It was a gray morning, that first Thursday in May, as a group of neighborhood friends gathered with me and my brothers in the expansive front yard of our New Jersey home. I was only four years old at the time, but the excitement of the moment has never been diminished by the passage of time in my memory.
Evidence that our vigil had not been in vain came first not from anything we could see or hear, but from a vibration that caused the ground beneath our feet to tremble. Next came the sound, and the cause of that resonance, the slow heavy beat of five powerful Daimler-Benz 16-cylinder diesels. It seemed forever before the bulbous, silver nose of the great airship came into view, just over the roofs of nearby homes, flying much lower than we had expected. Even the grown-ups around me exclaimed in wonder as little by little the full extent of the massive craft came into view. Living where we did, the sight of both rigid airships and their non-rigid and smaller cousins, the blimps, were not unknown. After all, Lakehurst, with its docking station was just a few miles away. But this was different. The Hindenburg was nearly the length of three football fields, and got its lift from more than 7 million cubic feet of hydrogen gas.
If a close-up view of the history-making giant wasn’t enough to stir emotions among onlookers, the red and black swastika which adorned the port tail fin was. While the Nazi symbol was a common image in newsreels and magazines, there was something discomforting about seeing it so boldly displayed in New Jersey’s peaceful skies, and over America, isolated from the gathering storm clouds of Europe. What we didn’t know, and couldn’t see from our vantage point, was that the opposite – starboard – side of the tail fin was painted differently – featuring the traditional and less menacing German national tri-colors. Wishing not to fan negative sentiments among New York City’s Jewish population, the Hindenburg crew was instructed to make its planned circling of the city so that mainly the politically-correct side of the ship would be seen by the waving crowds.
Growing up in a home with two much older brothers who were enthusiastic followers of human events and voracious readers, I was exposed daily to conversations, discussions and debates on a wide range of subjects. My father was a wounded veteran of The Great War, and a great-great uncle who lived with us had been born when the Battle of Gettysburg was being fought. Only years later would I be able to look back and realize that our home was a dynamic “class room” and I was an eager student. Which might help to explain why all these years after, I am sill captivated by moments of history. . . and the era of Great Airships.
Germany had been a world leader in aviation technology, and the giant “lighter-than-air” dirigibles were born there. German “Zeppelins” – named for Count Graf von Zeppelin, their pioneering “godfather” had actually dropped bombs on London in WW I. Paradoxically, the whole concept of a military role for aviation was spawned on the battlefields of America’s Civil War, where tethered gas-filled balloons had been used by the Union Army’s Signal Corps to observe enemy defensive strategies. President Lincoln had given permission for Prussian officers to travel with the Army of The Potomac as observers.
That May day, as enthusiastic crowds stood marveling at the sight of the mighty Hindenburg pass overhead, we might be excused for thinking that we were seeing a preview of the future, despite the fact that our own introduction to airship technology had been disastrous, with the crashes of all but one of our own rigid airships, as had England and Italy with theirs. But here was something more hopeful, a modern wonder capable of carrying transatlantic passengers between continents in great comfort and luxury in a matter of mere hours. After all, Germany’s famous Graf Zeppelin had already done that very thing for nine successful years, without so much as a personal injury to anyone.
What we didn’t know at that moment was that within hours, the Hindenburg would meet with disaster just miles from where we stood, and the era of the Great Airships would die with it.
The mighty Hindenburg bursts into flames at the mooring mast at Lakehurst N.J., on May 6, 1937, effectively ending the Era of Great Airships.