National Geographic : 1943 Jul
Aboard a Blimp Hunting U-boats Loaves of bread, a half-pound of butter, and jars of sweets lie before him. But the eye-catcher is a three-pound joint of cold roast beef. Sliced and sizzled in the hot plate, it is eaten quickly, for appetites flourish in the high sea air. Officers ashore, by the way, say, "Enlisted men feed better than we do. Chicken and steaks, while we get stew." 1:00 p. m. Navy planes ahead, putting on a burst of speed, are skimming low. Ten sion mounting, we race to follow them. The pilot calls for a smoke bomb, useful in mark ing a target area. His hand itches for the depth-bomb release. Then, following the planes, we glide down the trail of a long, narrow oil smear. But presently the pilot, grinning, turns the ship away and remarks: "Same old oil slick. Buried down there is a torpedoed ship oozing oil. But they (pointing to the planes) don't know it yet." Convoys That Pass in the Afternoon Army, Navy, and Coast Guard planes, like the blimps, investigate every barrel, every crate, every oil smear for signs of an enemy. Together with surface craft, they sweep the sea clean. We rejoin the southbound convoy and, be fore long, pass cargo ships heading north. They have an escort, one of which is identi fiable by her White Ensign as a British Empire corvette. 2:40. "Want to see an Atlantic convoy?" Skipper hands over the binoculars. Twelve miles out is an inspiring sight. Scores of ships are beating their way in. By now they have sighted safety. What perils have they braved? What losses have they suffered? As we speed away, they merge into the sea, becoming blue, rectangular humps on the horizon. Sparks, having a moment off duty, is ab sorbed in a personal affair. The Battle of the Western Atlantic might be 10,000 miles away as he loses all touch with the monotonous search below. Right, sailor, can this be war? Or is it make-believe? Is the sea a colossal stage, with a rehearsal for our benefit? Doubts such as these I com municate to the skipper with the question, "Do you believe you will ever see action out here?" "Yes," came the answer. "Every morning I say to myself, 'This will be the day. Today our lowly trainer will bag a sub, and we'll laugh in the teeth of the patrol blimps.' " Sparks, a warship veteran with previous Lakehurst experience, has resumed work. I ask if he prefers life with the Fleet. "Oh, no," he responds. "This is much better." 4:00. Skipper, bending to speak to the radioman, is warned by a whispered "Sh!" that a message is on the air. The gesture is eloquent of the informality between offi cers and men. I comment on it. "That's right," says the captain. "We are in such close quarters, treading on one an other's toes, that a strict show of discipline seems silly." The co-pilot spins the yarn of a cadet's adventure with a bronze powder bomb aboard another blimp. This bomb, used sometimes in place of the smoke bomb, scatters a shower of shiny metal lic dust over an enemy's lurking place. It weighs little and is easy to grip. But the fum bling cadet dropped it in the cabin and its fragile shell broke apart. After the dust had settled, the crew resembled the bronzed "liv ing statues" of a circus tableau. A second story concerns a masterpiece of understatement in a pilot's log. "Sighted life boat containing seven survivors," he wrote. "Stood by until Coast Guard made rescue. Lowered sandwiches and coffee, for which they seemed pleased." "Were they pleased?" Lakehurst chuckles. "They hadn't tasted coffee in weeks!" Rolling Home to Lakehurst We leave the convoy. Atlantic City's tow ers appear and fade as we run north. Nearing home, the pilot orders, "Put the motors on full rich." An enlisted man replies, "Aye, aye, sir." Now we are on a trial run around the field -bearing left as at a standard airport-to get the "feel of the wind." Coming to meet us is a landing party of 60 men, 20 being trainees out for practice. As permission to land has not been given, we circle again. An enlisted man reports that we are still "heavy." Fuel consumption has not yet car ried off excess weight. The ship, therefore, will be easy to nose down. If she were light, we might have to valve helium. On finishing a third circle, we are ordered to land. The pilot cuts the motors and heads into the wind. "Stand by the blower!" he shouts. "Open the starboard scoop all the way." Heisre ferring to the small engine amidships which, when our main motors are off, pumps air to ballonets within the helium envelope. They maintain pressure, preventing the bag from collapsing. Unlike the skeletonized rigids, our envelope is a flabby cell, blown up like an inner tube.