The Long, Peaceful Life of BB 1623

By Sophie van Romburgh and Norm Rosenberger

Sophie owns a unique home at Yellow Ferry Harbor, one of ten balloon barges (hence “BB”) built by Hickinbotham Bros. Construction Division in Stockton, Ca., between Fall 1943 and Spring 1944. The first five, numbered BB 1623 through BB 1627, have all become residences on the Sausalito waterfront. The home will be visible from the outside during the Sept. 30 Floating Homes Tour – although not open to the public.  Here’s a report Sophie and Norm prepared on the history of these unique vessels.

 Norm’s fanciful rendering of BB 1623

Norm’s fanciful rendering of BB 1623

Balloon barges were built to fly a barrage balloon from a long steel cable to protect strategic and sensitive locations from attacks by low-flying aircraft. When a huge balloon was raised up to several thousand feet with a winch, its cable could slice an airplane wing, thus creating both a real and a mental barrier to enemy planes. Alternatively, a smaller “VLA” balloon could be flown at a “Very Low Altitude” to thwart an aircraft’s aim. These balloons were colossal, aerodynamic shapes of lightweight neoprene-coated fabric with puffy tailfins. They had to be filled cautiously with highly flammable hydrogen — helium was still scarce and limited to army balloon training. Floating in slow-motion like overstuffed parade balloons, they required being operated by specially trained crew on specially prepared sites. For protection of the homeland, balloon sites were commonly on land; the barges added the option of flying balloons in harbors, following the British example.

Balloon barge construction swiftly stepped up in the defense of the West Coast following the surprise air attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, where balloons had been wanting. Britain contributed several thousands of them. From February 1942, an Army balloon battalion was stationed at Mare Island, Vallejo, to service the San Francisco Bay Area. They were, first, the 305th balloon battalion, and from June 1942, relieving them, the 309th. They worked the balloons in direct communication with the coast artillery in the anti-aircraft batteries, such as Cronkhite and Barry. By March 1943, “you look across fields of barrage balloons suspended awkwardly in midair like tail-heavy sausages,” La Verne Bradley reported in her National Geographic article on the buzz of the war effort in the San Francisco Bay.

Hickinbotham Bros. Balloon Barges were specifically designed to meet the requirements of balloon barrage defenses. (The wooden “bungalow” on BB 1623 is of later date.) They measure 52 ft. by 16 ft. and are constructed of 1/4-inch steel. Modeled after freight barges, they have a 140" x 62" hatch that provides access to a hold forward below decks. That is where the balloon could be bedded, if need be, and where the gasoline-powered winch (type A-9) for controlling and storing thousands of feet of steel cable under even tension would have been mounted.

Rather than go straight up from the winch to the balloon, the steel cable was to be diverted by pulleys to the deck, then anchored with a snatch block to a heavy, one-inch-thick steel ring that is mounted amidships.

Some further weld marks on BB 1623’s deck suggest that there used to be additional supporting structures for flying the balloon. 

To top up the balloon’s gas, moreover, “a 60-foot length of hose (it may be strong garden hose) is lashed to the balloon cable,” the 1942 Coast Artillery Field Manual instructs, “so that the balloon can be topped-up with the balloon flying a few feet above the deck, and with the long axis of the balloon parallel to that of the ship.”

The crew’s quarters were aft below decks, and included a galley with a stove and fridge, a fold-up table and benches, bunk beds, a washroom with a shower and a w/c.

There was no engine: the barges had to be towed to location. For that purpose, Hickinbotham Bros. produced two 52-foot balloon barge leaders with double engines (BBP 1621 and 1622). (Another Stockton shipyard, Kyle & Company, also built ten balloon barges, BB 1633 through BB 1642; these measured 75 feet.)

Just like Marinship, the shipyard of Hickinbotham Bros. Construction Division had been opened in 1942 in response to the call to build ships for the war. It was a limited partnership of two Stockton steel companies, Hickinbotham Bros. and Guntert & Zimmerman. They built many and different army vessels; in 1943 alone, according to The Log of the West Coast Maritime Industries, they produced five of the balloon barges — probably BB 1623 through BB 1627 — one of the balloon barge leaders, five 74-ft. steel tugs, six 60-ton crane barges, two 62-ft. steel tugs, and 38 task lighters. The shipyard was awarded an Army-Navy “E” for Excellence in 1944.

As the Stockton shipyards were working to fulfill their balloon barge contracts, the Theater of War was changing. The barrage balloon was no longer deemed necessary for anti-aircraft defense of the West Coast. The army discontinued the program here in August 1943, and deactivated the West Coast balloon battalions, including the 309th, the next month.

Hickinbotham Bros. delivered BB 1623 to Mare Island on 3 January 1944. While other balloon barges were shipped on top of cargo ships for deployment overseas, BB 1623 through BB 1627 were kept in the Bay Area in Army stand-by, but not deployed during the war, as far as we know.

With a new assignment as war surplus, they were discovered as pleasant houseboats.

The Floating Homes Tour will showcase BB1623 plus 15 open homes, as well as live music, swing dancing, vintage vehicles, art exhibits, and food and drink for purchase, from 11a.m. to 4 p.m. on the 30th.  Advance reservations are highly recommended, and can be purchased at www.floatinghomes.org/tour/tour-info.