On this day, the Navy Airship Patrol Group 1 and Air Ship Squadron 12 are established at Lakehurst, N.J. The U.S. Navy was the only military service in the world to use airships–also known as blimps–during the war.
The U.S. Navy was actually behind the times in the use of blimps; it didn’t get around to ordering its first until 1915, at which time even the U.S. Army was using them. By the close of World War I, the Navy had recognized their value and was using several blimps for patrolling coastlines for enemy submarines. They proved extremely effective; in fact, no convoy supported by blimp surveillance ever lost a ship.
Between the wars, it was agreed that the Army would use nonrigid airships to patrol the coasts of the United States, while the Navy would use rigid airships (which were aluminum-hulled and kept their shape whether or not they were filled with gas) for long-range scouting and fleet support. The Navy ended its construction and employment of the rigid airships in the 1930s after two, the Akron and the Macon, crashed at sea. In 1937, the Army transferred all its remaining nonrigid blimps to the Navy.
Meanwhile, in the civilian world, the Hindenburg, a commercial dirigible, burst into flames over Lakehurst on May 6, 1937. Thirty-six of the 97 passengers aboard were killed. The explosion was caused by an electric discharge that ignited a hydrogen gas leak; the tragedy effectively ended the use of airships for commercial travel, but they were still used to great advantage in the U.S. military.
At the outbreak of World War II, the Navy had 10 blimps in service; that number expanded to 167 by the end of the war. The only U.S. blimp lost was the K-74, which, on July 18, 1943, spotted a German U-boat. The blimp opened fire on the submarine and damaged it, but only one of its two depth charges released. The submarine fired back and sent the blimp into the sea, but the crew was rescued. The only German blimp involved in the war was a passenger craft, Graf Zeppelin, which was used for electronic surveillance just before the outbreak of the war.