Eyes of the Fleet

Eyes of the Fleet

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

History mystery: Submarine downs airship

Small item found here:
1943 - German submarine shoots down K-47, the only U.S. airship lost during WW II.
Actually, the Navy historians have it wrong - it was the K-74 that was shot down. There's more to the tale, as set out here:
People who served in LTA rightfully boast of their aircraft's dependability. Airships assigned to fleet units were 87 percent available "on line" at all times. 35,6000 operational flights were made in the Atlantic and 20,300 in the Pacific, for a total of 5550,000 hours in the air escorting 89,000 ships loads with troops, equipment and supplies. Additional hours were flown by utility squadrons using K-ships and G-ships providing photographic calibration and torpedo recovery services.

LTA records reflect only one airship lost through enemy action. This loss was the night of 18 July 1943 when K-74 was advised that no enemy sub was in her assigned patrol area. However, K-74 detected a sub by radar and engaged it on the surface in the Caribbean. A gun duel briefly silenced the German fire, but the airship's bombs failed to release while over the U-boat, where upon she was brought down by the submarine's gunfire. K-74 floated for hours and all the crew but one were picked up the next day.
The one crewman who didn't return was Isadore Stessel, who has a web page devoted to his memory here:
Isadore Stessel, bombardier on a Navy Blimp K-74, died at sea near the Florida Keys on 1943 - his life the only one lost in a fight with a German submarine that shot the airship down.

54 years later, Isadore Stessel's cousin received the medals Isadore earned:

* Purple Heart for dying in action while engaging hostile enemy
* Navy Commendation
* American Campaign
* WW - II Victory Medal for the long-unknown defeat of the enemy.

The medals were presented at a ceremony as part of Armed Forces Day & National Heritage Preservation Day at the site of the former Richmond Naval Air Station in South Dade County. It was the base for blimps that patrolled the Florida coast during WW-II, looking for enemy submarines and escorting merchant ship convoys.

The purple heart was apparently mailed to Isadore's parents in 1944 but was never delivered. All the information the Stessel's received was a telegram reporting his death, plus the particularly terrible detail that he had survived the downing of the blimp only to be killed by a shark. His remains were not recovered. He was 28 years old, the son of Sam & Rose Stessel.

There were 11 men aboard the blimp, a 250 foot K-74 escorting a convoy of merchant ships past the Keys. Near midnight on July 18, they detected a submarine on the surface, following a tanker ship and a freighter. Not sure if the sub was friend or foe., they decided to fly in low over it. If it fired at them, they would know. A deck gunner on the sub opened fire. The blimp's machine gunner fired back. Stessel, a petty officer second class turned loose two depth charges, ashcan like bombs designed to shatter submerged submarines. The enemy sub escaped only to be sunk a few days later by the British. The K-74 damaged the sub's ballast tanks badly enough that the sub could not submerge, there were no survivors from the sub. The tanker and the freighter were unscathed. The blimp deflated and fell onto the ocean. All the crew but Stessel were rescued.
Painting of the action from that site.

Some more on the "K-ships" here with some interesting photos. Wikipedia entry here. More here at the Naval Airship Association, from which the "escort" photo was liberated.

Offer up a salute to the memory of Petty Officer Stessel!

1 comment:

  1. Officer Stessel was the brother of my mother, Dorothea Stessel. Growing up, I was vaguely aware that he had existed; I do have a memory of seeing a framed medal on the wall of my grandparents’ apartment. However, neither my grandparents, Rose and Sam Stessel, nor my mother, ever spoke of him. Not a word, not once. Whether this was because it was too painful a subject for them to discuss, I was too young at the time to appreciate. While, as mentioned, I was aware of him, it was only recently that by chance I learned of the manner of his demise; that after the blimp settled into the water he was attached and killed by a shark. (Somewhat ironic, as I have been a diver for over 30 years). More importantly, several articles mentioned that sometime between 40 and 54 years after his death his relatives received his medal posthumously. This was news to me that I have relatives out there. Sam Stessel died in approx. 1962. My mother died in 1964 and Rose Stessel in approx. 1970, all long before the medal was awarded. In apparently what was a consistent pattern among those members of my family, there was no mention of other relatives; and I continue to wonder who and where they are.