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Real Names: Lieutenant Ernest DeWitt Cody and Ensign Charles Ellis Adams
Nicknames: None Known
Location: San Francisco, California
Date: August 16, 1942

Bio

Occupation: U.S. Navy Airmen
Date of Birth: September 22, 1914 (Cody); July 4, 1908 (Adams)
Height: Unrevealed
Weight: Unrevealed
Marital Status: Married (Both)
Characteristics: White males (Both)

Case

Details: Twenty-seven-year-old Lieutenant Ernest DeWitt Cody and thirty-four-year-old Ensign Charles Ellis Adams were U.S. Navy pilots who vanished while flying a blimp, known as “L-8”, on its regular patrol over California on August 16, 1942. It later made a spectacular descent and crashed to earth with no one on board. No trace of Cody or Adams was ever found.
At the time of Cody and Adams’ disappearances in 1942, the final outcome of World War II was still very much in doubt. The United States had every reason to fear a Japanese invasion of its Western shores. According to military historian and author Carroll Glines, Japanese submarines were known to be operating off the West Coast. They had sunk several Allied ships there. On February 23, 1942, a Japanese submarine attacked the Ellwood Oil Field near Santa Barbara, California. There was a great fear that more attacks would occur.
One response to the threat was unusual, to say the least. The Navy assembled an unlikely fleet of twelve odd-sized L-class blimps to monitor possible enemy activity along the California coastline. The blimps were originally part of Goodyear’s fleet of advertising blimps. They were stationed at Moffett Field in Santa Clara County, California. They were about 147 feet long, and carried two 325-pound Mark 17 depth bombs mounted on an external rack, a .30-caliber machine gun, and 300 rounds of ammunition.
The blimps were able to do many things that airplanes at the time could not do, such as: stay in the air for long periods of time; fly slowly; fly at very low altitudes; hover over targets; and operate in conditions of low visibility and low cloud ceilings. One of the blimps in the Navy’s fleet was L-8. The mission of Airship Patrol Squadron 32, though critical, was largely routine and uneventful until the day L-8 crashed and its crew vanished. On that day, the legend of the “ghost blimp” was born.
According to Daly City resident and historian Ken Gillespie, it was almost impossible for L-8’s crew to have disappeared without having been seen by someone. He says that nobody saw them fall or jump, and no relics of them were found. It was, perhaps, the strangest home-front incident of World War II. So strange that many remember it as if it happened only yesterday. Throughout the entire war, Airship Patrol Squadron 32 lost only the two men who disappeared on that patrol. Decades later, their exact fate is still unknown. And the mystery surrounding the ghost blimp remains a subject of endless fascination.
L-8’s flight began like hundreds of others had. Just after 6am on Sunday, August 16, 1942, the blimp, which was scheduled for Flight 101, prepared to take off from Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. Four days earlier, it was deemed to be in “fine working condition.” Its pilots, Cody and Adams, were experienced and reliable, and were in “fine spirits” that morning. All the more reason to wonder about what occurred over the next five hours.
Cody and Adams were both Navy veterans with exemplary service records. According to Ken, Cody was a very experienced pilot. He had graduated from the Naval Academy in 1938 and had many hours in the small blimps. He was known as a very “cool”, capable, determined, and somewhat taciturn officer. He was not one to “lose his head” under pressure. He had previously flown L-8 to deliver precious cargo to the U.S.S. Hornet before the ship departed for the Doolittle Raid over Tokyo.
Riley Hill, a retired Aviation Machinist’s Mate for the U.S. Navy, says that Adams had flown in large blimps for twenty years and was thoroughly checked out. However, Adams had never flown in small blimps before. Flight 101 was an indoctrination flight for him; this was his first one as a commissioned officer, as he had been sworn in as an ensign the day before.
Hill, then twenty, was assigned to accompany Cody and Adams that morning. But just before departure, Hill was inexplicably ordered to leave the ship. He now believes that heavy moisture in the air was weighing L-8 down, making it unwise to take off with three men aboard. He says that after being told to leave, he got out, shut the door, and locked it. Moments later, at 6:03am, L-8 took off from Treasure Island with Cody at the controls. The wind was light and visibility was good.
The flight plan called for L-8 to depart Treasure Island, pass over the Golden Gate Bridge, then head to the remote Farallon Islands, twenty-five miles off the coast. From there, the patrol would continue north to Point Reyes, then south along the coastline near Montara Beach before returning to Treasure Island. The patrol was expected to take four hours, with them returning between 10 and 10:30am. The first leg proceeded without incident. An hour and a half after takeoff, at 7:38am, Cody radioed squadron headquarters at Moffett Field. He said their position was four miles east of the Farallons. He then said, “Stand by.”
Four minutes later, at 7:42am, Cody called again, saying, “Am investigating suspicious oil slick - stand by.” The slick suggested that an enemy submarine might be in the area. Those were the last words ever received from L-8. Hill says that when headquarters did not receive any further information from L-8, they assumed that the crew had not found anything of significance and had gone on their way. It was also not unusual for blimps to sometimes lose contact during a patrol.
