"OH, THE HUMANITY..."
THE HISTORY AND HAUNTINGS OF THE HINDENBURG DISASTER
On May 6, 1937, one of the most photographed and familiar disasters of the twentieth century occurred as the German zeppelin airship LZ 129 Hindenburg burst into a massive ball of flames as it descended over Lakehurst, New Jersey. Seven million cubic feet of ignited hydrogen incinerated the dirigible in just 34 seconds, long before it could hit the ground. The disaster shocked the world, dealt a blow to Nazi propaganda, effectively ended the era of lighter-than-air travel and claimed the lives of 35 crew members and passengers and one person on the ground.
To this day, the anguished cries of radio reporter Herbert Morrison, as he broadcast from the scene, can still send chills down the spine of the most jaded listener. But Morrison’s famous radio report is not all that lingers of this fiery calamity. Some believe the spirits of the Hindenburg dead still linger, as well.
Dirigibles, or airships, first came to the attention of the public as a method of air travel in the late 1700s. They were really considered more of a novelty than for practical use until the latter part of the 1800s, when a few inventors began to attach propulsion motors to their balloons in order to get from one place to another.
However, the “Golden Age of Airships” really began in July 1900 with the launch of the Luftschiff Zeppelin LZ1. This grand experiment led to the most successful airships of all time: the Zeppelins. They were named after Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, who began working with rigid airship designs in the 1890s. The airships had a framework composed of triangular lattice girders, covered with fabric and containing separate gas cells. Tail fins were added for control and stability and two engine and crew cars hung beneath the hull driving propellers, which were attached to the sides of the frame by means of long drive shafts. Additionally, there was a passenger compartment located halfway between the two cars.
During World War I, airships were briefly used as bombers, but they proved to be a terrifying, yet inaccurate weapon. Navigation and target selection proved to be difficult under the best of conditions. The darkness, high altitudes and clouds that were frequently encountered by Zeppelin missions reduced accuracy even further. Their flammable hydrogen lifting gas made them vulnerable at lower altitudes. Several were shot down in flames and others crashed en route. They began to fly higher, above the range of other aircraft, but this made their accuracy even worse. In the end, airships were best suited for scouting during the war and the bombing raids turned out to be disastrous in terms of morale, men and material. Many pioneers of the German airship service died in what was the first strategic bombing campaign in history.
After the war, a number of nations operated airships, including Britain, the United States, Italy, France, Russia and Japan. Most discontinued their use by the early 1930s and, within a few years, only Germany was still in pursuit of the superior airship. The Zeppelin company was operating a passenger service between Frankfort and Recife in Brazil, which took 68 hours. In the middle 1930s, the company started building an airship that was specifically designed to offer passenger service across the Atlantic to the United States.
After Adolph Hitler’s rise to power, around this same time, the Zeppelin lent itself to exploitation by the Nazis. The German public perceived the development of the airships as a national achievement, rather than as a business one. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels employed airships in mass events, as a daunting symbol of Nazi power. With no other country in the world employing the massive airships on a regular basis, Germany flaunted its superiority in this area, starting a regular transatlantic service in March 1936.
On May 3, 1937, the Luftschiff Zeppelin 129 Hindenburg departed from the Rhein-Main Airport in Frankfort, Germany, lifting into the air toward the United States. The airship’s namesake was the recently deceased Paul von Hindenburg, a World War I field marshal, president of the Weimar Republic and a national figure. The Hindenburg was over eight hundred feet long, 135 feet in diameter, and weighed approximately two hundred and fifty tons. To provide the lift that was required to get the monstrous ship off the ground, its sixteen gas cells had to be filled with combustible hydrogen.
Since its maiden flight in 1936, the Hindenburg had completed twenty flights across the Atlantic Ocean and had broken the speed record of previous Zeppelins. Under normal conditions, its engines accelerated the airship to 84 miles per hour, but favorable winds had allowed for top speeds of up to 188 miles per hour. A westward trip from Germany to the United States took an average of 36 hours and 42 minutes. Although the Hindenburg had been built to accommodate between fifty and seventy passengers, it carried only 36 travelers in addition to 61 crew members when it embarked on its fatal final flight. The passengers could rest in twenty heated cabins at the center of the hull’s lower decks. Amenities on board included a dining room, a reading, writing and smoking room, and centrally located restrooms with showers. Panoramic windows embedded in the concave hull provided spectacular views for those on the promenade deck.
