By Eric Barton
The U.S. airship K-74 spotted a dot on its radar just after midnight on July 18, 1943. It was almost certainly a German submarine thousands of miles from home, cutting through the Florida Keys.
The K-74 was one of about 200 zeppelins the U.S. military used to patrol coastlines during World War II. It had arrived days earlier from the Goodyear factory in Ohio. That night it would be one of two blimps patrolling the South Florida coast. They were searching for German subs that had been sinking merchant ships.
Lt. Nelson Grills, the K-74’s pilot, ordered his 10-man crew to battle stations. Built for scouting, Blimps weren’t supposed to start a fight. But there were merchant ships nearby, and Grills figured he had to act.
The moon was half full, and the pilot needed to use it to cover his approach. He angled the blimp to keep the moon in front of him so that they wouldn’t be silhouetted in the sky. He pressed down on the helm, and the 250-foot airship went nose first toward the mysterious ship. The dot on the radar was eight miles out.
There wasn’t much to protect the blimp. It had a .50-caliber machine gun, but the bullets would bounce off the reinforced deck of a German U-boat. Grills also had a .45-caliber handgun under his seat.
Petty Officer Isadore Stessel manned a handle that would release 500-pound bombs. They were set to go off after sinking 50 feet in the water, right where U-boats usually traveled.
Stessel wasn’t supposed to be there that night. Before the blimp set off from its base south of Miami, Stessel had been a last-minute replacement for a regular crewman. The bombs he controlled were the only chance they had to sink a U-boat, so the whole mission now rested on a substitute bombardier.
As the zeppelin dipped down to 250 feet above the calm waters, the crew could see the sub was riding on the surface. Moonlight lit up its wake. Grills told his crew to sit tight. If the vessel ended up being one of theirs, it wouldn’t fire at the passing blimp. If it began shooting, they’d know they were in for a fight.
The crew saw the muzzle flashes before they heard them, bright yellow explosions like blinking lights on the deck of the sub. One struck the K-74’s windshield, others peppered the balloon above them.
It was almost surely a suicide mission now. Blimps had no chance of surviving a fight with a U-boat, which had a pair of anti-aircraft guns on its deck.
The K-74 returned fire from its .50-caliber machine gun. Grills ordered Stessel to begin dropping bombs. But nothing happened.
The petty officer may not have heard the pilot over the blasting machine gun. Grills repeated the order. Drop the bombs, now.
That encounter, at just about midnight off the Florida coast, is the only known battle between a submarine and a zeppelin. It made headlines in papers across the globe, but it was soon just another forgotten battle between two mismatched crews.
Then came Anthony Atwood, a historian and Navy veteran, who earned a Ph.D. in history from FIU in 2012 writing his dissertation on the history of World War II in Florida. When he found out about the battle with the U-boat – and the harrowing and ghastly night the crew spent afterward – he became obsessed.
First, his fixation was to document the battle, to put it down on paper like never before. The forgotten piece of history eventually became his master’s thesis. Then he took inspiration from the fight to do something bigger. It became his starting point for an effort that should’ve been done a long time ago.
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Anthony Atwood looks the part of career Navy. The 53-year-old is stocky, with a mess of gray hair that matches a thick moustache. He speaks like he’s giving an order to a petty officer, with short, declarative sentences that you can hear down the hall.
He joined the Navy after graduating from the University of Miami in 1981, climbed the enlisted ranks to chief yeoman or E7, and then earned a promotion to chief warrant officer, or officer grade. He spent plenty of time at sea and part of his service as a recruiter. “I handed out fliers at airshows,” he likes to say. It’s modesty, considering he also served during Desert Storm on the USS Blue Ridge command ship as it patrolled the Indian Ocean.
He got out in 1998 and entered the Navy Reserves. It wasn’t long until he found what he’d be doing next. He was at a Veteran’s Day event at the Gold Coast Railroad Museum, next door to Zoo Miami southwest of Kendall. He was standing at the edge of the property when a fellow veteran pointed through a chain link fence.
“Wouldn’t that make a great history museum,” the man said.
Atwood considered the fact that there isn’t a museum recognizing the sacrifice of soldiers anywhere in South Florida. “Bottom line, I was called to this project,” Atwood says. “I was motivated to pay it forward for those who didn’t come back.”
Atwood looked out over the weeds poking through an old parking lot. Beyond it was a two-story, colonial-style building that looked ready to collapse. Part of it had been burned off and large sections of the siding were missing.
But the building also had Navy in its DNA, with large columned entranceways and three stately dormers looking out from the roof.
Atwood researched the building and discovered that it had served as the CIA base for training anti-Castro fighters, an Army Reserve center, and a Marine Corps Reserve center. All of that came after its original purpose, as headquarters of Naval Air Station Richmond. During World War II, three colossal hangars stood behind it, each one long enough to hold ten football fields. In them, blimps were prepped for their scouting missions.
So it was right there, where Atwood had been standing that Veteran’s Day, that the K-74 had launched for its night-time patrol.
