Crash Site of the Hindenburg
Lakehurst, New Jersey
In the long, long list of 20th century disasters, the explosion and crash of the Zeppelin Hindenburg at least provided a never-before-witnessed visual spectacle. Actually, "explosion" is an inaccurate word to describe it, as we were told by our tour guide at the crash site. "If it had exploded," he said, sweeping his arm across an empty field, old hangars in the distance, "none of this would be here."
The Hindenburg was the pride of the Nazi airship fleet, the biggest aircraft ever built: 804 feet long, filled with over seven million cubic feet of combustible hydrogen. On May 6, 1937, it was landing at a Navy base in Lakehurst, New Jersey -- the nearest place to Manhattan that was big and empty enough to handle an immense, flying bomb -- when it burst into flames and crashed. Thirty-six people died. So did the popularity of zeppelins as transatlantic transit.
The site where the Hindenburg crashed is still big and empty, a windswept expanse of crumbled asphalt and occasional scrubby weeds. And it's still part of an active Navy base, which means that everyone who wants a tour has to be screened weeks in advance. The flat, infertile airfield was originally sand, which cushioned the fall of some people who jumped from the burning Zeppelin.
The exact spot of the crash is marked by a metal wind-turned silhouette of the Hindenburg atop a pole, and an anchor-chain outline of the Zeppelin on the ground. Don, our retired Navy guide, was full of colorful stories about the airship and its unlucky human cargo. "Captain Pruss got so badly burnt," he said, "it burnt off his nose. He used to take his fake nose off and set it next to the bed at night."
After posing for photos at the site, next stop for our tour group was the Airship Information Center, a little museum packed with artifacts and memorabilia.
A 12-foot-long model of the Hindenburg hangs from the ceiling, built by a local man with a framework of 6,000 fudgesicle sticks. "Took him three years," said our new tour guide, Carl, a very knowledgeable volunteer from the town historical society. Carl pointed out items salvaged from the wreck: a drinking cup, a fork with the Hindenburg logo, and a section of girder -- the largest piece of the doomed airship that survived -- which Carl guessed was worth close to $100,000. "But we wouldn't sell anything," he said. While most items are behind glass, there are intriguing piles of loose artifacts in corners -- either they're less important, or waiting to be cataloged.
It's a short walk from the museum into giant Hangar 1, which occasionally sheltered the Hindenburg when it wasn't flying or crashing. "They didn't like to bring it inside," said Carl, readying another cataclysmic comparison. "You don't want seven million cubic feet of hydrogen in here. If anything happened, there wouldn't be any Lakehurst left."
The hangar, bigger than the airship, now encloses an immense space of empty air, as well as a life-size replica of the Hindenburg's control car (made for a 1975 Hollwyood movie about the Hindenburg that starred George C. Scott) and a neon and metal blimp sign that once stood outside of the defunct Lakehurst Motel.
There's so much room in the hangar that it also contains attractions that have nothing to do with doomed airships. Carl walked us back to the Ready Room and the POW Joint Military Room, two small museums packed with military mementos, uniforms, patches, weapons, and thousands of home-made models of planes and boats. There's simply too much to see, but we noticed the diving helmet and suit worn by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the film Men Of Honor, and a tribute to Monsignor Paul Bradley of Brooklyn, "the fighting padre of Iwo Jima."
Further back, the "Salute to the Hanoi Hilton" exhibit featured custom-made dummies modeling pajama-like POW uniforms and the phony nice clothes that POWs wore when they were sent home "to make it look like they were on vacation," according to Carl. The Vietnamese guards, Carl said, would "put bugs in their food; they had to dig the bugs out." Rat droppings were put in the POWs' cigarettes, "like a form of torture." Carl pointed to a pair of crutches used by one mistreated prisoner who "required 51 different operations to make him even walk a little bit."
We were beginning to lose track of the calamities commemorated at Lakehurst, so Carl walked us back to our car through the hangar, past a full-size replica aircraft carrier landing deck, which is used to train sailors who work the catapults and arresting gear.
We asked Carl if the hangar doors could be opened for a photo, but he shook his head dismissively. "Each of those doors weighs 1,350 tons," he said. "And at wind speeds over 20 mph, each door becomes a giant sail...."
All right, all right! Someone else will have to be responsible for that catastrophe, the day that a destroyer-sized door flies off of its hinges and causes another memorable crash at Lakehurst.