Memories remain, 75 years after Hindenburg tragedy

Robert Buchanan, shown in his Ocean County home in 2007, was a member of the dirigible Hindenburg’s ground crew when it crashed on May 6, 1937. He ran from “a cloud of flames,” he said. MEL EVANS/ Associated Press
Robert Buchanan, shown in his Ocean County home in 2007, was a member of the dirigible Hindenburg’s ground crew when it crashed on May 6, 1937. He ran from “a cloud of flames,” he said. MEL EVANS/ Associated Press
Posted: May 07, 2012

At first, the landing of the giant airship seemed routine.

Robert Buchanan and other rain-soaked members of the ground crew waited to grab landing lines to help dock the dirigible at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in Ocean County.

In the portside dining room of the 800-foot-long behemoth, little Werner Doehner and his family sat around a table, at the end of a transatlantic flight that had just taken them over Manhattan and the Jersey Shore.

Then came the horrifying moments, 75 years ago Sunday, that are etched in the minds of Doehner and Buchanan, and captured on historic newsreel films along with the now-famous words of a radio broadcaster: “Oh, the humanity!”

The Hindenburg, airborne luxury liner and pride of Adolf Hitler’s Germany, tilted and shuddered in the air, throwing the 8-year-old Doehner and others toward a rear wall. On the ground, Buchanan heard a puffing, as if gas were escaping, and saw sparks and spreading flames.

“It was the most terrifying thing I have ever seen in my life,” said Buchanan, 92, a Waretown, Ocean County, resident and the last surviving member of the dirigible’s ground crew.

“I was in four invasions during World War II, but none of them were as horrifying as the Hindenburg. I didn’t think I’d make it.”

Buchanan, whose hair was singed as he ran “from a cloud of flames,” will recall the disaster at the 75th annual Lighter-than-Air memorial service, set for 6:30 p.m. Sunday at Lakehurst’s Hangar 1, where the Hindenburg was housed during earlier visits.

The observance, open to the public, will honor military service members who died in airships, “those who have perished in America’s wars, and those who died in the Hindenburg disaster,” said officials at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.

The cause of the fire that engulfed the dirigible has never been conclusively determined.

“I am now convinced that if the accident was bound to happen, as many experts insist it was, it did so at the moment when the number of victims it caused was to be the least,” Doehner, 83, a Parachute, Colo., resident and the Hindenburg’s last surviving passenger, wrote in a letter to the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society. The letter is be read at the Sunday event.

“This was the first real tragedy filmed as it happened,” said Carl Jablonski, president of the society. “We know about the Titanic, but it wasn’t filmed. The Hindenburg was on every newsreel and on the front page of every newspaper. It’s an important part of history.”

Doehner was traveling with his father, Hermann, general manager of a German drug company headquartered in Mexico; his mother, Matilde; sister, Irene, and brother, Walter. The family’s destination was Mexico, where Hermann was a naturalized citizen.

By the time the Hindenburg flew over Boston on the morning of May 6, 1937, it was hours behind schedule and was about to be further delayed by poor weather at Lakehurst. While awaiting improved conditions, Capt. Max Pruss piloted the airship over Manhattan, drawing stares from crowds of people. In the harbor, ships blew their steam whistles. The Hindenburg later passed over Atlantic City and other Shore towns.

By 7 p.m., it was closing on Lakehurst Naval Air Station, where the ground crew prepared for its arrival. Buchanan was one of scores of civilians and Navy members ready to help the huge ship to the mooring tower. He was a 17-year-old Toms River resident who would be paid $1 for his services.

“We had been there since 4 p.m. and waited through two drenching rains,” Buchanan said. “All of us were soaking wet.

“It was a chilly day. I had a heavy wool sweater with a big roll-up collar,” he said. “I curled it around the neck to keep the water out.”

The diesel engines of the Hindenburg revved to full throttle as it moved in for the landing. The swastikas of the Third Reich were clearly visible on the tail, not a pretty sight to Buchanan, who went on to serve in the Signal Corps and participate in landings in Casablanca, Morocco; Sicily and Salerno, in Italy; and in the south of France.

“I was very pro-British and pro-French,” he said. “I was against Nazism, but our country was full of isolationists at the time.”

The airship was hovering a couple of hundred feet over Buchanan, who stood under the right rear engine. He knew the drill. He had been part of the ground crew when the Hindenburg visited three other times in 1936.

“There had never been any problem,” he said. “It was a slam dunk. But this time, instead of it coming in at about 100 feet, it came in at about 200 feet. It was a mystery to me.”

At 7:25 p.m., the Hindenburg shook and its bow lurched upward. “There was a backfire,” Buchanan said. “I saw sparks and in two or three seconds, it burst into flames,” igniting the hydrogen gas.

Five newsreel cameramen and a spectator who were there to film the landing did not start rolling until after the fire started, according to historical accounts.

“Today, I lose things, I don’t know where I put them,” Buchanan said. “I’m not very good remembering anything recent, but I can tell you about the war — and the Hindenburg. I will never forget it.”

Buchanan ran for his life. “I didn’t think I was going to make it,” he said.

The teenager raced toward a group of pine trees that stand today — and looked back to see the Hindenburg’s “nose rise up, and flames showing from the center of the ship.”

WLS radio broadcaster Herbert Morrison narrated: “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. …”

Inside the burning airship, Matilde Doehner, 41, tried to help her children through a window to the ground. Her husband Hermann, 50, died in the wreck and her daughter Irene, 14, later succumbed to severe burns.

Werner Doehner, his mother, and his 14-year-old brother Walter survived. Thirteen of the 36 passengers died, and 22 of the 61 crew members were killed.

A member of the ground crew, Allen Hagaman of Jackson Township, N.J., also died. The ship was destroyed in 34 seconds.

“If it had happened a couple minutes earlier, the chances for survival and aid to the passengers and crew trying to get out of the burning airship would have been much less, as it would have been higher above the ground and outside the limits” of the Lakehurst Naval Air Station, Werner Doehner wrote in his letter to the historical society.

“…It would probably have wiped out the entire ground crew, and also caused victims among the crowd assembled to witness the landing and pick up passengers,” he said. “No doubt, it was a terrible thing to happen, but it could have been much worse.”

“I feel close to all the people who suffered a loss due to the accident.”

For Buchanan, too, the memories are never far away.

“When I lay in bed at night and can’t sleep, it flashes up,” he said. “In this 75th year, I think about it, visualize it. It’s imprinted on my brain.”

Contact Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|