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Epilogue | Robert Bourne

Palm Harbor's Robert Bourne survived historic battle between blimp, German sub

A radioman who would join the FAA, Bourne issued the maydays but watched as a shark ate a blimp crewmate before the rescue.

Special to the Times

A radioman who would join the FAA, Bourne issued the maydays but watched as a shark ate a blimp crewmate before the rescue.

PALM HARBOR — On the night of July 18, 1943, a Navy blimp on a routine patrol glided over the southeast coast of Florida. The Navy had assigned Airship K-74 and another blimp to monitor the seas from above, so that two ships could safely pass between the Florida Keys and Cuba.

At 11:40 p.m., the blimp's radar picked up a vessel 8 miles away. A few minutes later, the crewmen laid eyes on a German submarine silhouetted in the moonlight.

Like other airships, K-74 was commissioned to escort Merchant Marine ships from the air while looking for U-boats — though they were to avoid engaging them in battle. Nonetheless, the Navy had outfitted its blimps with depth charges and 50-caliber machine guns — just in case.

Lt. Nelson Grills, K-74's skipper, assessed the situation. The sub was headed straight for the ships he was guarding, a tanker and a freighter. He decided to attack.

The ensuing battle lasted only five minutes, but left an indelible mark on the life of radioman Robert Bourne. When it was over, the dirigible had floated to the water, punctured by gunfire from the sub. It was the only time in the Navy's history a blimp engaged in battle with a submarine.

Mr. Bourne, a radioman aboard K-74, issued several mayday warnings before all 10 crew members swam out of the flooded gondola.

Mr. Bourne died Oct. 13, of an infection. He was 88.

Brad Bourne of Palm Harbor said his father was an "easy-going guy" who was proud of his service in a unique battle.

"Mom said he used to wake up with nightmares, but that was years ago," said Bourne, 61.

The Navy built and used 135 "K-class" blimps during World War II, using them for surveillance and deterrence between 1942 and 1945 off the coasts of the United States, South America and North Africa.

"The advantage was its endurance. It could stay aloft much longer than a conventional aircraft," said Hill Goodspeed, a historian at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola.

But airship K-74 has gone down in history as evidence that blimps also can attack. The U-boat it engaged, later identified as U-134, was damaged by machine gun fire and unable to descend. Within two days of the skirmish with the blimp, it was sunk by aircraft.

Mr. Bourne told his family about bobbing for 20 hours in the water with crewmates, arms linked and knives drawn, kicking at sharks.

"My dad talked about how they all got in a circle with their back to each other," his son said. "They learned to kick the sharks in the snout when they got close enough."

A high point came when a U.S. plane flew low over them and tipped a wing to acknowledge their presence. Help was on the way.

But just after the men waved back, they watched in horror as a shark made a beeline for aviation machinists mate Isadore Stessel, who had cut himself while escaping the gondola.

"They saw the fin and tail going through the water toward him," said Brad Bourne. "He bobbed up, his face full of blood. Then he went under and they never saw him again."

Thanks in part to the maydays Mr. Bourne got off before the airship sank, the remaining nine crew members were rescued by a naval destroyer. Mr. Bourne was awarded a commendation and a Purple Heart for chemical burns from spilled fuel.

He grew up in Fort Wayne, Ind., and Tampa. Around 1950 he married Earline Jackson, who was as unflappable as he was. Mr. Bourne used his radio training in a career with the Federal Aviation Administration at MacDill Air Force Base and Tampa International Airport.

The couple settled into a comfortable routine, taking their two sons on vacations to Crystal River or the Pinellas County beaches.

After Earline died, the stacks of bills grew on the dining room table, drudgery his wife had always handled. Still, Mr. Bourne enjoyed riding to doctor's appointments with his son or on other errands. Not long ago, father and son made a trip to the National Aviation Museum, where Mr. Bourne found himself and his former airship in enlarged photographs on the wall.

Mr. Bourne discovered that he loved to cook, and watched the Food Channel and read cooking magazines.

A few weeks ago, a television show about sharks reminded him of the war. He started to reflect on that night in 1943 again, then said, "Well, I don't want to talk about that now."

In July 1997, 54 years after K-74 fought the U-boat, Mr. Bourne, his former skipper, Grills, and family and friends of Isadore Stessel took a Coast Guard patrol boat offshore from Fort Lauderdale. They laid a wreath at sea for Stessel, the only casualty in the Navy's use of blimps in warfare.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or


Robert Herbert Bourne

Born: Aug. 8, 1922.

Died: Oct. 13, 2010.

Survivors: Sons Brad and his wife Roseanna; sisters Dorothy Lyday and her husband Robert, and Marjorie Williams and her husband Fred; and numerous nieces and nephews.

Service: 11 a.m. Nov. 5; Sylvan Abbey Memorial Park and Funeral Home, 2853 Sunset Point Road, Clearwater.

Palm Harbor's Robert Bourne survived historic battle between blimp, German sub 10/25/10 [Last modified: Monday, October 25, 2010 11:31pm]
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