(This story was originally published in the Raleigh South Connection in April of 2008.)
By Shawn Daley
As a teenager in his native Brazil, John Tumblin would watch with admiration as breathtaking German airships majestically glided across the picturesque South American sky.
It was the mid-1930s and the world was still largely unaware on the sinister nature of Nazis. The large black swastikas emblazoned on the bright red tail fins of the blimps were, to a young boy like Tumblin, simply political decoration.
“When I was a kid I saw both the Graff Zeppelin and the Hindenburg going over the city of Salvador,” said Tumblin. “It was an example of outstanding German technology. They were beautiful crafts and looked gorgeous. They moved so slow that you could get a really good look at them.”
The Brazilian skies were buzzing with foreign crafts in the 1930s. The German and French were vying for domination of the Trans-Atlantic mail route and would regularly fly planes from Africa to Brazil.
The deluge of planes and blimps passing overhead made quite an impression on the young Tumblin and he dreamed of one day sitting at the controls of a flying machine.
“You had these clunky old French planes coming in and beautiful German diesel float planes landing in the river,” said Tumblin. “That is where my interest in aviation really began.”
But Tumblin fully realized his desire to become a pilot was nothing more than an elusive dream. A bacterial infection had destroyed much of the sight in one of his eyes virtually destroying his aspirations of earning his flying wings in the military.
If he were to have a future in aviation it would most likely be as a mechanic. It was an alternative that comforted Tumblin.
While living deep in the interior of Brazil the Tumblin family often traveled on a river steamboat to reach the nearest city. Those voyages were captivating to a young boy interested in engines.
“I loved to go down to the engine room door and I knew all the engineers,” said Tumblin. “I would sit and watch them work and think that someday I would like to be an engineer.”
Tumblin would go on to a much different career, earning a doctorate at Duke University and becoming a professor of anthropology and sociology at various colleges in the South. But long before entering the world of academia he received the opportunity to put his interest in engines and flying to use in a most unique way.
In 1922, John and Marrow Tumblin left the United States to serve as Baptist missionaries in Brazil. One year later they were the proud parents of a son, John Jr.
Growing up with American parents in Brazil was difficult since Tumblin never seemed to fit into either culture.
“In sociology there is a term, ‘marginal person,’” said Tumblin. “It is a concept derived from the work of American minority groups who felt they had a foot in each world but never belonged in either one. That was part of my growing up.
“The Brazilians made fun of my parents because they spoke Portuguese with an accent. I got around Americans and felt insecure because I had an accent speaking English. When I came to the States I worked very hard to get rid of it.”
Tumblin spent a little over a year in America when his parents took a mandatory hiatus from their missionary work. A couple of years after returning to Brazil the teenager decided he wanted to pursue his future in the U.S.
At just 15 years old Tumblin jumped aboard a British cargo ship and sailed toward a new life in America.
“I came alone,” said Tumblin. “I had a choice because I could have stayed with a family in New Orleans. But the World’s Fair was in New York City and I wanted to see it. So I went to New York, found a place to stay, learned the subway and spent a few days there.”
Tumblin then traveled to North Carolina where he had been accepted at a high school operated by Campbell University, which at that time was just a junior college. Upon graduating from high school, he spent the next 18 months attending the college before joining the Navy.
“I was threatened with being drafted into the Army and I sure as hell didn’t want that,” said Tumblin. “So I volunteered for the Navy. I wanted in the worst way to be a pilot but I couldn’t because of my eye. But I had good scores and got my choice of service schools and picked aviation machinist mate.”
The 19-year-old underwent basic training in Brainbridge, MD, before attending mechanics school in Jacksonville, FL. He was eventually retained as an instructor and taught at schools in both Jacksonville and Memphis.
Tumblin soon tired with his role as instructor and requested sea duty. He was sent to Chicago for specialized engine training and was expecting to ship out to the Pacific once the course ended.
Those orders for sea duty never arrived. The Navy had discovered that Tumblin was a Brazilian native that spoke fluent Portuguese. He was about to receive the most surprising orders of his military life.
