Memories Of Hindenburg Haunt Two Ocean County Women

Jill Lewis, left, joins her mother Joyce McGee, who is holding a photo of her father David “Doc” Safford who was a member of the line crew during the fateful night of the Hindenburg disaster. (Photo by Bob Vosseller)

  LAKEHURST –It happened more than 80 years ago but the memories of that fateful day in May, 1937, will never be forgotten.

  Two borough women in their 90s recalled their memories of that day as if it were yesterday.

  “My grandfather helped bring the Hindenburg to land when it first came to the base and he helped build Hangar One (located at the Lakehurst Naval base which is part of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst),” said Denise Maynard, a local photographer. Her grandfather was Harry Brown.

  Her mother, Virginia Brown, said she and her husband came to Lakehurst in 1925. We’ve seen a lot of changes.”

  Brown described what she observed on May 6, 1937. “We saw this great big dirigible go over as it passed overhead outside our house and then we heard a big noise. As soon as we heard that my father took off and we didn’t see him until the next morning.”

  Her daughter noted, “she worked on the base for 35 years and retired from there.” Brown said she worked for the Navy Exchange in the office and her husband was in the service.

Virginia Brown, 91, stands beside a display showing the Hindenburg and other facts related to the historic event of May 6, 1937 during an event at the Borough’s Community Center. (Photo by Bob Vosseller)

  “She saw the Hindenburg and I saw the Blue Angels when they crashed,” Maynard added.

  Lakehurst Historical Society member Bill Schmidt has been collecting the memories of people like Brown. Joyce Safford McGee is another long-time borough resident who Schmidt spoke to in his ongoing mission to communicate with those who are connected to the Hindenburg tragedy.

  Schmidt who does presentations at the LHS Museum and other requested locations about the Hindenburg, sat down with McGee and her daughter Jill Lewis and went over some family history. They were later joined by The Manchester Times for another session of memory sharing about interesting times gone by.

  “Joyce was five years old when that day (May 7, 1937) took place,” Schmidt said.

  “That afternoon we knew the dirigible was going to come over because in the morning as it went over it was low enough – about a tree top high – that they would wave from the windows to us and we would wave back so we knew that when they left, they would come back again,” she said.

  “Being as young as I was, I didn’t know the reason that they had left and came back again. I was outside playing in the yard and it started to rain. We had a bad thunderstorm and as I was walking across the ground and walkway back over to my house it blew up,” McGee said.

  McGee added, “I didn’t know what it was. All I knew was this great big red ball had knocked me to the ground and I got up and ran to my house. My sister was four months old and in a carriage, and they said the carriage had bounced on the floor. My older two sisters were there watching her.”

Lakehurst Historical Society member Bill Schmidt holds up the May 1949 edition issue of The Airship News that published an article about Lakehurst resident Doc Safford and his commendation for his efforts at the Lakehurst Naval airfield. (Photo by Bob Vosseller)

  She said she ran outside again and “I never saw so many people come to a house as they did to our house.” The highway wasn’t in place at the time and where the current 3 B’s restaurant is located on Route 37 is where her family house was.

  “Lake Street ran all the way down to the bog and from the bog right across is where the field was,” she added. “Everybody started to come and I didn’t know where they came from. I was a little leery; I was just a little kid and to see all these cars coming, you wonder what in God’s name is going on. My mother came quick and grabbed me and put her arms around me and checked the other three kids to make sure they were all right,” she added.

  McGee said, “everyone came over and asked ‘is Doc” okay?’ My mother said she hadn’t heard yet. Doc was my father who was one of the ground crew of the Hindenburg. He was handling the (landing) lines.”

  When her father David Reese Safford was first in the U.S. Navy he had medical experience which is how he got the nickname of “Doc.”

  “Down the street from us was Auggie Miller who was head of the Lakehurst Fire Department and he came over to the house hollered, Dolly, Dolly (her mother) and he said I just talked to Doc and he’s fine and he wanted me to tell you he’s fine and he can’t come home until he’s released and it could be quite a while,” she added.

Photo by Bob Vosseller

  When her father did return, “he came to our bedroom and kissed each one of us on the cheek and said ‘I’m okay. I’m here for you, go back to sleep,’” McGee said with tears in her eyes from the memory. “We loved our father dearly. He was a very special man.”

  She would learn later that her father had aided a woman and her son who had jumped from the zeppelin and were on fire. He had wrapped his coat around them and put them into an ambulance.

  Her uncle was at a theater in Toms River at the time of the incident and “he said that after it blew, the noise was so loud that you could hear it for miles and miles. They announced it. The man from the theater came up and announced to the audience that the Hindenburg had blown up at Lakehurst.

  “My uncle said everyone just peeled out of the theater and just left. He said there wasn’t a soul left in the theater and of course he came right to our house,” she recalled.

  The family has a copy of the May 1949 edition of The Airship News that published an article about her father, and his commendation for his efforts at the airfield that day.