Fortress Catalina: Naval airship crash worst on Catalina

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A crew hard at work on a K-class blimp is shown in this informational leaflet that welcomes recruits to the U.S. Navy’s airship service during World War II. Airship K-111, similar to the one shown here, crashed on Catalina Island in 1944, resulting in the deaths of seven of the 10 crew members. Courtesy photo

The Coronavirus has plunged Catalina Island into a crisis not seen since World War II. Much like today, the island underwent dramatic changes for those who live here, almost overnight. To recall those days, the Catalina Islander is reprinting the series “Fortress Catalina: The Island at War.” The following article is from the book “Mysterious Island: Catalina.”

From the dusty, formerly Top-Secret files of Catalina’s wartime years 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 eyewitness 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 land. Others, including those who joined the military, simply had to leave their island home and hope they could return 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 1,500 feet. The crew still believed they were over open ocean.

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 1990s, 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, they had all survived the crash, but had the made the fatal mistake of sticking around the wreck 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 local islanders and merchant marine trainees 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 Catalina’s deadliest aviation disaster.

Next Week: The War Is Over

Fortress Catalina: Naval airship crash worst on Catalina