by Paul Roberts
“I wanted to be a forester before I could spell,” Ralph reminisced. But his love of flying came first. After graduating from the University of California with a forestry degree, he enlisted in the Navy, bent on becoming a pilot. After going through the rigors of flight training, from the bi-plane to the most sophisticated navy fighter planes he qualified, received his wings and was on his way to what he thought would be air combat. But the Navy had other plans. He was unceremoniously transferred to the ‘blimp’ program which was just being formed, and re-trained as one of the first pilots in the new NRA (Non Rigid Airship) Program or LTA (Lighter Than Air).
The concept of a balloon, hovering over an enemy, had begun during our Civil War. It was perfect for spying on troop movements, then. They were later used effectively in World War One by the British and Americans. Now, the thinking was that an improved version of this ancient vehicle could be converted into not just a ‘spy in the sky,’ but serve as a ‘guardian angel’ over sea lanes and ship convoys in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, so called “naval scouts,” detect hazards such as submarines and even act as an offensive weapon against them. The Navy in 1942 had only one squadron of four blimps. By January 1945 they had eleven anti-sub blimp squadrons deployed off the east and west coasts of North and South America throughout the Caribbean, in the Straits of Gibraltar and the Mediterranean, totaling 141 blimps.
They quietly chose the Goodyear Aircraft Corporation for the production of these blimp airships, averaging 300 feet long, that were relatively easy to manufacture since they lacked metal frameworks or keels, differing from rigid balloons (like zeppelins). All they relied on was a lifting gas such as helium, and a gondola, a 40 foot control car or cabin slung underneath, powered by 2 Pratt-Whitney Wasps engines with Curtiss electric propellers, and stabilizing fins. These ‘cars,’ about 40 feet long, contained a crew of 10 with bunks for them when flying long hours, included a command pilot, co-pilot, navigator, radio men and mechanics. There was room for electronics, a Browning 50 caliber machine gun, mounted in the turret above the pilot, a 30 caliber gun mounted in one of the car’s windows; and two 325 lb. Mark 17 depth charges slung underneath and two in a bomb bay which was operated hydraulically. Initially, their searching for U-boats relied on eyeballing and good field glasses. Then MAD (Magnetic Anomaly Detector) was introduced, which used a magnetometer to detect subs. It could detect a submarine by a distraction (or anomaly) in the earth’s magnetic field in a field of 400 feet. Operationally, they were utilized best at night, conducting anti-submarine warfare operations. Day patrols were usually handled by fixed wing Navy PBYs and B-24s which used the same magnetic MAD system. Years later, the Nazi admiral in charge of the U-boats admitted that “Each air patrol was disturbing to the operations of his U-boats because they were forced underwater (to avoid detection) so frequently.”
This MAD system was initially developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) scientists, who flew missions, testing their radar technology for adaption to this new delivery system. Once perfected, it became an important asset in coping with the Nazi sea wolves, especially in the North Atlantic. Since it had such a wide range, it could readily pick up U-boats that had to surface at night to recharge their batteries. Many times the blimps would pick up the signals of these boats, forcing them to prematurely dive.
Ralph’s role as a blimp pilot varied as the need arose. After a tragic accident when a blimp on a training mission flew into the top of a mountain, he, with selected pilots, was drafted to conduct a two-week standardization course at the converted Del Mar Race Track, teaching new pilots how to handle emergencies. At one time he delivered blimps fresh from the manufacturer to the Lakehurst, New Jersey Naval Air Station on the east coast, thence overland to naval bases in California. Since the program was limited, with only 137 blimps being produced, his duties would vary, from assigned escort duty for convoys leaving the East or Pacific Coast. On these occasions he would fly about 200 feet above a convoy of one hundred ships and battle wagons, and fly for about 18 hours, and then break off. There was an unspoken camaraderie that built up between the airship crews and the merchant mariners. Escort vessels, like destroyers and corvettes, were just as vulnerable to submarine torpedoes as these ships were. But the blimp, hovering over them, was considered a guardian angel, able to detect any lurking danger without itself being in danger. Pilots actually found themselves in the role of a mother hen, watching over their charges in the water below.
