From the book The first time Germany invaded Duluth, Minnesota by Peter S. Svenson:
“July 1, 1917: The Weltanshauung, a German hydrogen war zeppelin, lost power over Bavaria. Caught by the wind, over the next two weeks it blew north across Europe and then the Arctic Circle. The furious crew tried to repair the engines but never succeeded. Technically, they set the world record for the first aerial crossing of the Arctic, a feat later repeated by Shackleton.
Excerpt from “Zeppelins over Duluth!” » Duluth Herald, July 16, 1917:
“The Weltanshauung contained an internal aircraft hangar with six black tri-planes sticking out of the nose of the craft like hornets. A Canadian fighter squadron searched for it over Lake Erie and nearly collided with it in the dark. It was a cliff hanging in the sky, eclipsing them with the black-on-white cross symbol of the German Air Force. But Canadians lost it in confusion and fear. Soon a steamer spotted him drifting in sight of the north shore of Lake Superior, toward Duluth. The authorities mobilized the American helium zeppelin, the Federalistfrom its floating shed in Duluth Harbour.
“But tragedy struck at launch. In the rushed operation, five members of the mooring crew failed to let go of the moorings as a flurry rose Federalist unexpectedly. They were pulled well into the air. Their instinct told them to hang on, but it was a fatal misstep. Soon they were hundreds of feet away crossing Park Point, and their holds were failing one by one. They died, at the sight of a city already terrified by the vast German airship sporting its impending Iron Cross, coming into full view as it drifted towards the city center.
“Duluth faced its first air raid – let it be its last. It was unthinkable that the enemy had penetrated to the middle of North America. And now, trying to bring his weapons to our defence, the Federalist had failed to take off, dropping screaming men into the sky. The city gasped as one, screaming as the men sickeningly pounded Lake Superior like rag dolls.
“The last man to fall from the dangling moorings is the dinghy Jean-Michel Cloquet, a volunteer. By doing his duty for his country, all he had hoped to win was, at most, a sandwich. Instead, his payout is a place in the history books, as he was rescued mid-air by a daredevil Curtiss JN-4 Jenny biplane pilot in full view of the city. Duluth’s hopes began to brighten at this point.
Excerpt from the transcript of an interview recorded in 1995 by Peter S. Svenson, Deathbed Interview with Pilot George Enger III, Duluth’s First World War Fighter Ace:
[Scratchy, hissy tape noises. The centenarian’s voice starts hardly above a whisper, but grows in force.] “Duluth airport back then was a dirt strip and a shack. There was no US Air Force. The few zeppelins in the country were under military control. Or was it “The navy? What we had in terms of planes were these four Jennies on loan from Canada for training purposes. The air wars of the future weren’t going to wait for American pilots to learn to fly. My Squad of four backcountry boys had never seen a fight. And the training planes were beaten to hell. They didn’t even have guns! But we had to do something. When we received roll call, we got dressed, grabbed our guns and took off.
“Knocking on the hill towards the scene above the lake, the zeppelins appeared. Like everyone else, we saw these poor men falling from the Federalist as it rose. One after another they seemed to keep falling, and they keep falling.
“The last ray of sunshine slipped below the horizon behind us. It was the magic hour. The air turned cream. The clouds and the lake shone pastel pinks and purples like a Maxfield Parrish print. I met Parrish once – long story. The falling men were silhouetted against a pile of cumulonimbus clouds and its reflection in the sea. As we approached the zeppelins, there was one last man whose grip gave way. I broke formation and dived after him.
“I matched his terminal velocity as the unforgiving water rose. The distances closed. He saw me and tried to swim through the air to the plane. Finally the edge of my wings reached his hands. He hoisted himself between the bracing wires and hung on as I came out of the dive. And he was screaming over the wind, praising the Lord and so forth. Boy, he couldn’t believe his luck. The wheels kissed the water and we started climbing.
“I yelled at him, ‘I’d let you go, mate, but we gotta kill those guys first!’ You might want to get in the back seat there! So he goes up and he shouts: ‘Let’s go! Wait, what is that noise? We realized the whole town had seen me pluck it through the air, and that sound was people cheering from the hill, the station, downtown, and the beaches. Wind and engine noise had nothing to do with those cheers. When I joined my training, the city almost lost its mind.
