2006-11-22 / Front Page
History is in the air at Lakehurst base
Area residents tour site of famous Hindenburg crash
BY DAVE BENJAMIN
Not only does the hangar have a history of its own that dates back to the 1920s, but on a recent morning members of the Four Seasons Metedeconk Lakes Men's Club from Jackson toured the area where, on May 6, 1937, the German airship Hindenburg exploded and crashed in flames.
A picture of the Hindenburg's destruction has become an iconic historic image, as has the radio broadcast that was made as the German airship exploded and burned.
According to the base's Internet Web site, NAES/NAVAIR Lakehurst occupies 7,430 government-owned acres in the million-acre Pinelands National Reserve in central New Jersey. The New Jersey Wildlife and Game Refuge bounds the base to the north and the Manchester Fish and Wildlife Preserve to the south.
On its western boundary, it abuts Fort Dix and McGuire Air Force Base to form a contiguous 42,000-acre Department of Defense facility. NAVAIR Lakehurst has established a Joint Installation Partnership with Dix and McGuire so that resources and facilities can be effectively shared, according to the Web site.
NAES owns and manages the facility with the technical component, NAVAIR Lakehurst, operating as a tenant.
Tour guide Donald Adams of the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society led the guests around the base.
"To give you a little idea of what it was like in 1936 and 1937 when the Hinden-burg was here and the Navy operated their large airships, Hangar No. 1 was here," he said, pointing to the spot where the hangar still stands.
However, most of the buildings that were visible from the spot where the guests were standing - which was close to the location where the Hindenburg went down - were not around in the mid-1930s, he said.
"This was all sand," Adams said, pointing to the location where the 803-foot-long Hindenburg exploded. "[On that day] the weather was nasty. It was raining and there was lightning. The 85 mph Hindenburg was running eight hours late."
He said the airship came into the area at about 3 p.m. and was informed by Lakehurst that it was not advisable to land. Instead, the Hindenburg's crew was instructed to fly up and down the New Jersey coast for almost four hours.
At 7 p.m. the Hindenburg was directed to come in for a landing during a 45-minute break between two major thunder cells. On board were 72 VIP passengers, out of 93 passengers, who were going back to Germany and then on to England for the crowning of King George.
Once again the Hindenburg came into the landing area, looked the field over and dropped its mooring lines. But the ship began to get tail heavy.
"[The pilot] did a high-risk maneuver, which was not advised," Adams told the tour guests. "Normally they vent off the hydrogen, but he did a sharp right downturn. [It is believed] that a guy-wire (between the mooring tower and ground) ripped and when the line hit the ground, it created static electricity and a fire began. Then, 34 seconds later, the hydrogen-filled balloon was on the ground, burned."
Adams said 13 passengers, 22 Hinden-burg crewmen and one Lakehurst ground crewman perished.
"There were a lot of acts of heroism, many by Navy personnel, but most people died from their burns," Adams said.
He related the story of a 14-year-old
cabin boy named Verna Franz, who was getting ready to jump out when a 500-pound water ballast bag broke right above him, soaking him. He walked out without a scratch or a burn, Adams said.
The normal flying time between Lakehurst and Germany was 58 hours, he said. The Hindenburg was scheduled to make 17 trips that season, after making 10 trips to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1936.
At that same time the U.S. Navy had the airships USS Shenandoah, the USS Macon, the USS Akron and the USS Los Angeles, which were all helium filled. The Los Angeles served until 1939.
The Shenandoah was lost in the Ohio Valley during a thunderstorm and the Akron was lost off Barnegat Lighthouse in a storm. Today the Navy has one airship.
The tour moved to historic Hanger No. 1 and Adams explained how the 85-year-old freestanding doors operate. The hangar was completed in 1921, he said.
"That's [a width of] 265 feet of open space," he said. "The doors can be opened electrically."
Adams said it has become difficult to get parts for the doors, and so the doors on one end of the hangar remain stationary because some of the parts from those doors were used to repair the doors at the other end of the hangar.