But later, when it came time for the hourly position report, L-8 still did not contact headquarters. When the second hourly report did not come in, they began to feel that something was wrong. They tried calling L-8 at 8:20 and 8:50am, but received no response. Hill did not believe anything was wrong with their radios because they had a good radio crew and the machinery was working. Around 9:30am, headquarters alerted all nearby ships and planes about L-8.
After more than three hours of radio silence, personnel at Moffett Field grew increasingly alarmed. Frantic attempts to contact L-8 went unanswered. Two float planes were sent out to search for it. Finally, a message was received, but not from L-8’s crew. Instead, it was from San Francisco shore control. They reported seeing L-8 crashing into Ocean Beach, just south of San Francisco and near Fort Funston. It had inexplicably drifted eight miles off course.
According to Ken, at 11:15am, a swimmer, Mr. Capulvea, was standing on Ocean Beach, ready to go into the water, when he saw a “huge, gray mass” coming out of the fog at an extremely low elevation. It was headed right for him. He watched as L-8 dragged its wheel along the sand at the water’s edge. Two fishermen tried, unsuccessfully, to hold it down by its tie lines. They noticed that the gondola door was open and no one was inside.
L-8 then hit a small sand knoll, bounced up into the air, and slid up a small canyon. It then hit rather heavily on the side of the canyon. This hit caused damage to the starboard propeller and knocked off a depth charge, which landed on a nearby golf course. Relieved of the weight, L-8 then soared up into the clouds and out of sight of Mr. Capulvea and the fishermen.
L-8 began to drift further inland over Daly City, five miles south of San Francisco. It began to deflate rapidly due to an automatic relief valve. Police and fire departments began chasing it through the city. It was seen by hundreds of people. One of them was Ken’s wife, Bunny Gillespie, who was sixteen at the time. She says she was on her way home from Sunday school when she saw this “big, gray thing” coming in over Templeton Avenue. She and many other residents were surprised by it, since “things like that just didn’t happen in Daly City.”
L-8 quickly lost altitude and was in danger of becoming entangled in power lines. It was also on a collision course with the steep hills in Daly City. Ethel Appleton’s house almost became the point of impact. She said that, all of a sudden, this “huge behemoth” had settled and scraped across the top of her roof. She said it sounded like someone was dragging chains across her roof. Her entire house was briefly blacked out because of the size of L-8. She raced to the front window, wondering what was going on. She saw its gondola hit the telephone pole, breaking off the pole’s cross-arm. She then saw it land in the middle of Bellevue Avenue at 11:30am.
Bunny missed the actual landing of L-8. When she got to the crash scene, she saw it; she described it as a “great, big, gray monster” with the gondola resting on a telephone pole and jutting up towards the tops of the houses. Its helium gas bag had deflated onto a nearby car. Miraculously, no one was injured as it came to rest in the middle of the street. Almost immediately, Daly City officials were on the scene. When Navy personnel arrived, they were stunned to discover that there was no sign of Cody or Adams. Apparently, L-8 had piloted itself straight into downtown Daly City.
A search of L-8’s gondola left investigators perplexed. The door was latched open, a highly unusual in-flight position. The safety bar, normally used to block the doorway, was no longer in place. A microphone hooked to an external loudspeaker dangled out of the gondola. The ignition switches were still on. The radio was still on and working; however, no distress transmission was ever made and the batteries were drained. Its engines were in perfect working order. Its instruments and flight controls operated normally. Hill says that nobody touched his fuel valves; they were set up exactly the way that he had left them. There were still another six hours of fuel onboard.
Ken says that two of the three life jackets that were normally carried onboard L-8 were missing. This indicated that the crew had put them on before takeoff, as regulations required. Other than the jackets and two flares, there was no other missing equipment. The machine gun, three other flares, three parachutes, and an expandable life raft were still there and in their respective places.
Cody’s cap lay on the instrument panel. A locked and heavily weighted briefcase containing top secret codes was still in place behind the pilot’s seat. There were orders to throw this briefcase overboard in the event of an emergency; clearly, that had not been done. L-8 seemed to be fully functional and was in no danger. It was as if Cody and Adams had opened the door and simply stepped out into thin air.
The Navy launched an extensive search for Cody and Adams. However, no trace of them was ever found. The Navy investigation revealed that L-8 had been seen by several ships and planes between 7 and 11am. Some of the eyewitnesses reported being close enough to make out Cody and Adams in the gondola. In each instance, everything seemed normal. Two boats reported seeing them shortly after their last radio transmission.
According to the witnesses on the boats, L-8 descended to about thirty feet above the water and circled the oil slick. The crew then dropped two Mark IV float-lights (which were smoke bombs and flares). They then circled the area for about an hour after their last communication. Shortly after 9am, they dropped ballast, ascended, and headed back towards San Francisco (which was the opposite direction of their intended target, Point Reyes). That was the last time Cody and Adams were seen alive.
