Saturday, August 10, 2013

To Serve Man

If we bumped into each other on the street and told you about two guys who get on a blimp for a four hour flight only to disappear without a trace you'd think I was either nuts or telling you the plot to something I saw on TV. Well, at any rate the only the only thing I can guarantee is that I didn't see this on TV! There are days throughout this that I feel like some dime novel  detective. Jim Hutton in the 1970's "Ellery Queen" television show most of the time, pacing around absentmindedly trying to piece all the bits of facts together into the timeline. The facts are all that matter

The L8 story was a mystery not because anyone was hiding anything but because of all the events that occurred during that period in history paled in comparison.

I've come to understand it's many stories. It's about how people act during dark times.It's about ingenuity. It's about courage under fire. It's a story of people who know about the value in self-sacrifice, inner strength, character and intelligence. Strength through unity while still allowing a broad diverse set of minds to explore and the discipline to know what was going turn the tide of the war. This was the real purpose of the NDRC and it's evolution into the OSRD. It was this self sacrifice that accounted to connections failing to be made. The civilian scientists in involved quickly realized that for the whole setup to work and be productive and show results, they knew they'd have take the ego of their military partners into consideration while developing and that they would need to appear to take a back seat to the men used to leading the charge.

It's so much more than just a freak accident. It's not just an unfathomable mystery. It's both strange and heroic. No dark government conspiracy theory.  Nothing paranormal. Just a different spin on Shakespeare's  As You Like It, "All the World's a Stage" monologue, but I think that the ages of man are more about good times and dark days. Humanity has had both and will continue to have both in varying degrees and all we can do is control how we react.

I was in Baltimore, Maryland last weekend working an angle on the L-8 research and came across a new picture of the L-8 just before it crashed at Daly City. Every time you think you think you have all that there is to know life has a way of reminding you it's all so much more complex than we all like to imagine.As far as I know no one has seen it widely since it was first published in the papers in 1942, and I've never seen this photo anywhere else. The quality isn't great but it's a sign of that there are always more to be found and life and mysteries are never that cut and dry. I was actually looking following another lead involving the British, the pre-war years and the involvement of the British Security Commission in the Tizzard Mission bring the 3 cm magnetron to America.

Baltimore Sun June 12, 1942 - taken from up the hill from it's final resting place.

About my theory of the events surrounding the disappearance of the L-8 crew. I think you can subscribe to two logical theories. The first is that one fell while trying to make some repair on the ship, falling to his death. The sudden loss of weight of the first man caused the blimp to suddenly upend causing the second to fall out the door. If you have been following this blog you'll have caught on to the connection between the L-8 mystery and the development of radar and other inventions by the NDRC/OSRD. The accidental death of the two men aboard occurred through a curious and random set of circumstances, some direct, some not.
Without getting into a bigger discussion on fate and God, I'll just say that there was no malice in any of what happened but that as with each of lives we live is the intersection of  the set of events driven by random events  circumstances, fate, man and God. It's an imperfect world we live in and the best we can hope for is that we find ways of getting through bad times intact and make our part of the puzzle better.

 No one had any ill will in any of this. No one knows what will happen but much of what will happen is driven by the past and interactions of events we do not have any control over.  The story is about the set of circumstances that lead to the accident. Perfection is not possible, but how we react to adversity is all we can control. The men aboard the L-8 did what they were supposed to do and through no direct fault they fell from the gondola that day due to side effects from experimental equipment aboard.

How did I come to that conclusion? It's the only way the facts fit and still have the events make sense.

The story told by the people familiar with the mystery tell bits and pieces. A lot of the story is wrong or missing important facts in different sources. Rift with confirmation bias, people see what details they need to make their personal theory work - and only what fits. From the start I made myself a promise that I would not fall into that mindset. Question everything honestly and openly even if it means your own disappointment.

Option One: They fell out into the water and their bodies were missed. The L-8, lightened by the weight of two men raised above the limit of the built-in safety value, opening it, and slowing releasing the helium and leaving the L-8 to the prevailing winds and it's final resting place.

Simple solution. Occam's Razor fans will go with that one, but it leaves too many unanswered details.

Solution Two.

At the inquest so many of the first people who took the stand were asked if they had seen any one aboard the L-8 or talking with the two pilots before the take-off. One after one they all said "No" until one man responded that he had seen indeed seen  two civilians had been aboard the gondola with the pilots in the hour or so before the take-off of Love Eight. Who were they and what took an hour to discuss?