There were times, on the Atlantic run, he would detect on his radar the presence of a U-boat, and would drop depth charges. This was enough to scare them off by causing them to dive, unless his bomb actually found its mark. (He never did find out whether he scored!). Many times Ralph would protect vulnerable aircraft carriers that were patrolling the sea lanes. For what he did, he was truly an unsung hero of the war, quietly doing what was required of him, flying unconscionably long hours and being where it was most necessary. He was a piece of the puzzle that helped win the war.
In one instance, one of the blimps in his unit was engaged in a gun battle with a surfaced submarine, unique in naval history, off the coast of Florida. The blimp, K-74, overflew the submarine Wintergarten, and released its outboard bombs, the release jamming and the bombs hung up! The sub then opened fire with their 20 mm and 88 mm deck guns, and hit the blimp’s starboard engine and punctured its skin, releasing helium, causing the ship to fall into the water. The crew was finally rescued by a destroyer, bringing to an end the one and only encounter of a blimp and a U-boat during the Second World War.
There was a radio shack on each blimp, with 3 receivers and 2 transmitters manned by a radio operator. Transmission was by voice with a maximum range of about 500 miles. For secure communication, during radio silence to its base, carrier pigeons were used. Air stations that utilized this form of communication maintained cotes, to which the pigeons would zero in on.
The final contract for these K-class blimps was ordered from Goodyear in mid-1943, for 89 more airships. That put a strain on the pilot program, giving Ralph and his colleagues a new assignment of training qualified Navy pilots in the handling of the blimp. Classes were formed, and for 6 months he was grounded, teaching the finer points of handling a lighter-than-air craft.
Once in California, a large convoy was being formed and, as so often happens, there were delays. Ralph’s craft was already airborne, floating off in space, marking time. As it happened, there was a football game in progress at his alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley. Out of sheer boredom, he buzzed the stadium at about 500 feet, giving the spectators a thrill, and getting a concerted cheer. Word got back to the commanding admiral, who, in no uncertain terms, reprimanded him over the radio, and told him to “get the hell out of there.” As Ralph later remarked, “it was worth it.” He finally went on to join the convoy.
Ralph has had a varied life, almost from the beginning. A brilliant mind, he has overcome many negative obstacles in growing up, but has managed to eventually channel his abilities into worthwhile accomplishments. From the beginning, after being baptized by the famous evangelist of the 1920s, Aimee Semple McPherson, he has struggled to find himself. Perhaps his qualifying to attend the University of California, Berkeley turned his life around. His unexplained desire to go into forestry has made him a very happy and contented man. After separation from the service, he became an expert in the lumber and timber industry. He could instinctively assess the value of trees on a given plot of land to the nearest dollar, making him a sought after expert by some of the biggest lumber companies in the world. He also became an expert on how to re-cultivate and restore land the most economical way, after cutting down trees.
In 1946, after separation from the service, the CEO of the Weyerhaeuser Lumber Company urged him to transfer to the Washington, DC office of the National Forest Products Association. He felt that they lacked the expertise of a forestry expert (which Ralph was), and he became its executive vice-president. During this time he studied the law at Catholic University, and after eleven years, graduated, passing the bar the first time he took the exam. During the Nixon administration, he was selected by the president as a special envoy to negotiate a trade agreement with the Japanese, on a controversial cut timber and lumber problem that had been festering for some time. The Japanese wanted us to ship our lumber (cut trees) to them so that they could process them into planks (timber), which would rob American workers of thousands of jobs. They were adamant and Ralph reluctantly gave up and returned home. He still was considered an expert in his field, and returned to Washington, contributing his expertise in the field to newspapers and magazines, and serving as a prime advisor to senators and representatives who were preparing legislature on forestry for their respective states.
Now, at age 95, he quietly lives in retirement in Leisure World® of Silver Spring, Md., enjoying his grandchildren, their accomplishments, and periodically visiting them in many parts of the world.
All photos courtesy of Paul Roberts – Resident of Leisure World® Maryland