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Two-Day Retrospective Marks Hindenburg 76th Anniversary

Seventy-six years ago this Monday, May 6, the skies over Lakehurst became a fiery furnace, fueled by hydrogen from the airship Hindenburg. The Navy Lakehurst Historical Society marks it with displays, discussions and observances Sunday and Monday.

Hindenberg Erupts on Approach (Navy Lakehurst Historical Society)
Hindenberg Erupts on Approach (Navy Lakehurst Historical Society)

The annual observance at the Joint Base, near Hangar Three that once housed the mighty dirigible, is invitation-only this year, reversing a policy that had been re-instituted several years after 9/11. Jablonski says that incidents such as the Boston Marathon bombings have raised security concerns on the installation.

The ceremony includes a presentation of wreaths by the Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. It commemorates those who died in the disaster as well as all American military members who gave their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. Active duty military members, base personnel and local officials are also on the invitation list.

To compensate, the group conducts free symposiums Sunday and Monday at the Lakehurst Community Center. Among those taking part are Dr. Horst Schirmer of Baltimore and Robert Bennett of Waretown, two of three remaining survivors of the tragedy. The talks will be led by group President Carl Jablonsky and Vice President Rick Cigarosa.

Navy Lakehurst Historical Society President Carl Jablonski (Townsquare Media)
Navy Lakehurst Historical Society President Carl Jablonski (Townsquare Media)

Schirmer was not yet seven years old during the fateful flight he boarded, the son of the man who designed the dirigible’s aeronautical system. Bennett was a young member of the civilian ground crew who held guide lines that wend limp and cascaded to earth beneath the flame ball that consumed the superstructure in 34 seconds.

Schirmer maintains an active practice and is in residence at Johns Hopkins University. His other claim to fame, says Jablonski, is medical and perhaps even more significant.

“At the end of World War Two, German scientists were brought into America to work on the American rocket program,” he relates. “They had worked on Germany’s rocket program. One of the gentlemen was Dr. Werner Von Braun. During the conference, Dr. Von Braun became severely ill. He was diagnosed with a burst appendix. Dr. Schirmer operated on him and is credited with saving his life.”

And, in all probability, influencing the program that would lead to the original seven Astronauts, Neil Armstrong’s moon landing, the Space Shuttle, international space stations, strategic warfare and satellite technology.

Hindenburg Artifacts (Townsquare Media)
Hindenburg Artifacts (Townsquare Media)

Jablonski says that the number of historians, curiosity seekers and young students wanting to know more about the tragedy grows every year, and interest is still strong in Germany as well. “We’ve had people coming from German media,” he notes. “We had a film crew within the last few months, and they did a documentary which was shown exclusively in Germany.” A German telecast will also beam in live images from Monday’s ceremony.

It wasn’t the only disaster of its kind, and far from the worst. Four years earlier, the USS Akron plunged into the stormy waters off Barnegat Light, leaving all but three of the 76 on board dead. It’s still the largest death toll in an airship incident.The casualty count on the Hindenburg was 35 on board and one on the ground.

But Jablonski attributes the fixing of the Hindenburg on the world’s psyche to rarely-before-attempted media coverage. It was a routine flight and ostensibly a pleasant diversion for theater newsreels and radio news. Before the conflagration, iconic reporter Herb Morrison sounds detached, as though he is laboring to create interest.

“We had newsreel cameramen, still photographers, Herb Morrison,” he says, and the images flashed through the world for months afterward. “Everything was reported and filmed as it happened. The Akron…no one was there to see it happen.”

With the Nationalist Party’s red, black and white emblem highly visible fore and aft, the Hindenburg represented Adolf Hitler’s burgeoning bid for world power. But beyond the hubris, says Jablonski, the design and construction was the first step in a new aeronautical age.

“They were pioneers,” he says of the designers and builders. “The allowed us to make the gains we have today in aviation, in our space programs, and in rocketry in general.”

Corporate blimps such as those bearing the trademarks of Goodyear, Fuji, MetLife, Virgin and others have maintained steady schedules through the ensuing decades. But only in the past two years has the U.S. Navy returned to lighter-than-air travel at Lakehurst. The MZ-380 reconnaissance airship occupies hangar space, and is currently on assignment in North Carolina.

Airships now contain helium. The Hindenburg contained more than 7,000,000 cubic feet of highly-flammable hydrogen. But the exact series of events remains a mystery.

“The theory is that they made several sharp turns on trying to land,” says Jablonski. “One of the guy wires on one of the cells broke and caused a leak. Gas escaped. Because the airship was at a low altitude prior to landing, the gas didn’t dissipate. The next theory is that the landing ropes were wet from rain of the past days, and a static spark found this leak. A small fire started and became a big fire. We know the result.”

The Society conducts tours every Wednesday and on the second and fourth Saturdays of each month. To arrange one, call 732-818-7520. Members take your information and submit it to military staffers for security clearance, then return your call to finalize arrangements. Also, visit the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society web page.

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