The blimp remains one of the most overlooked and underrated weapons used by the United States during World War II.
German submarines were sinking American merchant ships with alarming frequency in 1942 and many of the attacks occurred within view of the U.S. shoreline. It was soon discovered that blimps were an extremely effective deterrent to the Nazi U-boats.
Armed with an array of top secret submarine detection equipment, the slow-moving blimps could hover above merchant convoys traveling along the eastern seaboard and easily detect enemy threats. Once a submarine was found the crew would radio its location and attack planes would quickly arrive on the scene.
“The point of the blimp was the opposite of speed,” said Tumblin. “It was the ability to hover and accompany convoys. It was a tremendous morale booster. I’ve talked with many merchant marines over the years. Airplanes would fly over a convoy and disappear. A destroyer would come alongside for a while and then be gone. The blimp would be right there day and night and was a tremendous comfort to those merchant marines.”
In 1944, Tumblin entered the world of “lighter than air” crafts. He was told a group of Brazilian officers were training to become blimp pilots and he would become their interpreter.
The Brazilians were being trained at Lakehurst, NJ, next to the rusting steel girders of the Hindenburg that still lay in the same spot where the craft had exploded in a massive fireball seven years earlier.
American crews never worried about a similar fate with their blimps.
“We weren’t concerned about explosions,” said Tumblin. “Our blimps used helium, which doesn’t lift as much weight per cubic feet as hydrogen but it is much more stable. The Germans wanted to use helium but didn’t have any and had to use hydrogen.”
The dirigibles of World War II were nothing like the present day commercial blimps seen drifting over major sporting events. They were 250 feet long with a 42-foot long cabin that could comfortably fit a crew of 10 men. The craft was also armed with depth charges and a .50-caliber machine gun.
“They were a city block long and the (cabin) was the size of a school bus,” said Tumblin. “They could easily travel 2,000 nautical miles and could stay in the air 24 hours. Comparing them to these blimps you see today is like comparing a cocker spaniel with a pit bull.”
But it was the submarine detection devices that set the blimps apart from anything else in that era.
The sophisticated equipment on board each craft astounded Tumblin as he flew on training missions with the Brazilians and their American instructors. The blimps were loaded with magnetic anomaly detectors, sonar buoys, acoustic torpedoes and a cutting-edge radar system.
Nearly all of the equipment was highly classified and off limits to reporters hungry for a story. As a result, the blimp service rarely received much publicity and became largely forgotten following the war.
“It was equipped with so many things you couldn’t write about,” said Tumblin. “It was ultra-secret at that time.”
There was also a great deal of jealousy within the Navy toward those who served on the convoy blimps. That led to many negative views about the blimp service.
“There was jealousy because these guys got to come home every night and usually slept in a regular bed,” said Tumblin. “They would leave their base and go out and escort a convoy and return the next morning. They had good food on board, a potty and bunks for naps. It was great duty.”
Many Navy pilots took pleasure in ridiculing the blimp and their crews.
“They would call them ‘poop bags’ and I’m cleaning up the term a little bit,” said Tumblin.
But there was little debate about the effectiveness of blimps. Besides escorting convoys near the U.S. shoreline the blimps were also used at numerous ports throughout the world, especially in South America.
Several blimp bases were located in Brazil and manned by American crews. By 1944 Brazilian pilots and soldiers had already fought alongside the Allies in the Italian campaign and now they were eager to prove their worth as blimp pilots.
“We had all those bases in Brazil and the Brazilians wanted to operate those blimps,” said Tumblin. “So we were going to train them and allow them to take over.”
Clash of cultures
It sounded like such a simple plan. The Americans would teach 15 Brazilian pilots and 35 ground crew members how to operate a blimp. The Brazilians would then return to their homeland and assume command of several patrol squads that were currently manned by Americans.
But things rarely go as planned especially when two very different military cultures are expected to work together as one cohesive unit.