At 10:49am, L-8 was seen over the Golden Gate Bridge; everything seemed normal. At 11am, one of the floatplanes saw L-8 as it rose to about 2000 feet and then descended near Salada Beach. Two more witnesses saw it near San Francisco. Again, the witnesses said that everything seemed normal. Just fifteen minutes after these sightings, it crashed into Ocean Beach with no one onboard.
Speculation on the fates of Cody and Adams ran rampant. It was initially theorized that they had bailed out over the ocean. A witness at the golf course reported seeing a parachute descend from L-8 while it was over the water. However, all three parachutes were found onboard. Another initial theory was that L-8 had experienced an unexplained loss of altitude and that the crew, in fear of it crashing, jumped into the water. Yet another theory was that when L-8 hit the canyon, the crew jumped or were thrown out of it. However, nothing was found to confirm these initial theories.
Some people believed that Cody and Adams had spotted an enemy submarine. When they descended to investigate, they were taken prisoner. However, there was no evidence that L-8 had been attacked or otherwise damaged. Witnesses also did not see any submarines nearby. One outrageous rumor suggested that the two were involved in a lover’s triangle with an unknown woman. According to the rumor, one had murdered the other in a jealous rage and then fled when the blimp reached land.
Other theories included: that the two were spying for Japan and escaped on a Japanese submarine; that a stowaway hidden onboard had overpowered them (a witness who viewed L-8 through binoculars thought she saw three men inside); they were involved in an “AWOL scheme gone awry”; a rogue wave swept them away; L-8 somehow dipped into the ocean, washing them away (however, there were no signs it had come in contact with the water); they were testing experimental radar, and the poorly shielded microwaves overpowered them; and they had been abducted by aliens.
The Navy finally settled on the most plausible theory. There had been an accident on board, perhaps caused by a mechanical malfunction. Presumably, one of the men had climbed outside the gondola to correct the problem and had run into trouble. When the second man tried to come to his aide, both fell to their doom. A similar theory is that one of the men fell either while investigating the oil slick or dropping the float-lights to mark the slick. The loss of weight could have caused L-8 to lurch at an odd angle, causing the other man to fall out.
The Navy also found that there were issues with the safety latch on L-8’s door, which could have led to one or both of them accidentally falling out. However, it should be noted that one witness (who had binoculars) reported seeing figures inside the gondola as it flew over Daly City. Also, no witnesses reported seeing either man fall from L-8. On the other hand, the fishermen who tried to stop L-8 on the beach did not see anyone inside it.
Several questions remained: why did Cody and Adams stop broadcasting if their radio was working? What caused them to leave L-8 mid-flight? If they fell out, why did no one see them, even though patrol ships were reportedly scrutinizing their every move? And what happened onboard between the time they reported the oil slick and the point when L-8 came ashore?
A year later, on August 17, 1943, Cody and Adams were officially declared dead. And the mystery of the “ghost blimp” passed into legend. After the crash, L-8 was patched up and put back into service by the Navy. Ultimately, it became part of the Goodyear fleet and was renamed “America.” During the 1960s and 70s, it was seen by millions at sporting events. Few of them had any idea that the blimp circling overhead was the fabled ghost blimp.
L-8 was finally retired in 1982. Its gondola was then repainted back to its original markings and given to the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida, where it sits on display. The fate of its crew remains unknown.
Suspects: Several possible explanations have been brought up to suggest what may have happened to Cody and Adams. One theory was that they had spotted an enemy Japanese submarine and descended to investigate it. It is speculated that they were then taken prisoner by those on-board the submarine. Another theory was that the two men were involved in a lover's triangle with an unknown woman. According to this theory, one had murdered the other in a jealous rage and then fled when the blimp reached land.
It was noted that L-8 was 200 pounds too heavy before takeoff, which led to Hill being kicked off the flight. It was speculated that a stowaway was onboard, and that this person killed the crew and then escaped. Interestingly, intruders had been discovered trying to get into buildings on Treasure Island in the weeks before the disappearance. However, it was concluded by the Navy that there was no place for a stowaway to hide without being seen.
The Navy theorized that there was an accident, possibly a mechanical malfunction, on-board the blimp. They believe that one of the men climbed outside to fix the problem, but had run into trouble. When the second man came to his aid, both fell to their deaths.
Extra Notes:

  • This case first aired on the May 19, 1993 episode.
  • Interestingly, Adams had survived another airship disaster, the crash of the U.S.S. Macon in 1935. He had also helped save some of the survivors of the Hindenburg disaster and was at Pearl Harbor when it was attacked.
  • Some sources say Adams was thirty-five or thirty-eight, and that L-8 took off at 5:30am. Sources vary on whether or not fuel was dumped from L-8.
  • It was rumored that first responders found a half-eaten sandwich and a warm cup of coffee on the cockpit desk of L-8. This was later confirmed to be untrue.

Results: Unsolved - Sadly, most of those interviewed have since passed away, including Carroll Glines and Ken and Bunny Gillespie. Due to the passage of time, it can be assumed that Cody and Adams are now deceased.
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