Tag Archives: United States Navy

A Seasoned Salt: Part 3

At the end of the war with England, John Paul found himself a naval officer without a ship. The Congress decided the country did not need naval ships in peace time. This was when John Paul accepted a commission as an admiral in the Russian Navy, on the condition that he was allowed to keep his US citizenship and position in the United States Navy.

In the Russian Navy John Paul was made an admiral and was quite successful against the Turks in the Black Sea. Successful enough that several officers spent more time trying to destroy John Paul than they did the Turks. They were partially successful in that John Paul was recalled to Moscow and faced charges of rape, but the charges were eventually dropped. He was awarded the Order of St. Anne, and left a month later an embittered man.

John Paul returned to Paris, where he lived out the rest of his life. On his death his body was escorted by a small group of servants, friends, and family to a small cemetery used by the French royal family. Over the years the cemetery was sold and used for a variety of purposes.

One hundred fifteen years later the United States Ambassador to France made it a one-man mission to find the grave of John Paul. After six months of dedicated work he was successful. The body of John Paul was sent back to the United States aboard the USS Brooklyn, three other United States cruisers and a squadron of French Naval vessels. On approaching the coastline of the United States the fleet was joined by seven battleships of the United States Navy. The body was temporarily interred at Bancroft Hall at the United States Naval Academy until his permanent tomb could be finished. In 1913, his body was interred in its final resting place at the Naval Academy Chapel in a vault under the altar.

The name that John Paul chose when he left British service was Jones. And that is the name by which he is known in the United States, John Paul Jones, the father of the United States Navy. His ship the Poor Richard, you have probably her of his ship under its French name, the Bonhomme Richard.

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USS Shenandoah ZR-1, The First American Made Rigid Airship

USS Shenandoah

USS Shenandoah (Photo credit: San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives)

The USS Shenandoah ZR-1 was an amazing airship, for many reasons. First, the Shenandoah was the first rigid airship built by the United States (being the first had many implications throughout the short life of the Shenandoah). ZR-1, built in 1922-23, was 680 feet long, almost 79 feet wide and 93 feet high, speed of 69 miles an hour and a range of 5,000 statute (land) miles. It was quite literally as large as or larger than many ocean-going ships of its day and) today. All four of the United State built airships were built at the Naval Air Station Lakehurst (this is where the Hindenburg disaster happened).

USS Shenandoah (ZR-1), United States Navy rigi...

USS Shenandoah (ZR-1), United States Navy rigid airship (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The design (as all non-German built airships were) was based on the design of the German airships of World War 1, in this case, German bomber L-49 built in 1917. Though a fast climber, the Germans found the design lacking and made improvements in later designs. The Shenandoah was also the first rigid airship to use the safe helium, rather than the volatile hydrogen for its lift gas. Helium at the time was expensive, $55 per thousand cubic feet (more than $11,000 to fully inflate ZR-1), in 1923 dollars.

Due to this high cost helium was considered too expensive to vent to the atmosphere to keep the airship at neutral buoyancy. An ingenious design to capture condensation from the engine exhaust compensated for consumed fuel. Then, the airships vents were sealed making them inoperable, this would have disastrous consequences only one year later.

ZR-1's bow following the January storm.

ZR-1’s bow following the January storm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shenandoah flew for the first time on 4 September 1923, and was officially commissioned into the United States Navy on 10 October 1923. The airship passed builder’s trials with flying colors (no pun intended). To celebrate Navy Day, on 27 October the Shenandoah flew down the Shenandoah Valley and returned to Lakehurst that night by way of Washington DC and Baltimore, where search lights illuminated the giant airships for crowds in both cities.

Admiral Moffett had big plans for naval airships and had the full backing of President Coolidge. In January 1924, the upper tailfin of the Shenandoah was damaged when a gale ripped the airship from its mooring mast, also damaging the nose of the airship.

Though the year got off to a bad start, Shenandoah made many milestones. In July the oiler Patoka was converted to the navy’s first airship tender. On 8 August, the Shenandoah moored to the Patoka for the first time. Then the airship flew across the country to test mooring masts in California and Washington State, this was the first flight of a rigid airship across the North American continent.

Bundesarchiv Bild 102-00828, Lakehurst, Luftsc...

Bundesarchiv Bild 102-00828, Lakehurst, Luftschiffe ZR-3 und ZR-1 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first six months of 1925, the Shenandoah went through maintenance and ground testing. In July and August, the airship completed fleet exercises with the Atlantic Fleet and tests with the Patoka (it was towed while moored to the Patoka).

