It was almost midnight when the crew of the U.S. Navy airship noticed the German submarine off the coast of Key Largo 72 years ago.
The patrol was like any other the night of July 18, 1943. Navy blimp K-74 took off from the Richmond Naval Air Station in west Miami-Dade County to hover over the South Florida’s waters, a lookout for merchant ships and fuel tankers trying to avoid the Nazis during World War II.
But on this night, the crew of 11 on the airship spotted a surfaced U-boat — enemies looking to sink American vessels in the Florida Keys. The ensuing battle left the German submarine damaged and the American airship deflated and destroyed. One serviceman, 28-year-old Petty Officer Isadore Stessel, was separated from the rest of his crew and eventually lost at sea.
“Isadore should be remembered,” said Al Sunshine, an organizer of a memorial held Saturday at the Military Museum of South Florida at Zoo Miami to honor Stessel’s memory and commemorate the 72nd anniversary of the battle where the K-74 became the only U.S. Naval airship shot down in combat.
Courtesy of Military Museum and Memorial of South Florida
Sunshine, president of the environmental preservation group Miami Pine Rocklands Coalition and former longtime investigative reporter on the local CBS news team, arranged the service with the museum. Retired Navy officer Anthony Atwood serves as executive director of the museum, which will be housed in a soon-to-be restored headquarters building for the air station. Atwood told the story of the battle at the small ceremony outside the museum, thanking Stessel for his sacrifice and honoring the survivors.
Stessel gashed his leg while escaping the vessel, and it’s believed he was killed by sharks. The ship’s captain, separated from his crew, swam east toward the nearest shore. The nine remaining servicemen floated in the sea, holding on to each other and hope.
“They hung on through the night,” Atwood said.
In the morning, a seaplane spotted the men’s bobbing heads in the water. The captain and nine crew members were rescued.
For locals like Betty Callander, who endured a scorching summer sun to attend the ceremony, remembering the history is key to convincing people to preserve it.
“I wish more people knew the history of this place,” she said.
Miami-Dade Police’s Honor Guard presented the colors at Saturday’s service, and Miami-Dade Police chaplain Thomas Hanlon offered a prayer.
“Give us hearts as generous as theirs,” he said. “Hear our prayers for those who gave their lives in the service of others, as did Isadore Stessel. Accept the gift of his sacrifice, and the sacrifices of others who gave their lives in war.”