Thielke said during a recently held 85th Hindenburg Memorial Ceremony at the Joint Base that she doesn’t often talk about the fateful event she observed but was happy to share her recollections with those in attendance.
“My brother was 14 and we came home from school for lunch. My brother was there to ask my father if he wanted to see the Hindenburg come in. We wanted to go too so my brother went to our neighbor to call the school. We didn’t have a phone because of the depression,” said Thielke, now 97.
As her neighbor’s son also wanted to be present for the landing of the famed airship, the youngsters set out in a rumble seat of a 1934 Chevrolet. “We arrived at Lakehurst at 4 p.m. and the ship was coming in at 4:18 p.m.,” she added.
“They were delayed because of thunderstorms. They had to circle around so it was 7:15 p.m. when we saw it coming in. We watched them drop water that they used for ballasts. Then they dropped two large ropes for the groundcrew to pull it to the pylon so that passengers could disembark,” she said.
“There were around 200 men pulling the 800-plus-foot ship to the pylon. Some people there to help land the ship were from town, because there weren’t enough sailors. All of a sudden, I saw a terrific flash of light by the right-side motor. Everyone started to scream,” Thielke said.
Thielke said the explosion she witnessed sounded like fireworks and that people were running from the heat of the hydrogen burning. “I was trampled on, twice. They just ran right over me. I lost sight of my father and brother during the chaos and I went back to where we were originally standing. We watched the Navy trucks with the canvas tops take the wounded passengers and ground crew to the hospital.”
She vividly described the sight of a man inside one the trucks. “He was so badly burned that all his skin was hanging from his face. The edges were all black. I always wondered what happened to him.
“The fire burned out fast. We watched all the goings on and finally decided to go home. We couldn’t get out because so many cars had come to see it. There was so much traffic. We wound up getting home at 3:15 a.m. There were neighbors and police at the house, thinking we had gotten killed at Lakehurst that night,” she said.
Thielke said the next day her brother and the neighbor boy went to school but she did not. “I woke up with a high fever. I guess I was in shock with what I had seen.” At school her brother and the neighbor boy spoke about what they had witnessed to students and staff of their school. “When I came back to school the following day, they didn’t want us to talk about it and I rarely have since that day. My neighbors don’t even know what I am doing here tonight.”
The ceremony that evening was held to recognize and honor those who died during that tragic disaster. Navy Lakehurst Historical Society President Carl Jablonski spoke with members of the news media prior to this year’s ceremony which, due to inclement weather, was held inside Hangar One for only the second time in history.
Jablonski noted that Hindenburg was only housed in that hangar twice and that it was the largest rigid airship ever constructed. It carried 36 passengers and 61 officers, crew members, and trainees on board that day. Thirty-five of those 97 passengers and one member of the ground crew were killed during the disaster.
Along with Thielke and Jablonski several other speakers took part in the ceremony. Dr. Horst Schirmer, the son of the Hindenburg Aero Dynamical Engineer and who once traveled on the airship as a child, spoke about the deadly combination of a hydrogen leak and static electricity that is believed to have been the cause of the disaster.
NLHS vice president and historian Rick Zitarosa noted the advances in aerial technology that were achieved because of airships like the Hindenburg and what occurred after the disaster.
Professor Jennifer Suwak, the senior vice president of the NLHS also spoke during the ceremony saying “I remember watching the film “The Hindenburg” starring George C. Scott and Ann Bancroft at the theater here on base as a little girl with my dad, Walter Suwak, a World War II combat veteran.
“The film ‘The Hindenburg’ ignited my imagination, and although I think I fell asleep for a few minutes in the middle of it, I had an awakening to the sense of the enormity of that history that took place so close to where I lived,” she added.
A large set piece from the film is located within the Hangar and was a short distance from where the night’s ceremony was held. It is located just outside the NLHS gift shop that features a large model replica of the Hindenburg hung above the displays and merchandise within the store.