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History Professor used to be lighter than air

By David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life

When you meet Dr. Arthur Dudden, former chair of Bryn Mawr College’s history department you see a man whose friendly demeanor probably made him a hit with his students, breathing life into his history courses.

Look a bit deeper into his past and you find a Fulbright Scholar who authored or edited
15 books and countless articles, who could be found in at least four different “Who’s Who” books, who has a signed and inscribed photo of President Ford and a cartoon of himself by famed political cartoonist Oliphant. These honors came from his recognition as an expert on American history and the history of political humor.

Today, retired after 42 years at Bryn Mawr he is busy preparing a second edition of a book on American influence in the Pacific region. “It’s about time I did this book still has the Soviet Union in it,” he says.

But dig down one more layer and you find a man who used to fly at 50 feet over the Straits of Gibraltar in the pitch black of night looking for German submarines trying to run through the straits. That’s because this distinguished scholar spent WWII as a crewmember on Navy blimps.

“I was born in Cleveland and raised in Detroit. Having turned 20, I enlisted in the Navy in Sept. 1942” he says. “I became an Aviation Machinists’ Mate and was assigned to a lighter-than-air squadron. I ended up as an Aviation Machinists’ Mate First class.”

Blimps, as they were called by the people who crewed them, were used for patrolling, anti-submarine warfare and escorting convoys and ships. They differed from the earlier dirigibles that had been used to bomb London in WWI and then as luxurious passenger vessels plying the Atlantic between the war.

These were rigid-framed airships, constructed of aluminum and sent aloft by bags of hydrogen. Unfortunately, hydrogen is extraordinarily explosive, and the world-famous images of the German dirigible von Hindenburg exploding at Lakehurst Naval Air Station, New Jersey pretty much stifled enthusiasm for commercial passenger service.

But blimps were different. Their shape was created by gas, there was no solid structure above the crew car. Within the bag there were two airbags, one in front and one at the rear which gave the blimp its shape and also were used to angle the nose down or up by pumping air in and out of the two bags.

In between were the means of being lighter than air, bags of helium.
Helium’s biggest advantage is that it’s safe it won’t explode. Before and during the war there was another advantage, the U.S. had a virtual monopoly on commercial volumes of the gas. Recognizing its strategic as well as propagandistic value, American refused to sell it to the Germans, forcing them to continue using the deadly hydrogen.

So the navy created lighter-than-air squadrons and fitted them out with blimps. Dudden flew on a ZNP-K, which in English instead of Navy jargon mean it was a lighter than air (Z), non rigid (N), patrol (P) model K airship. Everybody called them King ships, because in the phonetic alphabet used for radio transmissions at the time “king” was used for “k.”

The king ships stretched nearly a city block long when inflated and the three production King models sizes were 416,000, 425,000 and 456,000 cubic feet of volume. Deflated the bag would fit in a shipping box 12 feet by six feet by six feet although it weighted five tons.

When inflated, the problem was staying on top of the constant expansion and contraction fo the air and helium in the bags. Every change of temperature, barometric pressure or altitude changed the equation of how much the helium bags lifted. So gas was constantly being pumped in and out of the air bags, because helium was a strategic material, rare and expensive. “It would have been a pilot’s career to vent a lot of helium unless it was a catastrophic emergency,” Dudden says.

For Dudden, his work environment was the 42-ft.-long car. It was built like a race car, with chrome-steel tubing creating the frame and then covered with light-weight aluminum panels. Inside the nine-ft.-wide and 14-ft.-high car were crew stations, chairs and cots for off-duty or additional crew, a wash basin and toilet and a single parachute.

This wasn’t a first-come, first-served safety device, it was so if necessary one man could parachute to the ground to become an emergency landing party. The crew didn’t wear parachutes because airships crashed rather gently compared to an aircraft and often flew as such a low altitudes that the parachutes would have been more dangerous. There was a life raft, and each man wore a life vest when flying over water.

Dudden was the senior of two machinists in the crew and sate on the port side of the car. His station included the throttle, fuel mixture controls as well as instruments to monitor the engine’s performance. “Often when we were flying a long mission others would help out with flying the airship. There were two pilots, the co-pilot controlling the course and heading movement sat on the right and the pilot on the left controlled the altitude. In front of them was a plexiglass panels allowing them a 180-degree view, as well as the ability to see directly underneath them essential for landing. Controlling the altitude was very difficult, but we could handle turning the airship,” he says.

Dudden began his lighter-than-air career after completing basic training in the fall of 1942. He was assigned to South Weymouth, Mass. In the Z(lighter-than-air)P(patrol)-11 squadron. “Our mission was to fly patrols and escort convoys,” he says. “We often went as far as Nova Scotia with them, or went out to meet one coming west.”

German submarines would lie in wait for the convoys. Early in the war they hunted in packs, and sunk scores of ship in each convoy. This was the Battle of the Atlantic, and if the convoys didn’t supply England the Allies would be starved into submission. “You never know what you’d see when the sun came up. Once we saw a battered British aircraft carrier that didn’t look like it could possibly operate, but it was,” he says.