Atwood formed a nonprofit and began raising funds for a first-ever South Florida military history museum. In 2000, the Florida Legislature gave his organization $41,000 in seed money.
The next year, Atwood enrolled at FIU to get his master’s degree in history, irrevocably intertwining the twin efforts to document one of the war’s forgotten battles and to open a new museum to tell that story and many more from Florida military history.
* * * * *
As the K-74 lumbered its way down to the ocean below, the U-boat’s guns went oddly quiet.
The zeppelin had been spraying the deck with machine gun fire. The airship’s gunner had already gone through an entire belt of ammunition and reloaded the .50-caliber for another volley. And while the U-boat’s hull was thick enough to stop the rounds, there was no protection for the men manning the guns on the deck. It’s likely the K-74 had taken out a couple of them.
As the zeppelin passed directly above the U-boat, Grills shouted again for his replacement bombardier to pull the handle. This time, Stessel heard his pilot. He released one bomb. Then another. Two drum-shaped canisters dropped into the water below and exploded 50 feet down.
The U-boat’s guns opened fire again. They struck the blimp’s engine and sliced through the balloon. Fuel cells came dislodged and dropped to the ocean. The change in weight sent the blimp skyward, straight up. The crew was tossed around the cabin.
They climbed to 2,500 feet before the K-74 had enough. Luckily for the crew, it had enough helium left in the balloon to make a slow, gentle landing on the ocean.
Grills ordered his crew to inflate the life raft. But nobody was holding the rope as they threw it from the cabin; they watched it quickly drift out of reach. They dove into the Florida Straits. Stessel misjudged the jump and gashed his leg on the way out.
Grills placed classified documents into a weighted box and tossed it overboard. Water filled the cabin. He was almost ready to jump when he remembered the gun under his chair. If the U-boat returned, they may need to fight to keep from becoming prisoners of war. He sloshed through the ankle-high water and pulled the .45 from its hiding place.
By the time Grills returned to the door, his crew had floated away. He shouted but heard nothing in response. The airship was sinking, and he could wait no longer. The pilot jumped in. Alone, he decided the only thing he could do was swim to shore.
Islamorada was 25 miles away.
* * * * *
In January 2002, Anthony Atwood found himself in his own little corner of the Caribbean. Just as things had been heating up on his military history museum project, and most of the way through his master’s thesis, the Navy called up the Naval Reservist for full-time duty.
They sent him to Gitmo, that prison on the island of Cuba for the War on Terror’s worst. Atwood, a chief yeoman, patrolled the waters in case al Qaeda decided to come for a rescue mission. “Most of the time, we were just telling French tourists in sailboats to stay away,” he says, that modesty coming through again. “Luckily, al Qaeda never showed up.”
When he returned in October 2002, Atwood went headlong into his master’s thesis. On July 18, 2003, he published An incident at sea: The historic combat between U.S. Navy Blimp K-74 and U-Boat 134. In 130 pages, he documented not only the battle, but the circumstances that led to it and the aftermath.
In 2007, Atwood convinced the Department of Defense to sell the old airbase building next to the zoo for $1. Then he got Miami-Dade County government to chip in $3 million, and the state later added $500,000, part of a Building Better Communities initiative to improve Zoo Miami into a world-class destination. At that point, he was halfway to the $6 million he would need to open the South Florida Military Museum.
“At that point, they were so sick of me coming around asking for money,” Atwood jokes. “They were calling me Mad Mr. Atwood.”
Atwood needed to get the building off U.S. government property. So in 2010, the historic building was fitted with 96 airplane tires. Workers then slowly moved the building a half mile to where it sits now, just next to the train museum on county-owned land. A host of dignitaries were there, including Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart and Miami-Dade Commissioner José “Pepe” Diaz, who helped pull on the ropes. The building is the biggest historic structure ever moved in Florida, Atwood notes. It has become an engineering feat – the largest historic preservation project underway in the state.
Once in place, the work was really just beginning. Atwood needed to have a crew rip out asbestos. The entire interior would need to be gutted. And then every inch of the building would be refurbished.
He also had a big job before he could get the museum opened. He needed to figure out how to raise another $3 million.
* * * * *
While the K-74’s pilot swam to shore, the other nine crewmen held hands so that they wouldn’t drift apart. The flat seas that they had seen when they set out at dusk were being replaced by whitecaps. And among the waves, they spotted dorsal fins.
The blood from Stessel’s wound was likely attracting the sharks. The men had three pocket knives among them, and they pointed the blades out in front of them, even though they knew they would do little to fight off the predators.
At 7:45 in the morning, a Navy seaplane spotted them bobbing in the water. In response, a World War I-era destroyer tied up near Mallory Square in Key West fired up its steam engines. The USS Dahlgren was being used for training exercises. If the U-boat spotted it, the destroyer would have little chance to fight back.
It had taken the zeppelin the entire night to deflate. By about 8 that morning, it finally sunk. When it reached a depth of 50 feet, its final two bombs burst. By then, the men had drifted far enough from the wreckage to avoid the explosions.