Tumblin’s job as an interpreter might not have been dangerous but it was certainly one of the most difficult tasks at the entire training facility. The second class petty officer frequently stood between high-ranking American and Brazilian officers who were thoroughly frustrated with each other.
Despite trying to tread carefully in this military no-man’s land Tumblin usually absorbed the brunt of everyone’s anger.
During one of the many arguments at the base a Brazilian captain and American lieutenant nearly got into a fistfight. The two officers, along with Tumblin, were taken to the base commander’s office to plead their case.
“The American said, ‘I gave you an order,’” recalled Tumblin. “The Brazilian said, ‘I outrank you so you can’t order me around.’ The American said, ‘I’m your training officer and I told you to dissemble a carburetor and instead you told your sergeant to do it.’ The Brazilian said, ‘But of course, an officer never gets his hands dirty with that sort of thing.’”
At that point tempers began to flare again and the insults started to fly. Trying to maintain peace Tumblin toned down the verbal jabs the officers were throwing at each other. It didn’t take long for him to regret his actions.
“At one point the American said, ‘You don’t have enough education to understand this,’” said Tumblin. “Well, I knew that you don’t say to a Brazilian that he is uneducated because that is an insult. In their frustration they realized I was toning down what was being said and they all exploded on me because I was a peon compared to them. Here I was just a second class petty officer caught up in this mixture of ill feeling between Brazil and the United States. That sort of thing happened to me all the time.”
Fortunately, there were some lighter moments during the training sessions. While blimp crews had to deal with ridicule from many of their Navy brethren they were greatly admired by the crews serving aboard picket boats miles offshore.
As part of radar training Brazilian crews were often given missions to locate picket boats. Serving aboard one of these isolated boats was tedious so the blimp crews tried their best to cheer them up.
“It was a lonely job out there for those picket boat crews,” said Tumblin. “So when we’d go out on one of those missions we’d wrap up magazines, preferably dirty ones, along with newspapers, candy and other things and drop this stuff to them. They just loved seeing us.”
The blimp pilot training program ended with the surrender of Germany in May of 1945. Unfortunately, the bad feelings between the Americans and Brazilians lingered. In fact, the relationship deteriorated to a new low.
Shortly after the war in Europe ended Tumblin was given a weekend pass and left the base. When he returned he was shocked to find all the Brazilians were gone.
He was told they had left the base in protest after being informed that their commanding officer, a colonel, would not receive his golden pilot wings.
“The colonel never caught on to flying a blimp,” said Tumblin. “It’s very different from flying an airplane. Of course, he wasn’t even a good pilot with planes. So when the war ended and they scrubbed the program the Navy planned to have a graduation ceremony in which the Brazilian officers would get the Navy golden wings except for the colonel.
“The Brazilians said that was crazy. They said the colonel was a father figure and a morale builder who kept them all together. They said, ‘None of us are ever going to fly a blimp anyway so just give it to him as a courtesy.’”
But the Americans refused to back down and noted that the colonel never demonstrated the ability to fly a blimp. The situation soon devolved into an international incident.
“For weeks there were planes flying back and forth from Washington D.C. and Lakehurst,” said Tumblin. “It reached all the way to the state department. The colonel was finally transferred back to Brazil where he started pulling strings for his wings. He never got them.”
As angry as the Brazilians were for the slight to their colonel the Americans were just as upset over the group leaving the base without permission. The nation was still in a state of war as the fight against the Japanese continued until August.
“When the Brazilians left the base technically it was an act of mutiny in a time of war,” said Tumblin. “You can’t protest and just walk off the base. It was a sad, sad ending to the program. Both sides left angry.”
Tumblin once again requested sea duty and was assigned to an aircraft carrier as a mechanic. But the war ended before he could ever reach the ship.
“My time in the service may not have been the most exciting,” said Tumblin. “But for me it was interesting to be with the Brazilians. It was an absorbing experience in so many ways.”
And decades later Tumblin did achieve his dream. He earned his amateur pilot’s license and flew his plane regularly up until just a few years ago.