Monday, December 31, 2012

Turning Point: Collision of the G1 and L-2

Parachute jump practice from the G-1
Before the story turns to the L-8 it takes an interesting and critical turn at Lakehurst, New Jersey that was to lead to the L-8 mystery.

On the evening of June 8, 1942 the blimps L-2 and G-1 lift off from Lakehurst on an experimental mission. The blimps circled over a Coast Guard Cutter while dropping flash bombs into the water. They were testing photo flash bombs developed by Dr. Charles R. Hoover to be used to illuminate enemy submarines under the water so they would be visible from the air. The surface ship stood in as an enemy sub, the flash bombs dropped into the water would illuminate the outline for the observers. Different chemical combinations produced different colors of light and some were more effective than others.
The G-1 was commanded by veteran balloonist Frank Trotter. The L-2 was commanded by Clinton Rounds. Frank Trotter won many awards in ballooning before joining the Navy. One of his previous jobs was delivering mail to the Empire State Building by airship, dropping mail bundles while holding the ship steady over the upper deck.
Rounds invented a number of devices in his naval career.
Among the crew was the flash bombs inventor, Dr. Charles R. Hoover, NDRC/OSRD scientist from Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut. There are other scientists aboard but it is Dr. Hoovers invention that matters in the part of the story.
Both radar and sonar are developed at Bell Labs, Whippany NJ. The Mountain Lakes Testing Station ( Mountain Lakes, New Jersey ) was used to test the flash bomb before the sea trial that led to the accident.
Here is a picture of acoustical testing with a model submarine. Dr. Hoover is wearing the white hat.
Dr. Hoover at Mountain Lakes (NJ) Testing Station

The two blimps containing 13 passengers collided five miles off the New Jersey coast near Manasquan. They fell from about 500 feet into the ocean, killing all but one person. He survived by quickly jumping through a window in the gondola he was riding in, breaking his arm, and swimming until picked up by the Coast Guard some eight hours later.
Witnesses say that the L-2 suddenly veered from it's circular path crashing into the side of the G-1. The gondola of the G-1 detached and was sent crashing to the ocean where it quickly sank with all hands aboard. The balloonets of the L-2 were punctured and it sank quickly into the water. A flash was seen under the water. I have yet to locate the JAG investigation file so I'm taking this as hearsay just now although some secondary reports tend to corroborate the story.

The L-2 balloon bag kept it afloat and it washed up on the shore at Point Pleasant. The gondola of the G-1 settled on the bottom of the ocean.
Among the dead were four civilian scientists, including Dr Hoover.

June 8th is the birthday of the Clinton Rounds wife. She celebrated with their six year old daughter, Camilla, because she wasn't sure when her husband would be home. Around the time he was dying she blew out the candles on her cake and went to bed not knowing she'd never see her husband alive again.

Rounds had been a survivor of the crash of the airship, Macon, which crashed in California in 1935.
Both these men actually survived the fall. But the gondola settled into the water, half submerged, while the air bag covered the gondola filling the the gondola with helium. The autopsy report for Cmdr Rounds shows that he died along with Dr Hoover from anoxia, suffocating when the air was displaced by the Helium. It also lists that he suffered third degree burns most likely by an accidental explosion of one of the flash bomb flares.

The newspaper account from the Asbury Park Press (New Jersey)
One G-1 L-2 newspaper account

The loss of the crews, Scientists, blimps and experiments aboard the L-2 and G-1 was a set back to the development of radar. Worse yet, it's publicly visible. Newspaper accounts mention the secret mission and potentially hazardous nature of the experimental mission the blimps were. Given the list of the dead, including the civilian scientists, it would be easy for spies to work out what was being done at Lakehurst and infiltrate.
The loss is quickly overshadowed by the war news about the Battle of Midway.

Staff is quickly shipped from Lakehurst to Moffett Field at San Francisco being developed as the West Coast NAS. This included the members of the Rangefinder group including Adams and Cody. Both were given promotions that allowed them to fly. Ensign A. Ulrich, who piloted the L-8 the day before the disappearance, had only been at Moffet for 3 days also coming from Lakehurst. He was the flight director for the mission and one of the first on the scene with the recovery crew.
Charles Adams had been awarded metals for bravery, saving people on the Hindenburg – Herman Goering sent a letter of thanks. He was also present at the loss of the Los Angeles and Macon. He served aboard the USS Henley during the attack on Pearl Harbor.
In Lt Cody's military records folder there is a copy of a telegram dated April 12th, with the following line;” Request he be ordered to duty NAS Sunnyvale Moffett field services urgently needed.” A note in the file from June 5th states “the Secretary of the Navy has determined that this employment on shore duty is required by the public interests.” The significance of who and what the rangefinders group was and what they did would be another clue to the solution of the mystery.
The L2 and G1 blimps were part of the fleet used as testing platforms for experiments conducted by the group of scientists who developed the weaponry for the war effort. Solving practical problems and developing advanced weapons. New techniques and efficient use of resources. The technology we take for granted today.

While most people will have images of bombers and atomic bombs as the most valuable weapons, they were really things like radar, sonar, proximity fuses, advances in air craft design, explosives and bombs.
Radar is one of the most guarded secrets rivaling that of the work surrounding the Manhattan Project and had to be guarded at all costs.
The Office of Scientific Research and Development; originally known as the National Defense Research Committee, under Vannevar Bush, was the heart of why the good guys won the war.
With the crash of the L2 and G-1, the newspapers headlines pointed out to every spy in America the secret work being performed at Lakehurst and with that the OSRD had to find a new home for the work.
Moffett Field San Francisco was that place. The replacement for the L-2 – the L-8 was assembled and shipped off. Instructors and equipment shifted westward from Lakehurst to California. Not all but enough to make sure any spies had to work to figure out what was being done where.
While the news had public stories about a western air training site being opened up, the real story was that development was shifting to the west coast. Moffet Field and Treasure Island would be used to continue the vital work of the OSRD.
This is from the cover of the OSRD year book detailing all the work the OSRD was responsible for during it's existance. Of all the things they could have put on the cover this is what they chose.
Graphic from OSRD report cover

Happy New Year.
More details in 2013!