From the start of the trip, Captains Max Pruss and Ernest Lehmann had to confront a number of problems, all of them due to bad weather conditions. Storms first kept the airship from crossing the English Channel and then delayed its journey across the Atlantic. Blown off course to Newfoundland, it passed over Manhattan behind schedule at 3:00 p.m. on May 6. It finally reached the Naval Air station in Lakehurst, New Jersey, at 6:00 p.m. but heavy rain kept the airship from initiating landing procedures. After an hour, the storm passed and the Hindenburg approached the mooring mast. It was to be a high landing, known as a flying moor, after which the airship would be winched down to ground level. This type of landing maneuver reduced the number of necessary ground crew, but required more time. The landing was initiated at 7:00 p.m.
At 7:09 p.m., however, the airship made a sharp full speed left turn to the west around the landing field because the ground crew was not ready. Two minutes later, it turned back toward the landing field and began to slow. Three minutes later, Captain Pruss ordered all engines full astern so that the airship could be stopped. At 7:17 p.m., the wind shifted direction to the southwest and Pruss was forced to make a second, sweeping sharp turn, this time to the starboard. Two minutes later, the airship made another sharp turn and dropped its water ballast because the Hindenburg was stern-heavy. Six men were also sent to the bow to trim the airship, which allowed it to be on an even keel as it stopped. At 7:21 p.m., the mooring lines were dropped from the bow. The starboard line was dropped first, followed by the port line. The port line was connected to the post of the ground winch. The starboard line was left dangling.
At 7:25 p.m., a few witnesses saw the fabric ahead of the upper fin flutter as though gas was leaking. Other witnesses also reported seeing blue discharges, possibly static electricity, moments before fire erupted on top of the ship. Several other eyewitness testimonies suggest that the first flame appeared on the port side just ahead of the port fin, and was followed by flames that burned on top. On board, people heard a muffled explosion and those in the front of the ship felt a shock as the port mooring rope jerked on its winch. The officers in the control car initially thought the shock was caused by a broken rope.
Moments later, the Hindenburg caught fire and became engulfed in flames.
The fire quickly spread. Almost instantly, a water tank and a fuel tank burst out of the hull due to the shock of the blast. This shock also caused a crack behind the passenger decks and the rear of the structure imploded. The stern of the ship lost its buoyancy and the bow lurched upwards. As theHindenburg's tail crashed into the ground, a burst of flame came out of the nose, killing nine of the twelve crew members in the bow. As the airship continued to fall with its bow pointing upwards, part of the port side directly behind the passenger deck collapsed inward and the gas cell there exploded. The airship’s gondola wheel touched the ground, causing the burning ship to bounce upwards. At this point, most of the fabric had burned away. Finally, the airship went crashing onto the ground, bow first. The Hindenburg had been completely destroyed.
Various theories have been suggested as to the cause of the fire on board the airship. Contemporaries suspected sabotage or a lightning strike, while more recent experts believe that maneuvering in the storm may have caused a build-up of static electricity in the ship’s envelope. An electric discharge could have ignited the hydrogen. To this day, no one knows for sure.
Unbelievably, despite the violent fire, most of the crew and passengers survived. Of the 36 passengers and 61 crew members, thirteen of the passengers and 22 members of the crew perished. As the burning airship had crashed down on the landing field, the American landing crew had fled in a panic, but one linesman, Allen Hagaman, had been killed by falling debris.