He explained that the doors can also be opened manually.
"Manually, it takes about eight hours to open one door," he said. "That was done in 1922 and a second time in 1942."
Once inside the hangar, Adams discussed the history of the base.
"It started out in 1915 as a proving grounds for the Eddystone Ammunition Corporation, a subsidiary of the Baldwin Locomotive Works," Adams said. "When the United States entered World War I in 1917 the Army took over the base. The Russian contingency that was here decided not to go back to Russia. They used to have an embassy in the town of Lake-hurst."
Today, he said, many of the Russians' descendants live in the Cassville section of Jackson.
In 1917 the base was used to test chemical warfare such as mustard gas and nerve gas, said Adams.
"The ironic thing was Lakehurst was known as a resort town at that time," he said. "Three or four miles away (from the resorts) they were testing the gas."
In 1919 the war was over and the Army wanted to get rid of the base. That's when Navy officers said they wanted the base for their lighter than air program (airships). By 1921 Hanger No. 1 was completed and Adams said that is when the Shenandoah was built.
Other zeppelins were worked on at the hangar, including the 685-foot-long German Graf Zeppelin. The Hindenburg was at Lakehurst twice in 1936. Other blimps were also in the hangar, including the ZMC2, an experimental blimp.
A replica of the Hindenburg's gondola stands inside Hangar No 1. The replica was used in the 1975 movie "The Hindenburg" starring George C. Scott and Anne Bancroft.
Today the hangar holds a mock aircraft carrier flight deck, which is used as a teaching tool for Navy flight deck personnel.
The Navy Lakehurst Historical Society has an information center in Hangar No. 1, which has displays of uniforms, medals, insignias and patches from various branches of the Navy, models of aircraft, weaponry, flight gear, parachutes and photographs, including photos of the precision air team the Blue Angels and the parachute team the Shooting Stars.
"We have a Coast Guard display, an Air Force display and an Army display," said Ron Montgomery, director of the information center. "Our big thing in this room is our POW (prisoner of war) display. Last Sept. 15 was national POW-MIA (missing in action) day and we had eight POWs from Vietnam here."
Relating a story about one former prisoner, Montgomery said, "Probably one of our most famous POWs was Adm. Jeremiah Denton, who became famous when he was captured and photographed by French photographers in Vietnam. When he was being interviewed and the French asked how well he was being treated, he blinked out 'torture' with his eyes. That's how the Americans found out they were being inhumanely treated."
Four Seasons resident Paul Winkler said, "All my life I've heard about the Hindenburg and the Lakehurst naval air base. Here I am in Jackson, only 15 minutes away, and we went on a tour and it was wonderful. This tour was historic to me, the blimp, the hangar, the reproduction of the cabin where the navigation crew sat. I was very impressed."
Resident Jack Marin said, "I was very pleasantly surprised. There's a lot to be learned. I was really impressed with how they built the deck and under-pinnings of an aircraft carrier inside that hangar. They could, if they wanted to, actually launch planes off that deck. I thought that was amazing and it was amazing to be on there [the flight deck]."
Marin said he had goosebumps recalling the newsreels showing the Hindenburg disaster.
"You saw it," he said. "You saw it on fire, and unlike so many other things that happened 60 to 70 years ago, nothing has changed at all. When we stood there at that memorial and you looked at that hangar, that's exactly the way it looked in the newsreel. It was as if they filmed it yesterday."
The Navy Lakehurst Historical Society conducts tours every second and fourth Saturday and Wednesday for the public. Preregistration is required one month in advance and a Social Security number and identification are required. No walk-ins are allowed. For information regarding tours call (732) 818-7520 or visit the Internet Web site at www.NLHS.com for additional information.
advance and a Social Security number and identification are required. No walk-ins are allowed. For information regarding tours call (732) 818-7520 or visit the Internet Web site at www.NLHS.com for additional information.