History:  It’s a bird, it’s a plane, no it’s …..

On May 24, 1932, the world’s largest dirigible flew over the Puget Sound to both the delight and consternation of people and animals in the region.

The USS Akron (ZRS-4) 

USS Akron (ZRS-4) and her sister ship USS Macon (ZRS-5) were the first-of-its-class airships built by the U.S. Navy, in Akron, Ohio.  Built in 1931, both were 785-foot-long dirigibles (the length of two-and-a-half football fields) and the largest airships ever made. Once completed, they were commissioned in October 1931, and were the pride of the U.S. Navy.

Celebration of the completion of the Akron’s frame, circa 1930. (Photo courtesy Ohio Memory)

USS Akron was a rigid-framed helium filled airship that was to be the first flying aircraft carrier, carrying F9C Sparrowhawk fighter planes that could be launched and recovered while in flight. Dependent upon the mission, the airship could carry up to five fighter planes, thereby extending their range.

An F9C Sparrowhawk. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia)

In early 1932, the USS Akron flew search exercises in the eastern United States and western Atlantic — including various loading and off-loading tests in flight — as a part of the U.S. Navy’s Scouting Force.

USS Akron flying above New York City. (Photo dourtesy U.S. Navy Historical Museum)

Travels on the West Coast

In February of 1932, just before a planned cross country trip to San Diego, the USS Akron was damaged during a ground-handling accident, but was successfully repaired. In early May, when she arrived in San Diego, she also had a mooring accident. The airship was too light, due to a lack of fuel (weight) and high winds, which resulted in the death of two sailors who attempted to moor her.

On May 22, the USS Akron flew north out of San Diego, following the western coastline. It seems that there was little notice of its flight plans, except possibly in some of the larger metropolitan areas. The news coverage and personal histories of the time in the Puget Sound region seem to indicate that some people were not aware of its pending arrival.

The Seattle Daily Times on May 24 1932 had a front page headline that read “Akron Soars Over City”.

An accompanying article was titled “Thousands View Huge Airship At Noon Hour” with a subheading of “Roofs and Hilltops Jammed by Seattleites as Big Navy Craft Glides in from South above Sound”.  The article read:

“Seattle craned its neck this noon and watched the largest airship in the world, the Navy’s dirigible Akron, glide by. The big ship looking against the horizon like a large silver bullet came over the city from the south. 

Thousands stood on the streets, hilltops and building roofs and got an excellent view of this liner of the air, more than two blocks long.   So huge is the bulk of the Akron that it cast a vast shadow on the streets as it passed. The sky was ideal for watchers. White fleecy clouds kept the sky from being too brilliant.

Due to favorable winds she was more than an hour ahead of schedule. A wireless from the ship when she passed by Astoria, said she would be in Seattle around 1 p.m., but it was 11:15 when she was first sighted.

The Seattle Daily Times article from May 23, 1932, courtesy Seattle Times archives.

The Edmonds Tribune Review’s report was similar.

Edmonds Tribune Review article from May 27, 1932 c ourtesy Sno-Isle Genealogical Society.

But not everyone was thrilled by the seemingly unexpected and frightening appearance of the huge silver bullet in the sky. Several oral and written histories allude to its sudden approach and the fear it caused:

Accounts read:

– When the airship suddenly appeared over the tree tops our horse and several of our cows ran across the pasture, knocked down the fence and trampled my fathers’ hay field. It took two days to repair the fence and round them up.

– Our chickens panicked and ran into their coops when the thing blocked the sun overhead. They quit laying eggs for a week. I guess it really scared them.

– My grandma had not heard about the Akron, or had any idea what it was. When she saw it coming down the coast, she made me grab my two younger sisters and go into the root cellar to hide.

Other accounts documented the fear, its sheer size caused.  People possibly thought it wasn’t of this world.

Return to the East Coast

After a successful trip back to the East Coast, the USS Akron resumed her duties. In early 1933, she visited Florida, Cuba and Panama to inspect base sites of the U.S. fleet’s south operating zone and then returned to her home port in New Jersey.

The USS Akron tethered to a mooring mast, circa 1932.  (Photo courtesy Naval Source digital archives)

Tragedy strikes 

Early in the morning of April 4, 1933 the USS Akron departed New Jersey on a trip to New England. Within a short period of time the airship encountered a violent storm over the New Jersey coast. Battered by the storm, the USS Akron crashed tail first into the sea. Only three of the 76 sailors aboard survived the crash.

Many of the men most likely died due to the fact that there were no life vests and only one rubber raft aboard. Life boats had been moved to another airship and never replaced.

The three survivors —  Lt. Commander Herbert Wiley, Moody Erwin and Richard Deal — were rescued from the frigid waters by a German tanker that was nearby when the crash occurred. Erwin and Deal were hanging on to a fuel tank and Wiley was clinging to a board.

In a later interview, Wiley said he had been in the control car just before the crash. He stated that the crew couldn’t see the ocean until they were about 300 feet above the water  “The order was given to stand by for a crash, but the ship hit the water within 30 seconds of that order and most of us, I believe, were catapulted into the water,” he said.

When the wreckage was found, the Navy stated that the airship had collapsed to about 25 feet in height. Its original height was 150 feet.  It was a catastrophic disintegration of the ship once it hit the water.

Two weeks later, portions of the wreckage was recovered from the ocean floor.

The tangled wreckage of the front portion of the Akron was recovered two weeks after the accident.  (Photo courtesy of U.S. Naval Museum – originally taken by the Associated Press)
The bent frame of the Akron as it was removed from the ocean floor. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Naval Museum – originally taken by the Associated Press)

The forgotten story 

Different than the Hindenburg, which exploded four years later, killing 36 people and the news coverage that accompanied that event, the USS Akron is largely forgotten in history.

When people hear the word “Hindenburg” they think of it as the world’s greatest airship disaster. But it wasn’t.  The USS Akron’s crash resulted in more than twice the deaths. Today there’s only a small plaque in Manchester Township, New Jersey that commemorates the Akron’s disaster.

But in May 1932, the Akron was an engineering marvel, soaring in the clouds bringing both thrills and anxiety to the residents of Edmonds and the Puget Sound region.

Author’s final notes: When I began researching this article, I have to admit that I didn’t know the difference between a blimp, dirigible or a zeppelin.   Here is a working definition of the three terms.

Airships (dirigibles) can be separated into three types: rigid airships having a fixed frame (such as zeppelins), non-rigid airships that are reliant on air pressure to keep their shape (such as blimps), and semi-rigid airships, which use a framework, but still rely on air pressure to maintain their shape. Some Goodyear blimps are semi-rigid airships.

This article was researched and written by Byron Wilkes.  Thanks go to Sno-Isle Genealogical Society, The Seattle Times Archives, the U.S. Naval Museum and Wikimedia for their research help.

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