Thursday, November 7, 8 PM     UNCTV
Our State presents a segment on the WW II Naval Air Station Weeksville, near Elizabeth City, NC
A local architect played a role in one of the most effective World War II ventures


In 1940, with German U-boats in command of the North Atlantic, the U. S. Navy realized how unprepared they were to combat this relatively new and efficient weapon. The best way to spot a submarine was from the air. The Navy had some long range patrol aircraft, but the best sub spotters were blimps, which could linger over a suspicious spot in the ocean for as long as needed.

May 9, 1936, Lakehurst, NJ. The Zeppelin LZ 129 Hindenburg at left, escorted by a USCG Douglas RD-4 seaplane. Navy airship ZR-3 USS Los Angeles at right. A year later, the Hindenburg burned at Lakehurst, killing 36 people.

At the time, the Navy had only one place in the world to base such aircraft…the Naval Air Station Lakehurst, in New Jersey. Since blimps fly at very slow speeds, Lakehurst could not be the watchdog for the entire East Coast, much less the rest of the nation. So a series of eight blimp bases was planned, stretching from Boston to Florida to San Francisco and Puget Sound.

Local architect Luther Lashmit joined a group of architects and engineers to serve as the design team for the gigantic hangars. Lashmit was already well known for such masterpieces as Graylyn and Merry Acres (Dick and Blitz Reynolds’ house off Robinhood Road, often referred to as “The Ship”).


“Merry Acres”, home of Dick & Blitz Reynolds, 1940


Luther Lashmit explained over and over again why Graylyn should be called “French eclectic” instead of “Norman Revival”, but almost no one was listening…maybe we will do a post on that later.

“But I hadn’t done much industrial work,” he once told me. “I guess they figured that since nobody outside of Germany knew the first thing about designing a blimp hangar, let’s just hire people with a lot of imagination. Of course, we took a look at Lakehurst and the Goodyear facility in Akron, but they were old and had been bypassed by technology. So we just made it up as we went. Most fun I ever had.”

In September, 1941, work began on the first of the new facilities, Naval Air Station South Weymouth, near Boston. Work on the Naval Air Station Weeksville, near Elizabeth City, NC, began the following month. It would be the first completed.

The original steel hangar was designed to hold up to nine blimps, but it quickly became apparent that more were needed, so a second hangar, this one constructed of wood because of wartime steel shortages, was begun. They were built by the J.A. Jones Construction Company of Charlotte, NC. Jones would later become famous as a part of the company that built virtually every military structure in Viet Nam, RMK-BRJ (Raymond International, Morrison Knudson-Brown & Root, J.A. Jones). That company eventually morphed into Halliburton.


NAS Weeksville, 1944. The steel hangar #1 is near the center. The wooden hangar #2 is at upper left. The circular areas were used to moor blimps outdoors.


The massive clamshell doors at Weeksville steel hangar #1


Powerful motors running on rails were used to open and close the clamshell doors

By the time Weeksville opened in the spring of 1942, German subs were on a rampage, sinking about a ship a day off the Carolina coast. Weeksville opened on April 1, 1942. Over the next three days, U-boats sank two cargo ships and a tanker off Hatteras and another tanker near Caffey’s Inlet. But on April 14, less than two weeks after the base opened, they bagged their first German sub, U-85, off Nags Head.

They got another, U-352, three weeks later, and a third, U-701, on July 7. By then, the German’s kill rate was down to about two per week.

The blimps were armed with four depth charges and a .50 caliber machine gun, but rarely directly attacked a U-boat.  Their main purpose was to direct Navy and Coast guard vessels to the scene. Within months of Weeksville’s opening, the U-boat kill rate had dropped to one ship in every 2 1/2 months. In 1943, they sank only three ships all year, and in 1944, none.


Sailors arm a K-class blimp at Weeksville. For the stirring story of the only blimp shot down by a U-boat, go here:

By then, the fiercest U-boat action had shifted to the mouth of the Mediterranean at Gibraltar. ZP-14, a squadron formerly stationed at Weeksville, was dispatchhed to the area. On June 1, 1944, they arrived at Port Lyautey, French Morocco, thus completing the first crossing of the Atlantic by non-rigid airships.


Weeksville continued to operate after the war ended, finally being decommissioned in 1957. The hangars have been used for a variety of purposes since then. In 1995, while its doors were being refurbished, the wooden hangar burned to the ground. The original steel hangar is still standing, the only one left from the 1942 project. Next time you are in the area, swing by and check it out…well worth the effort.

If you want to know more about Weeksville, just Google “Weeksville Naval Air Station”. There is a lot out there on the subject.

One of the best sources is a site that is clearly a labor of love:  While you are there look around for other abandoned or little-known aviation facilities in your neighborhood.


A note on shipwreck maps

Over the years, hundreds of maps have been compiled showing shipwrecks along the Outer Banks coast. It is unlikely that there will ever be one that shows every wreck.

But there is one, compiled in the 1970s by National Geographic, which shows at least one wreck that is not there…Tiger, the command ship of Sir Walter Raleigh’s second Roanoke expedition in 1585.

Tiger, one of Queen Elizabeth’s personal ships, carrying supplies and expedition leader Richard Grenville, ran aground on June 29, 1585 in Ocracoke Inlet. After about 2 hours, she was refloated, but most of her cargo was destroyed by water damage. She was recaulked and rejoined Grenville’s little fleet in late July.


This ship, from one of John White’s paintings, is thought to be Queen Elizabeth’s “Tiger”

According to a journal maintained by one of the crew, on July 31, Tiger sailed for England. Within hours, she came upon the Santa Maria, a Spanish merchant flagship. After a brief struggle, she captured the Spanish ship and took her back to England as a prize. There is later evidence that Tiger participated in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Not bad work for a shipwreck.


This map shows some of the diveable wrecks of ships sunk off Cape Lookout in 1942-43. The area to the north, including Ocracoke, Hatteras and Nags Head, saw the worst of the action. If you are interested in diving on WW II wrecks, just Google “wreck diving nc coast” and take your pick of tours.

On May 9, 1942, the German submarine U-352 made a mistake. Thinking that they had sighted a merchant vessel, they launched two torpedoes, both of which missed. The intended target, USCG cutter Icarus, turned and ran directly at the U-352, dropping depth charges, which sank the sub, killing 15 crew members.


USCG cutter Icarus arrives at Navy Yard Charleston with 33 rescued German sailors from U-352 on board, May, 1942

But Icarus’ crew was able to rescue 33 German sailors, who were taken to Charleston and interned for the war.


Sailors watch as the crew of U-352, escorted by US Marines, but under the command of their own officers, march from the Icarus to the Charleston Navy Yard mess hall for their first of many meals on American soil.

You can see more pictures of the U-352 crew here:

And don’t forget to tune in to UNCTV at 8 PM on Thursday, November 7, 2013.