“The Weltanshauung dropped the water ballast in a great spray as if emptying a bladder in fear, and tried to climb out of our reach. the Federalist it should be taken care of. Really, my team couldn’t do anything against a zeppelin. Without incendiary cartridges, our pistols were toys. At best, we could cause a slow leak, but only if we hit it from above. The bullet holes in the bottom are useless, the floating gas will not flow down and out.
“So we were limited. But I had made a name for myself with my unorthodox tactic of dragging a grappling hook and line behind my plane to rip through enemy wings. I proved it plausible in training anyway – airplane wings were just wood and cloth – and now I was looking forward to using it in combat. Our job was not to bring down the zeppelin. This was to harass its highly capable, fully armed fighter jets.
“The six black tri-planes swarmed from the nose of the enemy ship. Normally I led my team’s formation but lost time saving Cloquet so I was behind. Either way, like a alone we pulled our latches, releasing a rope and a grappling hook from each fuselage. We were fishers of men. Their fighters buzzed us in a first pass, scoring no direct hits, but our grappling hooks raked the wings of three triplanes. They fell hitting the water: boom, boom, boom. More cheers. The German planes were now outnumbered.
According to the memoirs of Jean-Michel Cloquet, Descendants of Cloquet:
“I was frozen. Even though it was the middle of summer, I wasn’t dressed for an open-cockpit plane duel thousands of feet above Lake Superior. But the dogfight intensified. A German fighter strafed Federalist from above, blunting its ascent and halting the pursuit of the majestic but doomed airship Weltanshauung.
“Even with the enemy’s engines inoperative, the wind alone would carry the craft over the helpless city. Indiscriminate bombardment was a certainty if the zeppelin rose beyond our reach. God forbid that they harm the war effort if they destroy railroads or blow up US Steel.
“We pulled two more German fighters out of the air. It was too late to save the lameness Federalistbut maybe we could still save America.
“Leaving the last triplane to his comrades, George pointed our plane skyward. We climbed into the clouds and the engine protested thinning the air. Finally he arrived above the Weltanshauung, landing on its back like an aircraft carrier. We rode to a stop in the back with a view of its vertical stabilizer, the fin of a Leviathan.
“I grabbed his pistol and a flare and leapt out of the cockpit. Aiming between my feet, I punched holes in the zeppelin several times. George shouted, ‘Here they are! German airmen emerged from a hatch distant like angry ants screaming and shooting. I lit the torch. Throwing it at the bullet holes, I grabbed the side of the plane with my other arm and shouted, “Come on!” He was already leaving.I gripped my seat as we rolled on our backs, between the gigantic vertical and horizontal stabilizers in the open space, my stomach rising in my throat.
“The gas bags ignited. The burning zeppelin lit up the pastel twilight with the oversaturated orange of the twilight flames. Seething lights crawled over the soft cloud banks as black smoke swept across the sky.
“The last German plane zigzagged when it should have zigzagged: panicked and wounded by a pistol shot, the pilot rushed under the wobbling carcass. He was felled by masses of molten aluminum raining down among flaming men, falling from the clouds into the sea.”
From the book The first time Germany invaded Duluth, Minnesota by Peter S. Svenson:
” As the Federalist collapsed, a reinforcing wire broke and went through the gas bags. The craft broke into two overturned crews from its interior gangways. The forward section landed in hundred foot deep waters off Leif Erikson Park. The multi-ton superstructure collapsed onto the control pod, drowning those inside as it sank.
“Nearby, the stern section had slower gas leaks and remained afloat for several hours. Some trapped crew members drowned in its submerged corridors, but many survivors managed to climb to the top of the wreckage to await rescue. Their voices sounded tiny and high-pitched in the dense helium atmosphere, and they couldn’t help but laugh. They became dizzy as the helium displaced the oxygen. The punctured sacs seemed flatulent as they discharged gas into the waterlogged tissue covering the aluminum bones. Even as the crew drowned beneath them, the survivors rolled over the wreckage laughing, helpless at the sound of their own laughter. The voices of the drowning — moans and moans of despair, choking and gurgling — also sounded silly and hilarious. It couldn’t be helped. Even the men who drowned laughed at their own cartoon mouse death cries as they slipped into the depths: “My family – HAHAHA – tell my wife I love her – HAHAHA – gub gub glub – HAHAHA…”
An index of Jim Richardson’s essays can be found here.