The majority of the airship crew who died were up inside the ship’s hull, where they either had no easy escape route or were too close to the bow of the ship, which hung burning in the air, for them to find a way out. Most of the passengers who were killed were trapped in the starboard side of the passenger deck. Not only had the wind blown the fire toward the starboard side, but the ship had also rolled slightly to that side when it hit the ground, sealing off the observation windows and cutting off the escape of any passengers on that side of the ship. To make matters worse, the sliding door leading from the starboard passenger area to the central foyer and gangway stairs (through which rescuers led many passengers to safety) jammed shut in the crash, which also trapped the starboard side passengers. A few of them did escape, but most did not. By contrast, all but a few of the passengers on the port side of the dirigible survived the fire, most escaping virtually unscathed.
When the control car crashed to the ground, most of the officers jumped out of the windows and became separated. First Officer Albert Sammt found Captain Max Pruss going back into the wreckage to look for survivors. Pruss was badly burned on his face and he required months of hospitalization and surgery, but he survived. Captain Ernst Lehmann escaped the crash with burns to his head and arms and severe burns across most of his back. Although his injuries did not seem as severe as those of Captain Pruss, he died at a nearby hospital the next day.
Out of the twelve crewmen in the bow of the ship, only three of them survived. Four of these men were standing on the mooring shelf, a platform at the very tip of the bow from which the front landing ropes and mooring cables were released to the ground crew, and which was directly in front of gas cell #16. The rest were standing either along the lower keel walkway ahead of the control car, or were on platforms beside the stairway that led up the curve of the bow to the mooring shelf. During the fire, as the bow hung in the air at a steep angle, flames shot forward and burst through the bow, roasting the unfortunate men alive. The three men from the forward section that survived, elevator operator Kurt Bauer, cook Alfred Grözinger and electrician Josef Leibrecht, were those furthest aft of the bow, and Bauer and Grözinger happened to be standing near two large triangular air vents, through which cool air was being drawn by the fire. They managed to escape with only superficial burns.
The other men either fell into the fire or tried to leap from the Hindenburg when it was still too high in the air. Three of the four men standing on the mooring shelf inside the very tip of the bow were actually taken from the wreck alive, though one of them, a rigger named Erich Spehl, died shortly afterward in the Air Station’s infirmary. The other two, helmsman Alfred Bernhard and apprentice elevator operator Ludwig Felber, initially survived the fire but died at area hospitals later that night.
The four crew members who had been in the tail fin survived the disaster. Although they were closest to the origin of the fire, they were sheltered by the structure of the lower fin. They escaped by climbing out of the fin’s access hatch when the tail hit the ground.
The Hindenburg disaster remains one of the most widely known calamities in American history, thanks largely to the wide press coverage that the airship fire attracted. There was a large amount of newsreel coverage and photographs taken of the crash, as well as Herbert Morrison's recorded, on-the-scene, eyewitness radio report for station WLS in Chicago, which was broadcast the next day. This was the first transatlantic flight by a Zeppelin to the United States that year and it was heavily publicized, bringing many journalists to the scene.
The photographs and film footage of the scene were tragic but Morrison’s radio broadcast remains one of the most famous in history:
It's practically standing still now. They've dropped ropes out of the nose of the ship; and (uh) they've been taken ahold of down on the field by a number of men. It's starting to rain again; it's... the rain had (uh) slacked up a little bit. The back motors of the ship are just holding it (uh) just enough to keep it from...It's burst into flames! It burst into flames, and it's falling, it's crashing! Watch it! Watch it! Get out of the way! Get out of the way! Get this, Charlie; get this, Charlie! It's fire... and it's crashing! It's crashing terrible! Oh, my! Get out of the way, please! It's burning and bursting into flames and the... and it's falling on the mooring mast. And all the folks agree that this is terrible; this is the one of the worst catastrophes in the world. [indecipherable] its flames... Crashing, oh! Four- or five-hundred feet into the sky and it... it's a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. It's smoke, and it's in flames now; and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity! and all the passengers screaming around here. I told you; it—I can't even talk to people Their friends are out there! Ah! It's... it... it's a... ah! I... I can't talk, ladies and gentlemen. Honest: it's just laying there, mass of smoking wreckage. Ah! And everybody can hardly breathe and talk and the screaming. Lady, I... I... I'm sorry. Honest: I... I can hardly breathe. I... I'm going to step inside, where I cannot see it. Charlie, that's terrible. Ah, ah... I can't. Listen, folks; I... I'm gonna have to stop for a minute because [indecipherable] I've lost my voice. This is the worst thing I've ever witnessed.
