SMITH, Thomas

From Islapedia
K111 Blimp crashed on Santa Catalina Island in 1944

SMITH, Thomas Russel (1919-1944), one of six killed in the crash of a Goodyear blimp on Santa Catalina Island on October 17, 1944. He was 25 years old.


In the News~

October 17, 1944: “Another notable accident at Catalina Island during World War II involved the loss of a U.S. Navy airship, a Goodyear K-series Blimp, assigned to an antisubmarine warfare patrol on October 17, 1944. Most K-series airships were powered by two Pratt & Whitney R-1340-AN-2 engines, which provide a top speed of seventy-five miles per hour. The K-series Blimps had crews of three officers and six enlisted ratings. The K-111 could be armed with four depth charges and one flex-mounted Browning .50-inch machine gun. The K-111 had a range of two thousand miles while cruising fully loaded at forty-six miles per hour. The 10:00 p.m. departure of the K-111 on October 17, 1944, from the Naval Auxiliary Air Facility at Del Mar in San Diego County was to begin a twenty-two-hour operational training and patrol mission that would take the K-111 northwest to Newport Beach in Orange County and then on a course to the east end of Santa Catalina Island. From there, the K-111 was to fly south to a point near Scammon's Lagoon in Mexico's Baja California del Norte and then fly back to Del Mar. Dense stratus clouds and fog obscured the Southern California coastline, and the K-111 flew farther north than intended until it finally turned and headed toward Catalina Island. Although the K-111 was radar equipped and the navigator could see the island on his scope, the pilot officer did not change his course. Instead, he ordered the second pilot to climb to 1,500 feet, but the K-111 struck a mountain ridgeline west of Avalon at 11:30 p.m., killing five crewmen and critically injuring three others, one of whom would die the following day.nTwo other cfewmen received only minor injuries.” [G. Pat Macha. Historic Aircraft Wrecks of Los Angeles County (2014) p. 51-52]

October 19, 1944 [TI/Avalon]: “Five men were burned to death and five of the crew were seriously burned or injured when the U.S. Navy Blimp on a routine patrol crashed into the hillside at the south end of Avalon canyon at 11 P.M. Tuesday. The blimp was a total loss. So fierce was the fire after the crash that the surrounding ridge 1600 feet above sea level and three miles southeast of Avalon, was illuminated, despite the fog, for more than two hours. The fire burned about one acre of brush, stopping at the firebreak on top of the ridge. Several depth bombs carried by the blimp, exploded. With pack horses and stretchers rescue crews worked all night to bring out the injured and the dead. The injured ones were cared for at the U.S. Maritime hospital. The unidentified bodies were taken on board a navy patrol boat and back to the base at Santa Ana. It is understood that the blimp was making a night training flight and that shortly before the crash the craft had passed over the island, circled, and the navigator had set the course for the trip back to the mainland. According to the rescue workers the blimp struck the island about 100 feet from the top of the ridge. The debris was hurled far and wide and much of it landed in the bottom of the canyon some 600 feet deep. Until the cause of the catastrophe can be investigated and the nearest of kin notified strict censorship has been maintained by the Navy Department. The U.S Maritime Service, the Avalon Police and the Avalon Branch of the County Forestry Department, were highly complimented for their cooperation and helpfulness, by the U.S. Navy officers that came to Avalon by speed boat from the Santa Ana base.”

August 5, 2011 [TI/Avalon]: “From the dusty formerly Top Secret files of Catalina's "wartime mysteries" comes one of the more tragic events to occur on the Island, along with the mystery that still surrounds it. As is often the case with military operations gone wrong, official versions can curiously differ from the eye-witness accounts of those who found themselves unfortunate participants. Such was the case with the wreck of U.S. Navy airship K-111 in 1944; an event which claimed the lives of seven [?] Navy airmen and remains to this day the worst aviation disaster in Catalina's history. For most Islander's living on the island during the second World War, the war years were at once both dark and yet at the same time filled with a spirit of camaraderie and shared sacrifice. Within weeks of the attack on Pearl Harbor, tourism to the Island was cut off completely, leaving most residents to fend for themselves and to quite literally live off the island. Others, including those who joined the military simply had to leave their island home and hope they could return when one day when the lights went on again all over the world. Japanese submarines patrolled the waters around the island and had some success in sinking or disabling a number of U.S. merchant ships in the area. With most of the U.S. fighter planes needed in the battle arenas of Europe and the Pacific, the Navy had employed the use of dirigible airships, or blimps, to unceasingly patrol the waters of the west coast as far south as Scammon's Lagoon in Baja California. On the evening of October 17, 1944, airship K-111 was on routine patrol in search of enemy submarines. Due to a navigation error, the blimp found itself passing directly over a blacked-out Avalon at an altitude of under 1500 feet. According to the official Navy version, the navigation problem was further aggravated by foggy conditions. The result was the airship's collision with the ground near East Peak, and its "immediate explosion," according to the Navy. But in the early 1900s, then Catalina Island Museum curator Patricia Moore conducted an interview with the last survivor of the crash, Machinists Mate Ernst Jarke of Nebraska. Jarke had made it a point to make one last pilgrimage to the Island to pay his respects to his fallen shipmates before he himself passed on. In the interview, which survives on cassette tape in the museum's oral history collection, Jarke recalls that the night was a clear, starry one — not the foggy one in the official Navy report. Also, according to Jarke, the ship did not explode on impact. In fact, the airship came to a slow, screeching halt after first brushing through the trees. The collision was enough to tear off the ship's port engine, but did not cause an immediate explosion as the Navy report asserts. After the first scrape, the crew jumped safely from the ship's gondola and all reconnoitered at the top of the hill where the disabled ship lay. It was only when they were all milling about the wreck that the fuel tanks exploded. In other words, contrary to the official Navy version, they all had survived the crash, but had made the fatal mistake of sticking around too long. Jarke and his shipmates all fled for their lives. Some were killed instantly, including Captain Thomas Ralston who was incinerated before Jarke's eyes. Although engulfed in flames himself, Jarke managed to escape by running along a goat trail. A number of merchant marines from Avalon raced to the scene and loaded the survivors — including Jarke — into pick-up trucks to be taken to the infirmary in Avalon. Jarke spent the next eight months in the Avalon infirmary recovering from his burns, but by the end of the war he was back flying in the airship service. He passed away in 2003 at the age of 86 — the last survivor of one of Catalina's most tragic episodes.”