One lived in Lima with his family as a young man, while the other often spent boyhood summer vacations with cousins in the Spencerville area, where his father grew up. Both eventually joined the U.S. Navy, and both were part of a select crew assigned to bring the airship designated ZR-2 to the United States from England, where it had been built.
On a summer evening 100 summers ago, both men’s lives ended when the ZR-2 broke apart in the skies over England during a final test run, killing 44 of the 49 men aboard. It was the first in a series of airship disasters, culminating some 16 years later with the destruction of the German airship Hindenburg during a thunderstorm in Lakehurst, New Jersey.
Lloyd Crowl was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in January 1892, the son of George and Jessie May Crowl. As a youth, the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette wrote in August 1921, Crowl had worked as a messenger boy for Western Union and later became one of the first taxi drivers in Fort Wayne. He also worked in the auto industry in Detroit.
Crowl “came to this city (Lima) with other members of his family shortly prior to the war (World War I),” The Lima News & Times-Democrat wrote Aug. 25, 1921. “He was employed as a chauffeur and for a time worked in the B&O Railroad shops.” Crowl’s mother had remarried and was now Mrs. Franklin Hoyt. In 1921, the family lived at 1105 E. North St.
When World War I broke out, Crowl enlisted in the Navy and served aboard submarines.
“After being discharged he re-enlisted in the air service at Charleston, South Carolina, as a mechanic. He was one of the men selected from that arm of the service to help bring the ZR-2 to this country,” The Lima News & Times-Democrat wrote. Crowl had married the former Minnie Smith, and she was living in Garrett, Indiana, while he was away.
Emory Coil was born in September 1888 in Worcester, Massachusetts, the son of the Rev. Elijah A. and Sarah Catherine Steen Coil. His father was born in the Spencerville area and lived there until he was in his early 20s, when he began a life in the ministry.
“While living in Marietta, Rev. Coil lost his wife,” the Spencerville Journal wrote in September 1921, “and his two sons, Emory and Harold, spent their summer vacation periods at the home of their aunt, Mrs. C.B. Stose.”
Stose, Elijah Coil’s sister, lived in the Spencerville area.
“Always interested in boats and ships when a lad in high school at Marietta he received an appointment at the naval academy at Annapolis. He graduated at the academy with honors and his promotions were rapid,” the Journal wrote.
When the $2.5 million ZR-2 “was ready to be turned over to this country, Lieutenant Commander E.W. Coil was chosen as one of the officers to be in charge of the giant ship, and to pilot it across the Atlantic to this side,” the newspaper added.
Coil had married the former Mildred Luiza O’Connell in 1916, and the couple had one daughter. Coil’s wife died in 1919, as did his brother, Marion, and a sister, Alfreda. His father had died in 1918. Coil married May Edith Lawne in 1920.
In April 1920, the first members of the U.S. Naval Rigid Detachment, comprised of nine officers and 18 enlisted men, arrived at the Howden airship station in the county of Yorkshire in eastern England to begin training.
The ZR-2 began life near the end of World War I as the R-38, planned for patrol and escort duty. But, with the end of the war and military cutbacks the order of the day, the British decided to shelf the R-38 project. Before the plans for the airship were canceled, the British offered the project to the United States, which had hoped to start its own fleet of rigid airships with two zeppelins confiscated from the Germans at the end of the war. When the German crews destroyed the zeppelins, the U.S. agreed to purchase the R-38.
Renamed the ZR-2 by the U.S. Navy, the airship was 699 feet long with a diameter of 85 1/2 feet and a height of 93 feet. The ZR-2 was powered by six 350-horsepower engines and could cruise at a top speed of 72 mph for 65 hours. Supported by a system of girders on its interior, it was lifted by 14 large hydrogen-filled gas bags. When it was completed in June 1921, it was the largest airship in the world.
Problems with the airship’s balance and flaws in its girders were detected during test flights in June and July 1921, and then a series of summer storms kept the ZR-2 in its hangar until mid-August 1921.
Finally, on Aug. 23, 1921, the ZR-2 again headed out for speed and height tests over the North Sea, after which it was to be loaded for the cross-Atlantic journey to the U.S. Among the 49 on board for the final trial were 27 members of the Royal Air Force and 17 U.S. Navy personnel, including Crowl and Coil.
After a day of tests, its return to England was delayed by a bank of mist, and the ZR-2 spent the night over the North Sea. On Aug. 24, with better weather, ZR-2 began crucial full-speed runs in the skies near the port city of Hull and the estuary of the Humber River.
Around 5:30 p.m., the ZR-2 was approaching Hull from the northeast, “perhaps,” according to the Airship Heritage Trust web site, “as a farewell to the city that had given the airshipmen hospitality and friendship over the last two years. … To the people who were on their way home from work or taking in the sun on the fine Wednesday evening along the waterfront, the airship would have made a fine sight glinting in the early evening sun.”
Minutes later, it fell from the sky.
“It was while the ZR-2 was cruising over Hull that she was seen to emerge from the clouds and suddenly break in two,” The Lima News & Times-Democrat reported. “One portion appeared to rise in the air. The other descended slowly and fell into the Humber. One explosion occurred as the ship was falling and another after it touched the water. The wreckage floated on the water about two hundred yards from the riverside quay and continued to burn.”
Eyewitnesses said the ship seemed to crumple along its mid-section and “a great wrinkle liked a twisted and rolled newspaper” seemed to occur in the silver hull, according to the Airship Heritage Trust. Later investigations placed the blame for the disaster on structural flaws in the massive airship.
In mid-September 1921, the bodies of most of the American dead from the ZR-2 arrived at the New York Navy Yard aboard the British light cruiser Dauntless after a “stormy passage of eight days from Plymouth,” the New York Herald reported Sept. 17, 1921.
“Six American destroyers greeted the funeral ship off the Ambrose Channel lightship and six seaplanes hovered over the procession as it steamed to the Navy Yard through bay and river,” according to the Herald.
Crowl’s body was brought to Garrett, where his widow lived. The streets along the line of march of the funeral procession from the church to the cemetery “were lined on both sides by spectators and large numbers were turned away from the church, unable to secure seats,” the Garrett Clipper wrote Sept. 26, 1921.
Coil was buried at sea.
“At noon Tuesday,” the Spencerville Journal reported September 22, 1921, “the body of Lieutenant Commander Emory Coil, with fitting ceremonies, was lowered over the side of the destroyer Beck, one hundred miles southeast of Sandy Hook, and the casket sank to the bottom of the Atlantic.”
His widow, the Journal added, was aboard the destroyer for the services.
Reach Greg Hoersten at email@example.com.