Realizing that the L-8 was intact and all the bits were working in the post crash check-out confused me. Reading the radio log I kept reading that the radio operator kept trying to raise the crew and commented that it sounded like someone was trying to respond. But the radio was working in the post checkout. Even the Baltimore Sun article that contained the picture above discusses that the radio was blaring when the first people arrived on the crash scene. What changed so that one minute the crew couldn't communicate but then the radio is just fine?

The L-8 normally had a crew of three aboard but that morning the mechanic who was on her was ordered off at the last minute because it was too heavy. Speculation suggested that maybe the fog and rain added extra weight, yet it only rained less than a tenth of an inch the whole month of August 1942. The fog that rolled in the day before was no heavier than that day so I had to explain why the L-8 was one person too heavy.

Lots of these types of points  pop up when we replay the events of that day. They left me unsatisfied by the Solution One and so I kept digging looking to fill in the blanks until I had details and a story that fit together.

The fact that everyone important to the story of this accident on the other side of the country is from New Jersey - as understandable and flattering it is to a Jersey native - was statistically troubling. So why the disproportionate Jersey representation?

After I found the inquest records and eliminated that there was a surprise attack from a submarine or a rogue wave  that washed the crew away, but that two sets of witnesses saw the L-8 heads back towards San Francisco under control, and one person reporting that they saw the L-8 approaching the Golden Gate Bridge yet the search was out in open ocean?
Was there any reason to think that they were out there?

As I was sat at the National Archives on Pennsylvania Ave in Washington one weekend going through the indexes for the Navy finance records during WW2, I came across another  another important "hmmm.." moment. I should mention that as I start researching I keep a list of important names and locations handy. So as I was winding through the index records I was scanning for my names and places. The names that stood out were Reyes Point and the Farralone Islands. They both show up as having had electronic equipment deliveries. The Farralone entries were not a surprise but Reyes Point was a puzzle at that point I didn't find any reference to anything more than a geographic point used as part of the L-8 patrol route. What was at Reyes Point?

Well one thing lead to another and I discovered that Reyes Point was a Bell Labs site, that the Farralones, besides being a radio listening post, had a radar site on it. The connection between all the  involvement of the men from New Jersey was an easy guess since blimps were involved.

As I started investigating the work that was done at Lakehurst and the surrounding area military sites I started with a number of trips to the National Archives as well as searching New Jersey newspapers looking for clues about what might have been going on at Lakehurst. I also started trying to get the DOD records for anyone involved I could find records for. I soon came across the L2/G-1 accident and it stood out enough to make it worth investigating for a connection. I quickly foun dthat the connection was that the L-8 was the replacement for the destroyed L-2.

I have been looking for the the L2/G-1 JAG inquest records, still as yet unsuccessfully, and I'm sure they would have helped get me where I am sooner, I found that the records of the NDRC/OSRD at NARA and NARA2 held bits and pieces of a story most people - even those very familiar with WW2 - ever knew.So much of what I read was familiar on the surface but I'd sit for days and read records, everything from technical works to personal letters, that filled in so much more detail to the stories. The word that comes to mind is "honesty". I don't mean that the stories we're told are lies but that they are often distillation of very complex stories. In an effort to make them digestible for the readership or maybe the limitation of the writer, the story is simplified.

A reader of this blog reminded me of just how far I travelled to unravel this story.

The last blog about Dumbo was from a source I don't recall, but it came from some where in my travels. Most likely NARA2, but I started going through notes trying to see if I could track down any written references to DUMBO 1 or 2 when I was still uncertain about radars role in the L-8 incident. I've been refreshing my memory lately.

Box 52B at Waltham, Mass. contains the photos of the equipment used in DUMBO 1 and 2 but it contained an important clue to reinforce the idea that radar was at fault. The mounting for the dish that transmitted-received the microwave energy of the radar unit contained a soft plastic material in the early models and it was too soft to hold up to bouncing around and the dishes quickly became misaligned and pointed askew when the radar operator thought they were pointed in the right direction.

Other boxes contained complaints about the mica windows in the TR tubes, the component that allows the radar antenna to both "send" and "listen". The windows would leak and let EMF energy through.

More boxes, different problems. Complaints from air fields from Ohio to Florida complaining about the problems radar caused with radio on planes with radar. Pilots were unable to use both at the same time and before they realized it many pilots were flying in without contacting the tower, low on fuel unable to wait and not realizing what the problem was.

