Wreckage of the airship Hindenburg continues to burn on the ground at Lakehurst Air Base in New Jersey
I was typically scrolling through my Twitter feed this afternoon when a news blurb caught my eye. It was a picture of the Hindenburg with a headline reading that the last survivor of that disaster had passed away.
For those who may be too young to have ever heard of this historic disaster, or simply may have somehow missed or forgotten about it, here is a quick summary.
The Hindenburg was a dirigible, a blimp if you will, and the last airship commissioned by the world’s first-ever passenger airline, the German Airship Transportation Corporation Ltd, which was established in 1909. It was also known as “the pride of the Nazi airship fleet“, the largest ever built.
In the days prior to airplane travel, the Hindenburg provided the fastest method of travel across the Atlantic Ocean. Passengers could travel from Europe to the Americas in half the time of an ocean liner, and did so in luxurious and comfortable settings that would never be matched by commercial airliners in the coming decades.
On its final flight, the Hindenburg took off on May 3, 1937 from Hamburg, Germany with 36 passengers and 61 crew members on the ship’s 63rd flight. The destination was an air field at Lakehurst, New Jersey which is now part of the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, about 15 miles inland from the Jersey shore community of Seaside Heights.
On its May 6 arrival, the landing lines were dropped, but flames suddenly became visible. The fire quickly engulfed the tail of the ship, and a massive inferno was set off. Some passengers and crew actually dove out of windows. Those near the front generally survived. At the interior, most were not so lucky.
Broadcasting the arrival over the relatively new technology of national radio, newscaster Herb Morrison shouted out what would become one of the most famous lines in radio history: “This is one of the worst catastrophes in the world!”
In the end, of the 97 on board, 36 people died in the Hindenburg disaster: 13 passengers, 22 crew, and one worker on the ground.
I was just a kid, maybe around 10 years old, when I first heard about the incident. That would make it roughly 35 years later. Watching the grainy footage in a television news blurb on the anniversary and hearing the old, scratchy radio broadcast, it seemed like ancient history.
Reading the news today as I rapidly approach age 58, decades after first learning of the disaster, the story stated that the oldest survivor had passed away at age 90.
Werner Gustav Doehner died on November 8 at his home in New Hampshire. He was just eight years of age when the disaster took the life of his father and sister.
“We were close to a window, and my mother took my brother and threw him out. She grabbed me and fell back and then threw me out,” Doehner said in a rare interview in 2017. “She tried to get my sister, but she was too heavy, and my mother decided to get out by the time the zeppelin was nearly on the ground.”
According to a piece by Eileen AJ Connelly for the New York Post, Doehner suffered from burns to his face, both hands and on his right leg. He remained hospitalized for various treatments and surgery until January of the following year.
Reflecting on my feelings as a young boy that the Hindenburg disaster was ancient history got me thinking a bit about age, and how it alters our perception of history.
I saw events such as the Hindenburg and then World War II, which followed just a couple of years later, as happening in another world. It was simply the stuff of history books, nothing that I could personally relate to in any way.
It makes me wonder if that is how my now 17-year-old granddaughter and 18-year-old nephew, even my older 26-year-old goddaughter, see events from that childhood and youth of mine.
Events such as Watergate and the resignation of President Richard Nixon, the Apollo moon landings, and the Vietnam War. To them, these are nothing more than history book items. Events that happened decades before they were born.
To them, these are only things they might have learned about in a brief school class or on some documentary they might have watched on television. But to me, and to anyone roughly my age or older, these are signature news events and happenings in our lives.
If you bother to take a minute and actually think about it, history is really something. We see many people as nothing more than historic figures, even if we acknowledge them as the most influential or famous of all-time. But each of them actually walked this very same Earth at one point.
Jesus Christ, Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, William Shakespeare, Joan of Arc, George Washington, Cleopatra, Plato, Aristotle, Amelia Earhart, Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, Leonardo da Vinci, and so many more.
These were real people who, for a moment, walked the roads and streets of the world. They watched the sun rise and set. They enjoyed meals and made love. They traveled, worked, and played.
Events which happened to change the course of history are, to most of us living today, simply the stuff of history books and classes or those TV documentaries.
I’m talking events such as the American revolution, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War, and even the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and World War II.
To me, and to you, these are the stuff of history books. Just as was the Hindenburg to me. Just as is the Vietnam War to my young relatives. Just as will the 9/11 attack be to my now 11-year-old grandson and nephews. This is the perspective of time and age on history.