Nova Scotia, a German submarine, the U-1229 was attacked and sunk. Interrogation reports of survivors showed it had orders to land spies “somewhere on the coast of Maine.” Later in 1944, two Nazi spies were landed at Hancock Point in upper Frenchman Bay and subsequently were arrested in New York City by the FBI.
The call went out for an airship to be dispatched from the naval air station in South Weymouth, Mass. Orders were to conduct a grid search in an area stretching from Matinicus Island to the west to Mount Desert Rock to the east, and up to 25 miles out in the Gulf of Maine.
The blimp K-14, took off around 5 p.m. and headed east for the three-hour flight to the Maine coast.
Aboard the K-14, Ensign William McDonnell was piloting. With calm winds and relatively flat seas below, the blimp routinely dropped to its search altitude of between 100 and 200 feet and the crew deployed a tethered sensor called MAD (Magnetic Anomaly Detection). The unit, which was dragged through the water, was calibrated to sense the mass of steel in a sub’s hull and reportedly was effective to a range of 1,000 yards.
All the Navy’s coastal patrol blimps, while primarily tasked with being observation platforms, were armed. Each had a .50-caliber machine gun and carried between two and four small depth charges. On most missions, a sub-killing destroyer was assigned to accompany each airship. On this fateful night, however, the K-14 was on its own. Its escort was dispatched elsewhere for an emergency before the blimp got halfway to Maine.
Blimps were anything but easy to fly. Navy personnel derisively called the ungainly craft “Poopy Bags.” They consisted of a large flexible fabric bag some 50 feet in diameter and 251 feet long, filled with non-flammable helium. Suspended underneath was a 30-foot aluminum gondola sheathed with a thin skin of canvas. Conditions were far from luxurious. The lavatory consisted of a black plastic funnel and 3-foot rubber hose.
Flaps on fins at the rear of the gas bag provided maneuvering ability. A pair of large Pratt and Whitney motors mounted to the gondola drove the propellers. The roar of the motors, just a few feet from the cab, made it almost impossible to hear anything inside.
And blimps never did anything fast. The ungainly craft took a long time to respond to control inputs. Just a week earlier the crew of the K-14 narrowly missed striking the Deer Isle-Stonington Bridge while on night patrol over Penobscot Bay. The pilot noticed the unlighted bridge and pulled the nose up and then quickly pushed it down, literally hopping over the structure’s suspension cables.
With all that helium providing lift, it was nearly impossible for a blimp to fall out of the sky, even if the motors suddenly quit. On the rare occasion one hit the ground or the water, it tended to bounce off or merely slowly settle down.
In any of the Navy’s K-class blimps, up to a dozen officers and crew could stay in the air for more than a day. A couple of cramped bunks and a compact galley were part of the setup.
According to Navy reports, the K-14 arrived at the search area shortly after 8 p.m., sighted and communicated with the Patriot, and dropped its detection equipment into the sea. Ordered to check in with headquarters in Bar Harbor once an hour, it dutifully radioed in at 9:20 p.m. Little did commanders on the ground know, that would be the doomed airship’s last transmission.
Along with Ensign McDonnell, the crew was a mix of regular Navy and reservists, including co-pilot Ensign Ernest Sharp, navigator Lt. Carl Kluber, copilot Ensign Carl Levine, machinists mate Chesley Johnson, machinists mate John Oldar, radioman John Powles, metalsmith Edward Drzewiecki, electrician Walter Ozesky, and radioman William Munro. Another regular crewmember missed the blimp’s departure.
According to interviews with the survivors, the flying that night was “smooth as glass.” Although K-14 appeared to be a little tail heavy, that was easily compensated for with the airship’s controls.
All systems appeared normal until just after 10 p.m.
Ensign Sharp had taken over from Ensign Levine at the elevator controls. Ensign Levine tucked himself into the narrow confines of a bunk looking forward to a nap.
According to Ensign Sharp’s statement to investigators, an indicator showed that the blimp’s nose was a trending little high. Wearing earphones against the motors’ steady din, he reached over, dimmed the ultraviolet lights in the gondola and gave the engines some throttle to settle the aircraft down. But the nose showed little response.
The blimp hit the water, tail first, its engines still running wide open.
“I can’t understand it,” he said. “She started to answer the up-elevator all right. I couldn’t believe it was going in.”
The force of the crash surprised the crew. There was no time to radio for help. The gondola quickly began to fill with the 55-degree seawater as the fabric of the deflating gas envelope began to sag and settle on the sea’s surface, forming an airtight seal over the wreckage.
Silence descended on the scene as the massive Pratt and Whitney engines dipped below the surface, choked, sputtered and died.
For the crew, trapped in the darkness with water rapidly pouring in, escape from the sinking gondola was virtually impossible. Most windows did not open and, before each takeoff, the main door hatch was secured and locked with a metal bar from the outside to prevent any crew members from accidentally falling out.
Meanwhile, officers at watch stations around Frenchman Bay and on patrol boats offshore were noting several loud explosions and the sound of automatic gunfire in their logs. As far as they knew, K-14 was still hovering above the sea, running back and forth over the search area.
As the trapped men struggled and clawed to find air, the radio operator at headquarters in Bar Harbor waited patiently for the scheduled check-in call, unaware of the life-and-death drama unfolding just offshore. As repeated calls to the K-14 went unanswered, the commander of the Bar Harbor base rushed back to headquarters. Fearing the worst, rescue boats were dispatched, and patrol vessels rushed to the blimp’s last reported position. And, the search to discover the truth behind the fate of the K-14 began.
Editor’s Note: During the tense weeks immediately after the D-Day landings during World War II, an anxious nation yearned for good news from the battlefront. Off New England, volunteer spotters and U.S. Navy personnel in boats, airplanes and blimps patrolled the coast on the lookout for Nazi submarines. In the war’s early years, numerous freighters and fishing trawlers had been lost to enemy U-boat action, and every sighting was taken seriously.
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 sub off Mount Desert Rock, 20 miles offshore from Mount Desert Island. Just a handful of survivors from the crew were found clinging to the wreckage the next day.
While the 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 first of a three-part series about what really happened to the K-14.
Next Week: Survivors tell a harrowing tale as salvage efforts discover evidence that leaves more questions than answers.