“Oh, the humanity!”: The 75th Anniversary of the Hindenburg Disaster

Are all children fascinated with disasters, or was it just me? As I said just a few weeks ago when we commemorated the 100th anniversary of the launch and sinking of the Titanic, I had a few books about it in my collection as a small child. Today, as we recognize another anniversary, one where the world’s finest airship exploded and crashed upon attempting to land 75 years ago, I recollect one book on the subject that I just loved to muse through. It was a massive, coffee-table sized book, loaded with tons of information on this rather small event. The main feature which always captivated me was an enormous, four-panel fold-out diagram of the Hindenburg ship, which was so detailed, it sparked a lot in my young imagination, and led to me viewing The Hindenburg, a film which starred George C. Scott, shortly after. I do not know what it was with my fascination in disasters such as this, but then again, I guess I am not the only one, for there are many books, all on different tragic events, geared toward children, perhaps to plant the seed in young minds of what can become of human error and placing too much faith in vessels that were deemed too safe to fail.

The Hindenburg is one of those disasters that always hits home with people, more so than the Titanic, even though one has attained continual worldwide fame with multiple societies and films made about it, and the other has only one humble home, a tiny museum in the middle of a field in Lakehurst, New Jersey. The reason is because there is an actual newsreel of the crash, as well as an audio recording of one of the most famous pieces of breaking news footage in history, where Herbert Morrison was describing the disaster he was witnessing with his own eyes as it unfolded:

It’s practically standing still now. They’ve dropped ropes out of the nose of the ship, and they’ve been taken a hold of down on the field by a number of men. It’s starting to rain again; it’s—the rain had slacked up a little bit. The back motors of the ship are just holding it just, just enough to keep it from — It burst into flames! It burst into flames, and it’s falling, it’s crashing! Watch it! Watch it, folks! 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 worst of the worst catastrophes in the world. [Indecipherable word(s)] It’s–it’s–it’s the flames, [indecipherable, possibly the word “climbing”] 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 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, I can’t even talk to people whose friends are on there. Ah! It’s–it’s–it’s–it’s … o–ohhh! I–I can’t talk, ladies and gentlemen. Honest, it’s just laying there, a mass of smoking wreckage. Ah! And everybody can hardly breathe and talk, and the screaming. Lady, 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. I, listen, folks, I–I’m gonna have to stop for a minute because I’ve lost my voice. This is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed.

When people can feel apart of something, either through video, audio, or just still photography, it tends to draw them to it, which is something we obviously lack with the Titanic, as the only documentation we have consists of pictures in newspapers before the sinking, and some of the floating debris upon others ships going back to the site to try to find any survivors. Those that keep the Hindenburg alive are a small and dedicated bunch, and the museum and airfield are worth at least one visit—I was there when I was about ten years old, and only have vague memories of it. My family history does have one connection to this as well, as on this date in 1937, my grandfather, Charles Shutter, saw the Hindenburg flying over Staten Island, on its way down to New Jersey. He had been sick and home from school all day with the mumps, and was out on the front porch when he witnessed the pride and glory of the Nazi Government flying calmly overhead. It must be understood that this was a major event. It was the world’s finest airship, and it was coming to the United States. Germany was not yet our enemy, and there was much news coverage of this monumental flight. Had it not been for the hype, then there would not have been any coverage of its landing, and ensuing infamous crash.

Unfortunately, though, remembrance of this event seems to be lost to history, save for a famous cover or two of a Led Zeppelin album. There could be many reasons for this: one being that the ship was a Nazi aircraft, and the coming years led many to want to forget that this object ever came into the United States (even though there were Americans and famous passengers on board, none having anything to do with the Nazis), or maybe because the technology of airships eventually drifted off into obscurity as well. At a time where airplane travel was not commonplace and ships took too long, vessels like the Hindenburg were seen as groundbreaking, because it could travel more quickly, safely, and even quite luxuriously. However, given the publicity surrounding its crash, including 35 deaths out of a total of 97 passengers and crew, led to the ultimate downfall of this new way of traveling, as the public wanted nothing to do with it.

If you view the pictures and newsreel footage of the fiery explosion that sent this blazing frame of metal crashing down to earth, you would deem it a miracle that anyone survived at all. It is amazing that in all that fire, the cause of the explosion still unknown, people were actually able to climb or leap out of the gondola and make it to safety. Please, take some time to remember this today, and take a look at some of the documentation we have. 75 years later, it’s about time the Hindenburg got its due.

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