There was a personal note to aircraft carriers, as well. The Intrepid, now a floating museum in New York City was built in the Boston yards, and they were assigned to escort it during sea trials a hazardous time with a new ship, new crew. “My brother-in-law was assigned to the Intrepid after being on the Nevada during the attack on Pearl Harbor. So he was on the ship as it steamed up and down the coast for its sea trials, and I was overhead, making sure nobody sunk it,” he says. Being sunk once is enough for any sailor.

In another one of those fateful meeting, his crew was sent out to escort the Queen Mary, which was sailing alone, depending on its speed for safety. “We were flying into quite a headwind, and since a blimp only makes about 60 kts., rather than escorting her we were desperately trying to keep up with her. It became quite a race,” he says.

In 1959 he sailed on the Queen Mary on his way to a year in Denmark on a Fulbright Scholarship. “My daughter was about eight at the time and I remember playing shuffleboard,” he says. “Years later we visited the Queen Mary in San Diego and it was eerie seeing that faded paint of that old shuffleboard court still on the deck,” he says.

In February, 1945 his crew transferred to ZP-14 in Port Lyautey in Morocco after they had two blimps put out of action by accidents. After flying across the Atlantic they became the junior crew in a unit that had been in Africa for more than a year. The most important mission was patrolling the Straits of Gibraltar each night.

Aircraft patrolled during the day, but the blimps, traveling slower were more effective in using their radar and the magnetic instruments that would locate a submarine under water. “I was very, very lucky. To my knowledge no one every fired at me, and we never had to drop our bombs. I’m happy about that,” he says. “After the war they discovered that there was a 900-ft.-deep trench and that may have been how the Germans were getting in and out of the Strait,” he says.

But it wasn’t all fun and games. “We would fly in the pitch black night and the instruments weren’t all that accurate. Of particular importance was the altimeter. We would try to fly at 100 ft. but it was easy to be off. One night in the fog we discovered a ship right in front of us and we were at about 50 ft. The pilot literally stood the blimp on its tail clawing for air,” he says. “We made it, but it sure got our attention.”

But they were still the new guys. “We weren’t really appreciated, having just come from the states. The others thought of themselves as the best of the crews, since they were in the combat theater,” he says. “We got a lot of the dirt details for instance we were the ones out flying on VE day (when the war ended in Europe) while everyone else was celebrating,” he says.

Although the war was over, their missions weren’t. Although the squadron was located in Morocco, there were detachments all around the Mediterranean. “We were tasked to go to Venice and help with minesweeping,” he says. “There were still thousands and thousands of mines out there. We worked with a group of minesweepers and patrol boats, locating the mines and charting them. Then the minesweepers, which had wooden hulls so they wouldn’t set them off, would cut the mine from the line that held it in place. Then the patrol boats would sink it with gunfire,” he says.

“One time, a French patrol boat hit a mine and exploded. We turned back over the wreck and saw crew in the water. We shoved our inflatable life raft in the water to them, but one guy who evidently didn’t know what he was doing used a knife to cut the covering away and made a hole in it, and it sunk too,” he says. “We flew overtop of the survivors as low as we could and threw our own life jackets to each of them. The another boat very carefully worked their way to them through the minefield and picked them up,” he says.

He also got the chance to go to Pisa, and still have a picture of himself “holding” it up, a popular tourist photo even today. Then the crew went to Southern France, to the French airbase at Cuers-Pierrefeu. A short time before it has been a base for German dive bombers, and British Spitfires were already there when the unit arrived. But this had been the major lighter-than-air base for the French before the war. “There were two huge dirigible hangars that had been built in German for the Zeppelins,” he says. “The French took them as war repatriations and rebuilt them on this base.”

After only a couple of months there, he got the message every American serviceman in Europe was waiting for orders home. “I had a wife and child, and with my overseas time my number came up. I got a ride back to Morocco and then the waiting started,” he says. It wasn’t enough to have orders, there had to be transport.

Dudden waited three weeks, but finally got out of Casablanca on a “Liberty” ship. He arrived at Brooklyn Pier the day before Thanksgiving. “They told us to come back on Friday, and I was lucky because I had an aunt in New York and was able to have Thanksgiving dinner with her,” he says. The it was on to Lido Beach Long Island and he was processed out of the Navy.

He returned to Detroit and began working for Ford Motor Company. “After about six months I figured I better use my GI Bill and get an education,” he says. He went to the Wayne State University for his undergraduate degree and then earned both a master’s degree and doctorate at the University of Michigan.
He was then hired as a history professor at Bryn Mawr College by department head Helen Taft Manning, daughter of President Taft. “She said she hired me because she wanted someone from the west in the department. I guess at that time Michigan was west enough,” he says.

Like any good historian, he can be both observer and participant in history. After interviewing him for most of an afternoon he thanked me: “you brought a lot of things back to me that happened 55 years ago,” he says. My guess is no matter how meaningful this was to be, it was more so to him.

He looked back at a young sailor who had an adventurous time defending his nation as a part of a rare group whose rank ended with “QLTA.” That means, in Navy speak, “qualified lighter than air.”

They’re all a part of history now. Arthur Dudden’s history, too.