It was about then that Stessel lost his grip. He drifted away from the other men. They shouted for him to swim back. But he was pulled under. He surfaced once more before the sharks dragged him down for good.
The rest of them huddled, back to back, clutching the pocket knives.
The Dahlgren reached them at 9:45. They had been in the water for nearly 10 hours. The destroyer’s crew spotted dorsal fins circling. The captain steamed forward, dangerously swamping the sailors in the boat’s wake, chasing off the sharks. The Dahlgren’s crew pulled up some of the men, while another boat nearby saved the others.
Eight of them were safe, but their pilot was still missing.
The Navy diverted a small flotilla in an effort to find Grills, pulling ships from as far as the coast of Cuba. He was spotted just before nightfall, 12 miles from the sight of the crash. He had made it nearly halfway to Islamorada. Sharks had circled him the whole way. His life jacket had cut into him as he swam, causing a severe slash on the back of his neck. He was dazed, sunburned, and dehydrated.
Things didn’t get better for the crew. A naval inquiry stopped short of concluding that Grills erred in attacking the sub, but none of the men were commended for their actions. The report also incorrectly claimed that the crew failed to drop bombs. In the official record, it was as if their attack had done nothing but lead to the destruction of a blimp and the gruesome death of Stessel.
The K-74 finally found deserved credit from an unlikely place. German military records released more than a decade after the war included communications sent from U-boat No. 134. They reported a battle with a zeppelin off the coast of the Florida Keys. The blimp had dropped bombs on the U-boat and caused damage to the sub’s ballast tanks. It was proof that the K-74’s crew had done its job that night by inflicting damage to the U-boat.
Allied ships chased U-boat 134 for the rest of that summer. Nobody can say for sure, but the K-74’s bombs likely weakened the sub. By September 1943, the German Navy declared U-boat 134 missing in action. It was never heard from again.
In 1960, the United States Board for the Correction of Naval Records reopened the inquiry into the battle. The board amended the official record to show that the crew dropped two bombs on the U-boat. The Navy awarded Grills, who had become a lawyer in Indianapolis, a Distinguished Flying Cross. The surviving members of his crew received a Navy Commendation Medal.
But the board overlooked the crew’s substitute bombardier. Stessel, the crewman who had been eaten by sharks, received no credit. After a petition from his cousin, the Navy in 1996 finally awarded Stessel a Purple Heart, the Navy Commendation Medal, the American Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal.
In his thesis, Atwood writes that the battle embodies military sacrifice. “Its crew made a hopeless sacrifice attack, knowing they would go down. What bigger, easier target is there than a blimp at point-blank range? Where less inviting to enter than into mid-ocean at midnight? Still they went into the crucible of combat.”
* * * * *
Atwood stood on the temporary plywood floor of the future 12,000-square foot South Florida Military Museum recently and began an imaginary tour. “You’re standing where a person comes in, and they’re directed right here, into the gift shop,” he said, moving through a two-by-four frame that will one day be a doorway.
Inside, the building was still nothing more than plywood and studs. But outside, workers had reconstructed the intricate wooden entranceways and patched the termite-eaten siding. Signs of the fire were gone, and the asbestos had long ago been removed. Newly installed windows still have tags on them.
He continued through the rooms to come, each dedicated to a war in which South Floridians served.
“This picture,” he said, presenting a portrait in the future Vietnam room, “this is Bruce Carter. He was killed in Vietnam. Fell on a grenade and saved four others. He got the medal of honor.”
Upstairs will be the Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis rooms. Across the hall, Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s those young veterans Atwood thinks about most. “This is for them,” he says again and again.
Atwood always exudes energy, but here, on this virtual tour of his space, is when he truly becomes animated. He gesticulates to the future display cases and offices. He imagines a museum with several staff members, including a professor, a librarian, and a secretary. Maybe they’ll add a post-graduate FIU fellow and a team of interns.
To get there, he’ll need more money.
This year, the Legislature sent Atwood another $1 million. But he’ll still need another $1.4 million to get the doors open. “Where am I going to get that from?” Atwood says. “I don’t know where. I have a lot of things in the fire and a lot of pledges, so we’ll see. We’ll see who comes through.”
He doesn’t worry, though.
“No, I don’t lose sleep,” he says, finishing the tour with a quick dash down the temporary stairwell. “I’ve already died and went to heaven so many times out of worry. So I don’t die anymore.
“It’s a freaking hoot to see this come together.”
Downstairs, Atwood has a makeshift office set up with picture books laid out. They include photos of the building when it served as a headquarters for zeppelins.
When he worries if he’ll have the money to finish construction, Atwood just needs to look at the photos of the airfield that once held the K-74 and imagine when it set off on its final flight.
After all, Atwood did all of this for guys like Grills, who swam 12 miles in shark-infested waters. And Stessel, that backup bombardier who never returned from the ocean.
That memory is enough to keep Mad Dr. Atwood going. ♦