MANCHESTER – Werner Doehner occupied a unique spot in history. For years, he was known as the last known survivor of the Hindenburg.
It was likely very difficult to be associated with such a tragedy. After all, the Hindenburg crash was known internationally, and his grief was very personal. Only 8 years old at the time of the crash, he lost two family members in the disaster.
He passed away on Nov. 8 at the age of 90.
When this reporter contacted Doehner in 2017 for The Manchester Times’ special edition chronicling the 80th Anniversary of the Hindenburg, he was living in the aptly named town of Parachute, Colorado. He left a voice mail for the reporter that said, in his German accent, “This is Werner Doehner, from the Hindenburg.” This was the only person in the world who could leave a voice mail like this.
Even when interviewed for the project, he did not offer much. He said something along the lines of “Everything’s already been said.”
Carl Jablonski, President of the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society, said that summed up his attitude toward reporters. In the past, Doehner had been hounded by journalists and had cameras aimed at him. People got his autograph and then sold it. Understandably, he became wary of anyone who tried to profit off his tragedy.
Jablonski said he never met the man, but they had spoken on the phone. While Doehner was less forthcoming with strangers, he was more comfortable talking with historians. He would share his experiences with those who had a true interest in the Hindenburg and the age of airships.
Not all of the attention he received was negative.
A nurse who treated him after the crash, Mary Shannon (mother of Ocean County Freeholder Director Virginia Haines), wrote letters to Werner and his brother Walter, keeping touch with them up until her passing in the 1990s.
When he turned 10, he was treated to a birthday party in Belmar thrown by the doctors and nurses who treated him here.
“He was very happy to be there for people who treated him and helped his family,” Jablonski said.
Doehner was 8 years old when he went on vacation to Germany with his family: father Hermann, 50, mother Matilde, 41, sister Irene, 14, and brother Walter, 10. The father was a pharmaceutical executive for a German-owned company in Mexico. The family was on their way back on May 6, 1937 when it happened.
The flight was delayed for 12 hours due to weather. As they were approaching Lakehurst, there was a one-hour window to land before the next spat of bad weather kicked up again. The crew, eager to land, brought the airship in to land.
But something went wrong – what, exactly, has been discussed at length without conclusion. The ship erupted in flames, and in less than a minute dropped to the ground at what is now Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. It claimed 36 people – 13 passengers, 22 crew, and one ground crew member.
Two of those lost were Doehner family members.
Walter and Werner jumped out of the observation deck’s windows to the ground below, with the help of their mother. Irene, his sister, panicked and fled to the state room. The mother and father looked for her but couldn’t find her. She had been found by a crew member and taken away from the crash. She died later that night from her burns. They never saw the father after he went off looking for his daughter. He was later found dead in the wreckage. His mother suffered a broken pelvis and burns.
Both brothers had severe burns to their hands and legs. They were treated for three months at Point Pleasant hospital before being transferred to New York.
One has to imagine what tissue transfer and plastic surgeries were like in 1937, especially for an 8-year-old boy.
Life went on for Doehner, even if every year he had to relive the experience. In 1967 he married. He settled in Mexico, Ecuador and then finally the U.S. An electrical engineer, he retired from New England Electric in 1999. In 2018, he moved from Parachute, Colorado to Laconia, New Hampshire to be closer to family.
The last time Doehner was here was for the 50th anniversary, in 1987. Doehner was scheduled to come out to the 80th anniversary, but it didn’t work out, Jablonski said. The group will likely have a memorial to him at next year’s ceremony.