On 2 September, the Shenandoah left Lakehurst for a good will tour of the Midwest. Commander Lansdowne, the commanding officer, wanted this flight postponed due to weather. However, the navy was determined for the trip to go on. On the morning of the third the Shenandoah was near Caldwell, Ohio when it was caught in a violent updraft in a storm. With the air vents sealed the crew could not vent the helium as it rapidly expanded with the rapidly climbing airship. Fourteen men died including Commander Lansdowne. Twenty-nine of the Shenandoah’s crew floated down in the three sections of the destroyed airship onto farmlands of southeastern Ohio. All three of the crash sites are visible though one is on private land and closed to the public. Colonel Billy Mitchell criticized Army and Navy leadership for putting publicity above safety and was court-martialed for insubordination, ending his career.

USS Shenandoah moored to the USS Patoka (AO-9).

USS Shenandoah moored to the USS Patoka (AO-9). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many changes were made after the loss of the Shenandoah was would be after the loss of the USS Thresher 38 years later. The gondola was made a part of the airship keel instead of hanging from the airship on cables, the hulls were strengthened, and engine power was increased; the one improvement that may have saved the Shenandoah was the increased attention paid to weather forecasting.

There are plaques at the three crash sites near Ava, Ohio commemorating the Shenandoah. Bryan and Theresa Rayner share their private collection at the USS Shenandoah Museum, call ahead to see when the museum will be open (740-732-2624). Click on this web address to read about the Rayner’s museum, get directions, and learn more about the Shenandoah disaster.

Fabric from the airship USS Shenandoah, recove...

Fabric from the airship USS Shenandoah, recovered from the crash site. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



The front section of the wreck of the USS Shen...

The front section of the wreck of the USS Shenandoah, from gelatin silver print by R.S. Clements. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The bow section of Shenandoah after the crash

The bow section of Shenandoah after the crash (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The aft section of the wrecked U.S. Navy airsh...

The aft section of the wrecked U.S. Navy airship USS Shenandoah (ZR-1) near Cladwell, Ohio (USA), in September 1925. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


I have been planning this article for some time, and originally intended to include photographs from my trip to Ava, Ohio. Due to a rather interesting if unpredictable (to me at least) summer I have not been able to make the trip to Ava. However, when I do I will update this article with photographs and a report on the USS Shenandoah Museum. My next airship article will be the last in this summer’s airship series. I hope you have enjoyed it as much as I have. I find these elegant ladies of the sky to be truly marvelous, and find it odd that they are not utilized in our modern times when their fuel efficiency, cargo capacity, and speed are so needed. But, we will leave that part of my argument for the end of the last article in the series.


Take care and have a blessed weekend.

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A Summer of Airships

A U.S. Navy airship, either USS Akron (ZRS-4) ...

A U.S. Navy airship, either USS Akron (ZRS-4) or USS Macon (ZRS-5), over Puget Sound, Washington (USA). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This summer, along with the normal mix of articles, I will being writing a series of articles on Airships. Airships have an “air” of romance and adventure, and have made appearances in many movies such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (where Indiana and his dad rode the Hindenburg). We will not be visiting movie sets, but we will have a chance to learn more about these glamorous airships.

N class blimp

N class blimp (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Among some of the airships we’ll discuss this summer are the Graf Zeppelin, sister ship to the Hindenburg. The Shenandoah, Macon, Akron, and L-8.

The U.S. Navy blimp L-8 over the aircraft carr...

The U.S. Navy blimp L-8 over the aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-8) at the beginning of the “Doolittle Raid” in April 1942. Note the USAAF North American B-25 Mitchell bomber on Hornet´s deck. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

L-8 is an interesting airship with a mysterious ending. Originally a commercial blimp built and operated by the Goodyear company. L-8 was taken over by the United States Navy during World War Two. The airship was assigned to perform anti-submarine patrols on the west coast of the United States and was stationed at Treasure Island in the center of San Francisco Bay.

August 16, 1942 was just another summer day in sunny California. The early morning fog left a covering of dew on the cloth skin of L-8, adding weight to the airship. Due to the extra weight the normal crew of three was cut to two, Machinists Mate Third Class James Hill was left behind.

Lt. Cody, the pilot, and Ensign Adams were both experience airship men. Ensign Adams had 20 years of experience with airships as an enlisted man before receiving his commission. The two men left Treasure Island  about six in the morning.

