LAKEHURST – For some, preserving the past and sharing glimpses of history is a passion. Those same individuals stress, however, that history is something that should be shared and appreciated by all.
On Saturday, May 6, the Hindenburg disaster that put Lakehurst, New Jersey, on the world map, will observe its 80th anniversary. Much like the Titanic ocean liner which was also described as a modern marvel of its time yet sank after striking an iceberg, the Hindenburg was promoted as the greatest aerial engineering marvel ever created.
The German Zeppelin was a familiar sight in the sky around Ocean County during her one year of transatlantic service from 1936 to 1937. It was housed, like many other airships, at the Naval Air Station Lakehurst which also hosted operations of U.S. Navy airships such as the Shenandoah and Akron. The station’s giant hangar also facilitated the Graf, which was the Hindenburg’s predecessor.
The Hindenburg had a length of 804 feet, standing 146 feet tall and had a speed capability of more than 80 miles per hour. It could cross the ocean with as many as 70 passengers and 10,000 pounds of express freight. The Zeppelin served as a propaganda tool for Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany. On the evening of May 6, 1937 the Hindenburg approached Lakehurst 12 hours late on her first arrival of the year’s operating season. Despite the rain, and no celebrities on board, a large crowd gathered to greet her. At 7:15 p.m., as radio announcer Herb Morrison described the airship LZ 129 as a “floating palace,” it caught fire and was destroyed as it attempted to dock.
Nearly 100 people were on board, including 36 passengers and 61 crewmen. Of those, 13 passengers and 22 crewmen died. One worker on the ground was also killed, raising the final death toll to 36.
Navy Lakehurst Historical Society member Rick Zitarosa said that the Hindenburg disaster is important to remember because “it was the first major tragic event captured in real time. It was captured on newsreel and on NBC radio. The Hindenburg itself was both at the pinnacle of lighter than air flight and its ending. It was the Concorde of its day with premium price for passengers. This was at a time where there were no commercial airplane flights.”
Zitarosa said that Zeppelins were popular in 1936 and growing in use by passengers in 1937. He added that “1937 looked to be their year but a series of random events happened and subsequently led to a battle for acquiring helium which the U.S. did not want Germany to have due to Hitler’s aggression. By the time the war was over, there was no economic hope for lighter than air, air service. If not for the depression, or if airships came out earlier, history may have been rewritten.”
Zitarosa added that various random incidents occurred that led to the disaster. He said pilot error played a big part of it, including a decision to use a different method of landing the vehicle utilizing less of the existing ground crew.
“They had the man power. There was no reason for their senior man to make that decision. They came in with less than best conditions and everyone knew the danger of storms and they were losing flammable gas even some rubber factories in north Jersey shut down due to the storm for fear of a problem from the storm front,” Zitarosa said.
Zitarosa compared the Hindenburg to another aerial disaster, the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. “The Challenger was another high profile vehicle whose type was accepted but not proven and weather conditions contributed to that disaster.”
Franklin Reusch, president of the Ocean County Historical Society and Brian Bovasso, who will be replacing him in that role later this year, also have strong feelings about preserving history. The Hindenburg is featured in a special collection at the museum. Among the items featured in the lower level of the museum, which is located at 26 Hadley Ave. in Toms River, is an ashtray which was recovered from the disaster. A glass replica of the Hindenburg, which is part of the ashtray, features a small amount of red Esso brand fuel residue that was used for the machinery aboard the airship.
“That fuel was used for the propellers,” Reusch noted.
“We’ve had this display here for at least seven to eight years. It may have been here longer,” Bovasso said. Both men stressed that organizations like theirs are operated by volunteers who have a passion for history and who wish to share it with residents of various ages who can appreciate eras of the past.
“It is probably the most noteworthy event that happened in Ocean County at the time or perhaps since,” Reusch said.
“Part of our mission statement is telling stories of Ocean County and the Hindenburg has a lot of interest. Our museum is not a government facility and people can come here and visit all the time and it brings historical events like the Hindenburg alive,” Bovasso said.
Reusch said that most of the Hindenburg artifacts, much like other collections at the museum, are provided through donations. Various photos and plate ware from the famous airship are among the items that can be seen as part of the display. For information about the museum, call 732-341-1880 or visit oceancountyhistory.org.