Editor's Note: The following article was written by local historian Mark Curenton, originally for the Spring 2016 newsletter of the Apalachicola Area Historical Society.
In 1921 a balloon from the Naval Air Station at Pensacola vanished over the Gulf of Mexico, leading to a wide ranging search for the five men on board. The men were never found, but newspaper coverage of the incident resulted in the mayor of Apalachicola writing a sharp letter to the Atlanta Journal rebuking them for their yellow journalism.
On the evening of March 22, 1921, two free balloons were launched at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola on a night training mission. The objective of the mission was to practice night balloon flying and travel at least 200 miles from the launch point. One balloon came down the next morning near Brewton, Alabama, sixty miles north of the launch site. The other balloon drifted out over the Gulf of Mexico. Two days after its launch a carrier pigeon from the balloon landed at the Naval Air Station with a message from the crew. They were drifting out to sea off St. Andrews Bay. Later that same day another pigeon arrived with a message saying the balloon was only 100 feet above the water and drifting rapidly out into the Gulf of Mexico.
Immediately a search was launched for the missing balloon with a dirigible, seaplanes and ships. Two H-16 flying boats were dispatched to Apalachicola to search the surrounding waters. When some fishermen reported they heard cries of men near Lake Wimico the Navy sent a party of men to search the inland areas for the men and balloon.
The Atlanta Journal, in reporting on the incident in their April 1 edition, described the swamps north of Apalachicola as impenetrable jungles filled with boa-constrictors, deadly insects, bottomless pits, and poisonous air, where it would be nearly impossible for the men to survive if they had landed there. This fantastic description of the area prompted a quick retort from John H. Cook, the mayor of Apalachicola. His letter stated:
Apalachicola, Fla., April 2,
The Editor, Atlanta Journal,
Sir: Permit me to call attention to a report, dated Pensacola, Fla., March 31st as appearing in your publication of April 1st: “Lost Balloonists May Fall Prey to Poison Insects.”
Who can be the author of such a malicious and scathing report? Is he seeking fame as a yellow journalist, or has he attained it as a spieler for a midway monstrocity show? Surely he has his picture books which would teach him what a boa-constrictor is, and its habitations.
The true facts of the lost balloonists are sad enough, and the sympathy of honest and true Americans are for them and with their relatives, and why such weird and imaginative stories should be coupled with its real sadness, we cannot understand.
His seeming knowledge of geography would be confusing to the school boy, in locating this vast wilderness with its impenetrable jungles where super-man only can exist. Infested with reptiles and poisonous insects, the sting from which would drive a man to suicide. Bottomless pits, where man would disappear in the twinkling of an eye, should he miss his footing. Boa-constrictors have been found there, just think of it? Subjected to these horrors, and without anything to exist upon but herbs and roots, would cause years of suffering, and the inhalation of poisonous air would wreck the human system. And this is fair Florida, just think of it.
In all honesty to those who may have read the report, and in fairness to the citizens of Florida, should such scathing reports go unanswered?
Vital statistics will prove Apalachicola one of the most healthful cities of Florida. The river swamps north of the city abound in dense growth of merchantable timber, such as cypress, gum, magnolia and a wide variety of other hardwoods. Engaged in marketing this timber, there are employed hundreds of men, many of which, with their families live in this vastness. There are no impenetrable swamps, no bottomless pits, no death-dealing insects or boa-constrictors. These swamps abound in game which are sought by the huntsman, and the course of game and huntsman can be tracked abroad. Small streams flowing through the area attract fishing parties, and scores of these parties spend days and nights in the swamps without harm or danger. The foliage and bloom in these swamps are most magnificent in colors and attract hundreds of visitors.
To substantiate our statement, your attention is called to a party arriving here on the 1st inst. from the Naval Air Station at Pensacola. This party was augmented with guides from Apalachicola and proceeded at once into the swamp area. Parties of two each were formed and sent out in varied directions covering the swamp and making wide search for the lost balloonists. They all returned at night with no findings. This work is being continued, and each day going farther that no part of the entire section remain unexplored.
Such report as the subject of this article is extremely misleading and injurious to Florida, and against the publications of such fabricated stories, the people of Apalachicola make their protest.
It is requested that this article be published, and it is requested that denial of authority and apology from author be publicly made through the press.
J. H. Cook, Mayor
Epilogue: Unfortunately two weeks of searching turned up no trace of the balloon or the five men aboard. On Friday, April 8, a fishing boat out of Panama City found the balloon two miles southwest of Cape San Blas. A small amount of gas had kept the balloon afloat, and the basket was still attached beneath the balloon, but there was no trace of the crew.