A little over an hour and a half later, Lt. Cody radioed in they had discovered an oil slick and were going to investigate. The men were never heard from again. Five hours after L-8 left Treasure Island, the blimp was spotted heading inland over a local beach. The blimp crashed in front of a house owned by volunteer firemen William Morris. Bill was the first man on the scene. When he arrived at the gondola to rescue the crew, he found the door tied open and no one onboard the airship. The mystery of what happened to the crew was never solved and one year later they were declared dead.

In the weeks to come I will tell you more about L-8 and a fleet of other airships.

An inside view of one of the massive blimp han...

An inside view of one of the massive blimp hangars at the former Marine Corps Air Station in Tustin, CA. Source: USMCAS Tustin archives.The structures appear in the National Register of Historic Places as #NPS-#75000451. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Oh, and there are engineers and businessmen hard at work on a comeback for airships. Nothing like the Hindenburg, but there are many useful purposes for airships today.

The gondola of an airship.

The gondola of an airship. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


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The Mariner

Oct. 1980, first official navy photograph.

Oct. 1980, first official navy photograph.

I wrote this years ago, at a time when if someone would have suggested that I would be a writer I would have scoffed at them. Looking back I have always been writing, but never considered myself a writer. Unfortunately, I have almost nothing of my earlier work. So here is one of the few. I also have an article about the newlywed couples on the Titanic that I will be sharing soon.

I was thinking today of my last voyage at sea. It was a night trip from Puerto Rico to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands; we left in the late afternoon. Since it was a short trip, our Captain decided to make it on the surface. I was the sonar supervisor until 6 pm. I got off watch, checked the after watch clean-up of my sonar men, reported the clean-up done to the off-going chief of the watch, and ate dinner. Afterwards, while the evening movie was playing on the mess deck (only a couple of men were watching the movie), I packed the few things I had left. My last night as a submarine sailor, a job I loved; this job, this world, this life was all I knew. I wandered the submarine; this was my last night at sea — ever.

I ended up in the control room just as they were changing the lookout up on top of the sail (conning tower). I was still a qualified lookout, though I had not stood the watch since I qualified as a sonar supervisor. I volunteered to go up. The chief of the watch passed the word to the bridge on top of the sail.

Petty officer Combs to the bridge to relieve the lookout,” said the chief.

Coming up through the hatch into the Caribbean night sky was awesome. My soul has always been at peace, at sea, surrounded by the ocean. The sonar division officer was the officer of the deck.

“Are you sure you want to give this up?” he asked scanning the horizon with his outstretched arm.

No, I did not want to give this up, but “this” did not happen often enough. A submariner’s life is spent below the surface of the ocean, in darkness. His world illuminated by red lights and the glow of electronic equipment.

The first night on a voyage is unique, though this was more than first night. First night, men not on watch go to their bunks, it has been a long hard day. The normal routines of a ship at sea are not part of that first night. Those men on watch are exhausted from the day’s work of preparing a submarine to go to sea, and then taking that submarine to sea. The usual banter between the men on watch is absent that first night. Only the whir of electronic equipment fills the air with sound.

Words are inadequate to describe being at sea with a deck under your feet. There you are alone in your thoughts, you and the sea. Your family, friends, and responsibilities back on shore still exist, but they might as well be on Pluto. You cannot affect them, even if you wanted too. Quite literally all of your problems are behind you. That great equalizer, the sea, is spread out as far as the eye can see before you. No privileges, no obstacles. You stand there on deck feeling the sway of the ocean and the vibrations of the ship. All is as it should be, all is at peace. The sea is constant and plays no favorites.

If Jesus was a carpenter … God was a mariner.

My commanding officer Commander (later Admiral) Frank "Skip" Bowman just pinned the Submarine Warfare pin on my chest. Standing behind me is my first sonar chief Lee Goodyear.

My commanding officer Commander (later Admiral) Frank “Skip” Bowman just pinned the Submarine Warfare pin on my chest. Standing behind me is my first sonar chief Lee Goodyear.


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Speaking of Small Submarines

All of this research on small submarines got me to thinking about photos of my daughter and me in small submarines. When she said she wanted to be a submariner when she got bigger that made me worry (she still says this).

Elizabeth & Joe Combs in an Office of Naval Research (O.N.R.) submarine, April 2008.

Then she said she didn’t want to be in the big black submarines like papa she wants to be in the small research submarines. Now I’m breathing again. HaHaHa

I hope you enjoy my article on our other small submarine, Dr. E. Lee Spence’s Hunley. This week’s article will be published tonight at midnight New York time.

The last article in the Hunley series will be next weekend, Spence VS Cussler: Who Found the Hunley?

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