On 6 May 1937, a tragedy took place that, caught on film, haunted the American consciousness for decades.
Built in Germany in 1935 the 800-foot long Zeppelin airship, the Hindenburg, was considered the height of sophisticated travel. It may only have travelled at 80 mph yet it still provided the fastest means of crossing the Atlantic – twice as fast as the speediest ship. It was akin to being on a luxury liner and had already made dozens of journeys across the Atlantic from Germany to Brazil or America and back. Of course, it wasn’t cheap – a one-way ticket across the Atlantic cost about US$400 (about US$7,000 / £4,500 in 2016).
With the Nazi swastika on its fins, it was named after the last president of the Weimar Republic, Paul von Hindenburg, who had appointed Hitler as Chancellor in January 1933, and who died in August 1934. Joseph Goebbels had, apparently, wanted the airship to be named the Adolf Hitler but the owner of the Zeppelin Company, Hugo Eckener, a known anti-Nazi, refused.
But before it became a transatlantic airship, the Hindenburg began its life as a tool of the Nazi propaganda ministry, run by Goebbels. In March 1936, ahead of a German plebiscite to rally support ratifying the re-occupation of the Rhineland, the Hindenburg was used to drop propaganda leaflets while blaring out loud patriotic music and slogans from huge loudspeakers, and broadcasting political speeches from a temporary on-board radio studio. (The plebiscite returned a 99.8 per cent vote in favour). On 1 August 1936, the Hindenburg made a special appearance flying above the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony of the Berlin Olympics trailing an Olympic flag in its wake.
The Hindenburg‘s last journey
On its 63rd and last, fateful journey, the Hindenburg had departed from Frankfurt on May 3, 1937, and was due to land at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on the morning of May 6. But poor weather had delayed its landing by about twelve hours. The captain, Max Pruss, kept his passengers entertained by flying over New York City. The Hindenburg had a capacity for about 70 passengers but on this trip there were only 36 passengers plus 61 crew.
At 7.25 p.m. the Hindenburg was trying to land by docking onto a 270-foot high mooring mast, from where it could be winched down to the ground. The flight was the first North Transatlantic trip of the year and TV and radio crews had gathered to record its arrival. Radio reporter, Herbert Morrison, was describing the events when inexplicably the airship exploded into flames. The tail of the ship was soon engulfed but the Hindenburg remained level for a few more seconds before the tail began to drop. As the ship tilted, passengers and crew and bits of furniture were thrown against the walls; one passenger remembered being hurled 15 to 20 feet against a dining room wall and being pinned there by several others.
The Hindenburg continued to lurch as the flames spread at almost 50 feet per second. Many on board were able to jump for their lives. ‘Oh, the humanity,’ wailed Morrison, a phrase that entered the lexicon of American culture. Within just 37 seconds the Hindenburg had been utterly destroyed. ‘Approaching Lakehurst,’ reported British Pathé News in a bit of poetic reportage, ‘the Hindenburg appeared a conquering giant of the skies. But she proved a puny plaything in the mighty grip of fate. It almost seemed as if fate had set the stage for the horrible tragedy. A graceful craft sailing serenely to her doom.’
Of the 97 people on board 35 died: 13 passengers and 22 crew, plus one ground crew member. But 62 did survive by jumping at the right time and running to safety. It wasn’t the first or worst airship disaster but the Hindenburg tragedy effectively brought the brief age of the airship to an abrupt end. Despite many theories, the exact cause of the fire remains a mystery but is generally believed to have been caused by an electrostatic discharge – in simpler terms, a spark that ignited leaking hydrogen.
Morrison’s commentary was married up to the film footage and flashed across the world. The two mediums ran at slightly different speeds so Morrison’s voice had to be speeded up to match the film, adding to its emotional intensity.
Here, is Morrison’s commentary:
“It’s burst into flames! It burst into flames, and it’s falling, it’s crashing! Watch it! Watch it! Get out of the way! Get out of the way! Get this, Charlie; get this, Charlie! It’s fire… and it’s crashing! It’s crashing terrible! Oh, my! Get out of the way, please! It’s burning and bursting into flames and the… and it’s falling on the mooring mast. And all the folks agree that this is terrible; this is the one of the worst catastrophes in the world. Its flames… Crashing, oh! Four- or five-hundred feet into the sky and it… it’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. It’s smoke, and it’s in flames now; and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity! And all the passengers screaming around here. I told you; it—I can’t even talk to people, their friends are out there! Ah! It’s… it… it’s a… ah! I… I can’t talk, ladies and gentlemen. Honest: it’s just laying there, mass of smoking wreckage. Ah! And everybody can hardly breathe and talk and the screaming. Lady, I… I… I’m sorry. Honest: I… I can hardly breathe. I… I’m going to step inside, where I cannot see it. Charlie, that’s terrible. Ah, ah… I can’t. Listen, folks; I… I’m going to have to stop for a minute because I’ve lost my voice. This is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed.”
Rupert Colley’s enthralling novel, set in Nazi-occupied France, The White Venus, is now available.