The film footage at the scene, as well as Morrison’s passionate recording, shattered public faith in airships and marked the end of the giant passenger-carrying airships. The Hindenburg crash certainly marked the end of an era – closing the story with a scene of horror that still resonates today as an eerie haunting at the Naval Air Station hospital.
The hospital, known officially at that time as Naval Dispensary Lakehurst, was in the middle of the disaster on the night the Hindenburg fell burning from the sky. The doctors, nurses and corpsman that were stationed there in 1937 offered their assistance during the tragic event, although little detail is known about how the medical personnel on the site triaged the wounded or cared for the dead. It is known that the dispensary was utilized after the crash, though, and that many of the injured were brought there. The role the hospital played has been commemorated by the state of New Jersey and has been listed on the registry of historical sites.
And many New Jersey ghost buffs have listed the hospital as one of the state’s haunted sites, as well.
The Naval Air Station in Lakehurst played an important role in transatlantic airship flights. The base commanding officer at the time was Lieutenant Commander C.E. Rosendahl, who eventually rose to the grade of vice admiral, and was a longtime proponent of airship aviation. The base hospital, which is now known as the Branch Medical Clinic of the National Naval Medical Center, became a key player in the events that followed the Hindenburg crash.
Lieutenant Carl Victor Green, Jr., the Naval Air Station base physician, along with his son, Robert, was among those watching the airship as it approached the mooring tower. The Hindenburg was running late and Robert had anxiously looked forward to seeing it arrive at the base. “It was evening, but quite light,” Lt. Green recalled in an interview many years later. “The nose of the silver ship was pointed toward the town of Lakehurst. She was poised for her pulling down and landing tower docking.”
Suddenly, there were three rapid explosions. Green remembered, “The rear half of the vessel was totally enveloped in bright orange flame. A blast of heat blew over us, standing a half-mile away.” He and his son watched in shock and terror as the mighty Zeppelin fell to the ground in a blazing ball of fire.
"I hurried to the base hospital. I watched people walking in, carried into the hospital or ambulance garage, which had become a temporary morgue,” Green said. Fortunately, only one man from the ground crew died at the hospital. The hull of the ship fell on him after he tripped and fell on the railroad tracks used to stabilize the airship after mooring. Many of the injured were treated at the hospital and several of them died.
On the morning after the disaster, smoke was still rising from the black and twisted skeleton that had once been the world’s largest flying vessel. Eyewitnesses on the scene claimed they would never forget the horrible smell of burning flesh that was in the air. A number of bodies were unidentified and they were moved into the crew’s quarters in the hangar. It had been hastily transformed into a temporary morgue. A small group of men and women filed past the charred remains of 26 of the victims in an attempt to identify them. Detachments of sailors were posted as guards around the ruins of the airship and no information was given out to the curiosity-seekers who flocked to the area. Men who served on the base at that time stated that they would never forget those darks days in 1937.
The Branch Medical Clinic of today, once a full-service naval hospital, was built in 1921 when the base first opened as an airship station. Officers and corpsmen stationed at the clinic will say without reservation that it is a great duty station for enjoying the Jersey Shore and nearby cities like Philadelphia, Atlantic City and New York but they will often add that strange things happen at the old hospital that cannot easily be explained.
It is not uncommon, they have said, to hear mysterious footsteps, rattling doors, loud crashes, voices, and to see lights flashing off and on. Many who have been stationed here have come to believe that some of those who have died in the building do not rest in peace. The majority of them believe that the spirits of those who died in the Hindenburg disaster have remained behind to haunt the clinic and the surrounding buildings.
Is the naval station haunted? Many who have worked here believe that it is. But whether you believe in ghosts or not, the crash of the Hindenburg remains a tangible part of the history of the Lakehurst Naval Station that will never be forgotten.