Yesterday, on my way to the grocery store, I saw the Goodyear blimp high overhead. For me, this means only one thing: Uncle Joe is checking up on me.
No doubt he’s wondering why I have been so slow in getting to the stories he entrusted to me. In fact, I have over the past ten years (between other projects) been shaping Uncle Joe’s stories into chapters. My goal is to create a narrative that gives witness and meaning to the life of one good man.
Because of yesterday’s tap on the shoulder from Uncle Joe, I’ve decided to share one of my favorite stories. You won’t be surprised to discover that it involves a blimp.
Straight out of the Navy’s Newport Training Station in the fall of 1940, Joe Flynn was posted to the USS Wichita, a heavy cruiser. He was assigned to the boiler room—not necessarily the place you want to be in the savage North Atlantic in wintertime (or at any time when those five-inch guns are firing, and flames are leaping out from the shutters on the front of your boiler). His transfer to the USS Redwood, a diesel-driven net tender based in Puerto Rico, seemed like a much better option—until a German U-boat decided to let loose a torpedo.
Three years into his six-year hitch, Joe was ever alert for something better. So when he discovered that his rate and rank, Electrician’s Mate 2nd Class, qualified him to be a lighter-than-air sailor, he promptly applied. Within months, he was transferred to the U.S. Naval Air Station, Lakehurst, New Jersey.
It didn’t take long for Joe to adjust to his new land-based routine, which was pretty straightforward. Lakehurst’s fleet of blimps went out on a regular and relentless schedule of missions. They would patrol a designated quadrant of ocean striving to sight German U-Boats. Whenever a blimp caught a sub on the surface, the sub would immediately dive, and the blimp would drop depth charges. This non-stop campaign to locate and destroy enemy submarines slowed, but did not halt, the continuous German assault on Allied shipping. The blimp was an effective weapon and one that German submariners feared. An intercepted radio message sent from a U-Boat submerged off the Coast to one approaching from the mid-Atlantic warned, “Watch out for the blimps; they are armed with many depth charges.”
Joe was glad that he was never assigned to a flight crew during wartime. Instead, he was on watch nights, from 8 p.m. until 8 a.m., readying airships for their daytime missions. Sometimes, though, when an extra man was needed, Joe was added to a ground crew. It was one of those ground crew assignments that nearly cost him his life.
A blimp was coming in to land from the Naval Air Station at South Weymouth, Massachusetts. By a crazy quirk of fate, that base had been built in the woods and fields where Joe had played as a boy—the main gate less than half a mile from Ma’s house, the house where he had grown up. In fact, it was while checking out the base on the visit he made home with Rosemary just after their wedding that he had learned that he could apply for lighter-than-air duty.
So here he was. The war was still grinding on, and there was a blimp trying to land—the only blimp still in the air on the entire East Coast. A fast moving Nor’easter had chased all the others out of the sky. This airship had been caught out at sea. As rain turned to freezing rain, and freezing rain turned to sleet, the blimp’s pilot realized he was a lot closer to the Jersey shore than to Narragansett Bay, the waypoint en route to his home base, so he headed for Lakehurst. By the time the blimp reached Lakehurst, it was covered with ice. Weighted down like that, the ship was in trouble. Ordinarily, when coming in to land, a blimp would kill both its engines. But the pilot didn’t do this; he knew that if the ground crew wasn’t able to pull him in on the first pass, he would have to circle around and try again. He must have figured that with the weight of the ice counteracting the buoyancy of the helium, he wouldn’t be able to get back up without those engines, and he would be in the drink.
The standard rigging at the two airfields was not the same. The ships out of Lakehurst had four lines hanging from the ship—two fore (one on each side) and two aft. Ships out of Weymouth used the same two lines at the fore end of the ship, but a single looping line aft, one end attached on the starboard side, one on the port. This looping line on the back offered an extra chance to secure a ship that was proving difficult to bring in. But it had a huge disadvantage, which Joe soon found out.
As the ship came in, the men on the ground grabbed the lines and were struggling to secure them. But, buffeted by wind and propelled forward by its idling engines, the blimp got away from them. As it lurched forward, its looping line caught Joe right at the back of his knees. He fell. And up he went, his knees hooked over the line. With the motion of the blimp, he slid the length of the line until his body slammed into the cable hook. Luckily, it released, dropping him onto the ground from a height still low enough that he was not killed. He landed on his head, but never lost consciousness. Somehow the ground crew, now short-handed, managed to land the ice-covered blimp on its second pass. And the ambulance that always stood ready at every landing rushed Joe to the hospital. Miraculously, he had no broken bones. He was badly cut up on the back of his head; the backs of his knees had been scaped raw; and he had a severe concussion.
Joe was in the hospital for a week or more because of his head injury. One day a doctor, making rounds with a coterie of young interns stopped at Joe’s bed, picked up his chart, glanced at it, and said, “Circumcision.” He looked at Joe with a puzzled frown. Headache raging, Joe was awake, though he had his eyes closed. Slowly, he opened his eyes, looked at the medical team surrounding his bed, and turned down his bedclothes. With that, they could all see that Joe did not need, nor had he recently undergone, a circumcision. The doctor looked at the chart more closely. “Oh,” he said, “concussion.”