The Hindenburg

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

This week marks the 75th anniversary of the Hindenburg disaster, a wreck perhaps best known for introducing the phrase “Oh, the humanity” to our lexicon. While chatting with my pal Marco a while back, I realized I knew very little of the real story. Having cured my own ignorance, I now seek to pass on some interesting notes.

The Famous Photo

Let’s start with the iconic image from the disaster. While many photos were taken as the Hindenburg burned, a picture believed to have been taken by Sam Shere1 has become the iconic shot:

The Famous Hindenburg Photo
The Most Famous Image of the Hindenburg Disaster

What you may well not know about this photo is what it conceals, specifically on the airship’s stern. Here’s what the Hindenburg looked like when it wasn’t on fire.

A Lesser-Known Hindenburg Photo
Ick.2

Suddenly the whole thing isn’t quite so sympathetic, is it? Granted, in 1937 when the Hindenburg was flying, the swastika was simply part of the then-new flag of Germany. In the time since then, however, that symbol has of course taken on much darker meaning. It’s difficult to imagine Shere’s photo being so widely known if the tail, and the swastika it contained, weren’t so perfectly obliterated.

“Oh, the Humanity”

Radio reporter Herbert Morrison was on the scene for WLS, along with his engineer Charlie Nehlsen. They were already recording when the disaster occurred, and Morrison’s vivid, emotional exposition is a classic of reporting. Here’s a partial quote3:

Oh, it’s flashing, it’s flashing terribly. It’s bursting into flames and falling on the mooring mast. Oh, this is one of the worst catastrophes – the flames are leaping 400, 500 feet into the sky. It’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen, the smoke and the flames. And now it’s crashing to the ground, not quite at the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity!

Morrison’s response is perhaps most striking in that it contains a great deal more decorum than we’d get nowadays. However, his response may also have been a bit excessive given the scope of the disaster. The Hindenburg had only 97 souls aboard, 36 passengers and 61 crew. Further, only 35 of those people onboard perished, along with one member of the ground crew. While no doubt a tragedy, just 36 lives were lost, and the majority of those onboard the airship survived.

Cause: Unknown

To this day, the exact cause of the disaster is unknown. Shere’s photograph of the Zeppelin on fire always led me to believe the Hindenburg had collided with the mooring tower seen in the foreground, causing it to burst into flame. That’s not the case, however, as the airship caught fire while in the air and then crashed to the ground. The source of the fire is the subject of much debate, with many theories, and no definitive answers.

That’s all for today, but remember, the more you knowledge is powerfully half the battle. And if you’re interested to learn more about the Hindenburg, consult your local Wikipedia.


Footnotes:

  1. Bill Jay has a well-researched history of the photograph and Shere on his site. ↩︎

  2. The Atlantic recently collected a large number of Hindenburg photos, including this one. ↩︎

  3. I’ve archived a longer recording for easy listening4. ↩︎

  4. As if the many theories on the Hindenburg itself weren’t enough, there’s even speculation that the famous recording is sped up, and that Morrison’s voice was much deeper than is heard in that recording. ↩︎


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