At 6:03 a.m. on August 16, 1942, eight months after America declared war on the Japanese, Lieutenant Ernest Cody and his co-pilot, Ensign Charles Adams, lifted off from Naval Station Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. The pilots were on a routine, four-hour patrol in the U.S. Navy L-class airship L-8. This small three-man blimp, which was constructed by the Goodyear Corporation for use in advertising, had a cruising speed of forty-six miles per hour, reaching a top speed of sixty miles per hour. L-8’s range of two thousand miles made it perfect for long coastal anti-submarine patrols, as Japanese ships and submarines had harassed shipping since their attack on Pearl Harbor. The 150-foot-long airship carried two 325-pound depth-charge canisters mounted on an external rack, a .30-caliber machine gun and 300 rounds of ammunition as defense against any possible encounters with enemy vessels.
The pilots who lifted off that Sunday morning were very experienced in lighter-than-air flight. Lieutenant Cody, a Naval Academy graduate, had delivered essential aircraft parts in preparation of Doolittle’s Raid on Tokyo in April 1942. His co-pilot, Charles Adams, had recently been commissioned an ensign but had twenty years of rigid airship experience, having served on the USS Macon, a floating aircraft carrier. Adams, according to aviationoiloutlet.com, had been decorated by the German government for rescuing passengers from the horrific Hindenburg disaster in Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937.
Listed in aeronautical records as Flight 101, L-8’s mission was to fly thirty miles west to Farallon Islands and then return, patrolling the north approaches to San Francisco Bay. The hour-and-a-half flight out to Farallon was uneventful, with fair weather and three- to five-mile visibility.
At 7:42 a.m., Lieutenant Cody radioed that he had spotted an oil slick four miles east of Farallon and would investigate. Lieutenant Cody descended to thirty feet, dropping two smoke flares to identify the suspicious area. According to the witnesses on the passing liberty ship Albert Gallatin and the fishing trawler Daisy Gray, after releasing the flares, L-8 ascended to three hundred feet and circled the area for nearly an hour. Shortly after 9:00 a.m., the airship crew released ballast from L-8 and turned east toward San Francisco. Crew members of the two witness vessels reported seeing both Cody and Adams in the control compartment of the blimp as it steamed away to the east.
An hour after Flight 101 began to head east, a P38 fighter pilot spotted the airship, which appeared to be out of control, at an approximate elevation of two thousand feet. Before the patrolling fighter pilot could investigate the status of the vessel, it disappeared into a cloud bank that obscured any further investigation.
At 11:15 a.m., U.S. Navy shore patrol, as well as several civilians, watched L-8 slowly emerge from the fog and descend to the shore, eight miles off course and south of the entrance to San Francisco Bay. Two fishermen who witnessed the crash landing grabbed the tie-down lines and tried, unsuccessfully, to rein in the craft. The men would later report to naval investigators that the jolt of the crash freed one of the depth charges, which fell onto a nearby golf course, and lightened the craft’s load enough to allow it to rise back into the air. The fishermen noted to investigators and the local media that the control compartment door was open and the gondola was empty when they grabbed the lines.
The behemoth airship ascended after the first impact on the beach and slowly floated east to Daly City, where it deflated and set down on Bellevue Avenue at 11:30 a.m. A preliminary search of the gondola revealed no sign of Cody and Adams. In the naval investigation, it was discovered the two of the three life jackets on board the craft were missing; however, the bright yellow U.S. Navy life jackets had become a requirement for flight only a few years earlier, accounting for the missing equipment.
It appeared that the two aeronauts had opened the gondola door, removed the safety bar and simply walked out of the airship into the Pacific Ocean. L-8’s three parachutes, inflatable life raft and sealed orders were all intact; Cody’s hat still rested on the control panel. The mechanic’s inspection of L-8 revealed that at no point during the day’s events did the craft land or make contact with the Pacific Ocean.
The U.S. Navy patrolled the waters, and shores, for weeks, looking for any evidence of the missing pilots, to no avail. No items of clothing, life jackets or remains were ever located by searchers. The investigation teams interviewed all of the witnesses to the events of August 16; however, many of the accounts used to create a timeline of the curious mystery had some interesting discrepancies that would create as many questions as answers.
The navy concluded that the men fell out of the control compartment while dropping their smoke flares as the most plausible scenario. Adams opened the compartment door, removed the safety bar and released his smoke flares. At that point, it was surmised, the co-pilot slipped and fell from the airship. Cody, attempting to save Adams, also fell, or jumped, from the vessel. This conclusion was deemed the official finding, although Flight 101 was being observed by several witnesses who did not see the men fall from L-8.
