Hindenburg Remembered: Why It Still Matters
When people from all walks of life, from far corners of the earth, gather in Ocean County this weekend to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Hindenburg's fiery destruction in Lakehurst, it's another chapter in a perpetual tug-of-war between myth and reality.
Despite the airship's well-documented doomed landing attempt, and the logical conclusion that a spark hit highly-volatile hydrogen, there are only hypotheses as to how it was triggered.
The Hindenburg was the 1937 equivalent of 9/11, except without an actual enemy or means of response involved. It spurred a comparable number of changes in the way society approached air travel and security. It's informed many facets of our culture, from verbal shorthand for big trouble to rock and roll.
This mystery in plain sight can be viewed as a prime reason why the disaster remains a touchstone for historians and breeds interest into new generations.
"We get a tremendous amount of requests from young children," says Carl Jablonski, President of the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society. "Grammar school, high school, college...they're all doing projects on the Hindenburg."
Carl relates that many of the inquiries involve not only questions to be answered, but requests for artifacts. He and his small band of volunteers diligently respond to each request and send photos. Actual artifacts, such as those seen on this page, remain in the Society's archives at Hangar One on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.
The disaster has been dramatized, most famously, twice in the past four decades: a 1975 film starring George C. Scott, and a 2011 made-for-TV presentation. They're darkly romanticized versions that show vivid imagination, and they help complete an imaginary puzzle. But those who know the exact chain of events didn't live to relate them, and it only adds to the mystique.
Three people directly connected in some way to that fateful day, says Carl, are still alive. "Werner Franz was a 14-year-old cabin boy," he explains. Franz was in an officer's wardroom, he says, and "thought he'd bought the farm. Out of nowhere, a 500-gallon water ballast burst above his head, drenched him with water, and he walked out without a scratch."
Franz, now in his 90s, still lives in Germany, and is too physically frail to travel to the Lakehurst ceremonies as he once did. However, says Carl, he answers inquiries and is always open to discuss the tragedy.
Not so with Werner Donner, who was eight years of age and en route with his family from Frankfurt to their Long Island home. He survived, but his sister and mother were among the 36 casualties.
"He lives in Parachute, Colorado," says Carl. "He has become quite a recluse. He doesn't wish to discuss this event because of the tragedy that took place within his family."
The third is Dr. Horst Schermer, a career physician at Johns Hopkins in Maryland, who is taking the trip to Ocean County this weekend.
"Dr. Schermer was a child of five or six," says Carl. "His father designed the aeronautics...the engines, the fins. Before the Hindenburg was flying for revenue service, his father took the then-young Dr. Schermer...for joyrides."
Dr. Schermer will speak at Saturday's dinner at the Clarion, formerly the Quality Inn, on Route 37 in Toms River, which serves as a fundraiser to cover costs of the ceremony and for the small group's ongoing mission.
Also attending are Doug King, whose late father was a baggage handler for the Zeppelin Company assigned to the Lakehurst docking station; Mary Alice Noone, granddaughter of a passenger who didn't survive the crash; and Robert Buchanan, 91, of Waretown, the only known civilian survivor from the ground crew.
The Sunday ceremony will take place just before 7 pm, at the exact time of the original crash, on the original site at what is now the Joint Base. It, and the dinner, are open to the public. If you'd like to attend, see all about it at nlhs.com.