The first units produced were hand crafted. Eventually they were manufactured in a more typical fashion but never quite so since radar was so secret, they never let any one set of people really see the whole thing. Radar was treated much the same way the atomic bomb was. The magnetrons built a few miles from my home in New Jersey. I was fortunate enough to have worked at Bell Labs in Whippany, NJ. In fact I spent the 80's and 90's working at Bell Labs throughout New Jersey as a contractor. Not a day goes by that I don't mourn it's passing.

In nearby Newark and Harrison, electronic sub-components were manufactured primarily at Westinghouse before they were sent to the primary contractor, Philco, for final assembly.

When radar was first developed blimps were chosen as the first choice for deployment since blimps could stay up for long periods of time, carry many people and become flying laboratories.

I was looking through records of the OSRD kept at Waltham; letters, telegrams, lab books. Anything that lead me to who might have been in California in August 1942 and why.

The super-klystron was developed at the University of California and arrangements were made to made for two scientists to fly out and test it. One was a scientist by the name of Bainbridge. I spent a week at waltham last year at Waltham reading through Bainbridge's lab books.At that point I didn't know who he was but I quickly saw the brilliance in the the works and drawings. Well almost. It turns out everyone has seen his work. Years later at Alamogordo, NM it was his finger that set off the first atomic blast on the trigger switch he designed.

In August of 1942 radar was in it's infancy and problematic. Lots of engineering and solutions to be figured out before it was ready for prime time but as the saying goes "time and tide wait for no man". The world is imperfect and we just do the best do with what we have.Airborne radar units took about an hour to install and the weight of one man. Hmmm.

Radar helped explain the radar interference problem. The weight issue.  The batteries being drained between the time the engines stopped turning the generators and the final crash.

Roosevelt had made reference to the Japanese being a problem when he signed the creation of Treasure Island for use as the site of an upcoming Worlds Fair. The first thing you would note looking at the five versions of the speech is the evolution involving the spin involving the impending need to prepare for war.
Reviewing the blueprints for "world fair grounds" the first impression I had was that it looked like runways with building placed on top that could later be removed. It seemed well thought out and dual purpose.
The speech dedicating Treasure Island was given in 1938.

After all, everyone knew there was a storm coming.

Radar operates in the microwave range and we're all familiar with when happens when direct microwaves at matter with water in it. Like people. It heats things up.

The book "Radio-Frequency and ELF Electromagnetic Energies: A Handbook for Health Professionals" by R. Timothy Hitchcock and Robert M. Patterson from Wiley was very useful in helping figuring out what would happen if a radar unit was aboard the L-8. The book help me figure out what could happen to a man when exposed to levels of energy produced in early radar units. In this case, the unit could heat someone up to about 103 degrees Fahrenheit ( 40 degrees Celsius ), producing a fever high enough to make you pass out, or maybe do something reckless and dangerous enough to fall to your death. Thermal heating via radio waves was and is still in common use.

Microwave energy development was originally attempted in order to create a death ray. It proved impractical for reasons I won't go into here. Germany abandoned radar development because what they really wanted was a  death ray capable of killing fields of troops at a distance and nothing so mundane as a way of detecting remote objects. Other countries dropped the idea of a death ray quickly but continued development of microwave energy based tools.

I have two working examples from the period. One was from St. Louis Worlds Fair exhibit that used microwaves beamed across a crowd at some ears of corn which would pop to the amazement of the crowd.
The other, not at all amusing, comes from Japan. The Japanese developed a prototype of the death ray, testing it on small animals and "dogs". This is not a political forum but I'll suggest anyone interested in this topic watch the History Channel episode on "Weird Axis Weapons" and research what the use of that word may mean. That suggestion comes with a big red warning label if you're squeamish as does reading the Hitchcock/Patterson book. It's not for everyone and I think most of you will understand that there is a suggestion that the Japanese tested their prototype on people.

 Should the dish become misaligned and the energy from the antenna directed into the gondola towards the pilots, they would have started to feel strange but would not have been able to get word back via radio.
Switch off the unit, but the switch isn't working. Head home but you feel feverish and may even pass out.
Make bad fevered decisions. Fall out.
You can't understand what is happening and just like a burning building, jump out.

One man falls and the blimp, suddenly lighter, bounces up dramaticly at an odd angle throwing the second man out the now open door. The blimp rises to the height the emergency release value opens dropping down, the wind blowing the L-8 inland and into the headlines.

 The hand of God or fate, you live, you die.