To this day, the disappearance of Cody and Adams remains a mystery of aeronautical history. Many theories have been put forward about the crew of L-8, including capture by the Japanese, a personal squabble over a woman, desertion and even alien abduction. All of these concepts, including the U.S. Navy explanation, have disputed and/or contradictory evidence to either support or refute the theories.
L-8 survived the crash in Daly City and continued to patrol the California coastline until the end of the war with the distinct moniker “Ghost Blimp.” Goodyear bought the vessel back from the navy, retaining it as a Goodyear Blimp until 1982. The original control compartment that Cody and Adams disappeared from resides at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida.
Editor: Abigail Fleming
Photos courtesy of:
Let’s Talk About It!
Here’s what we know:
On April 12, 1861, under orders by the newly formed Confederate States government, General P.G.T. Beauregard commences the thirty-four-hour-long bombardment of Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina. During the fury, the fort's flagstaff (flagpole) is destroyed. Major Robert Anderson, the commander of the besieged Fort Sumter, ordered that a temporary flagstaff be erected in its place by the defenders.
Two days later, on April 14, Anderson of the U.S. Army surrenders Fort Sumter to General Beauregard.
Although absent from the June 2, 1861 ceremony, a month and a half after Fort Sumter, Beauregard curiously gifts the newly formed Orleans Guard with a “part of the captured flagstaff of Fort Sumter” at 713 Dauphine Street in New Orleans. At this point, many questions arise.
This mysterious piece of wood, of which there is no clear description, surfaces in southwestern Tennessee nearly a year later at the Battle of Shiloh. At that time, it appears that the Fort Sumter flagstaff has been turned into a color bearer’s staff. On April 6, 1862, it was carried into battle by the Orleans Guard, commanded by Colonel Preston Ponds.
During the battle, Ponds was ordered to charge Battery D of the 1st Illinois Artillery. While Alabama and Louisiana artillerymen directed their fire toward Battery D, Ponds led his men into the fight. It has been reported by emergingcivilwar.com that the Fort Sumter flagstaff fell four times during the fight before being saved from capture by Captain Alfred Roman of the 18th Louisiana Infantry.
The trail of the elusive flagstaff goes cold with the account of Alfred Roman. He would return to New Orleans after Shiloh to recover from the campaign. Upon his return to service, Roman served out the remainder of the Civil War on Beauregard’s staff.
But what became of this piece of history?
The National Constitution Center, a museum in Philadelphia, has on loan from the Gettysburg Institute a piece of wood with a plaque that reads:
“A portion of the Fort Sumter flagstaff
Presented to the
WAR LIBRARY and MUSEUM, M.O.L.L.U.S.
By Mrs Chas. W. Woolsey”
In a post about the flagstaff, the NCC Facebook page states: “This remnant of the Fort Sumter flagstaff fell into the hands of P.G.T. Beauregard, the Confederate General who ordered the attack…”
There is no question that the Woolsey relic is an actual piece of Sumter’s flagstaff that was destroyed by Confederate cannons; however, are these two relics, the Woolsey wood and the Orleans Guard flagstaff, the same? StrangeHistory does not believe they are.
Intense research into the players of this mystery reveals that Charles Woolsey (U.S. Army) was not in proximity to Beauregard, Roman or Ponds (CSA) at any time during the Civil War.
Following Shiloh, the Orleans Guard became a part of the 18th Louisiana Infantry, until it was consolidated into the 10th Louisiana Infantry for use in the Trans-Mississippi Department of the Confederate army (western theater). In the spring of 1864, the 10th was being led by the 7th Louisiana Cavalry in the Red River campaign.
The evidence suggests that some Louisiana Infantry units, including men of the original Orleans Guard, were kept largely in the western theater during the Civil War. If the Fort Sumter flagstaff, and Orleans Guard, stayed in the western theater; and Lieutenant Colonel Charles Woolsey was stationed in the eastern theater, the indication is that the two-foot-long piece of Woolsey wood was retrieved by the Union colonel sometime after the Confederate evacuation of the fort on February 17, 1865. Furthermore, the evidence clearly shows that Beauregard had removed, and presented to the Orleans Guard, Major Robert Anderson’s temporary flagstaff.
So what happened to this elusive piece of wood? StrangeHistory wants to know!
If you know the whereabouts of the Fort Sumter/Orleans Guard flagstaff or possess information that can aid in understanding its mysterious journey, please contact StrangeHistory.org.
Photos courtesy of: