Saturday, September 11, 2021

Oh the Humanity!

I’ve wanted to visit the Hindenburg crash site when I'm at the Jersey shore for some time. What’s more New Jersey than a famous Zeppelin crash? Yes, it would have been better if it had crashed into a toxic waste dump, or its demise could be traced to a gas bag punctured by a lunatic wielding the safety pin on a beach tag, but, hey, real life isn’t designed by bloggers. 

According to the website of Navy Lakehurst Historical Society, the steward of the crash site, tours are offered in the summer months on Wednesdays and the second and fourth Saturdays. Reservations—made at least two weeks in advance—are required, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Tours last three hours.  A three-hour tour of a charred spot on the ground? Oy. 

Now called Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, the former Lakehurst Naval Air Station was more than just the Hindenburg crash site. It was also home to the US Navy’s dirigibles Shenandoah, Los Angeles, Akron, and Macon, not to mention a slew of Navy blimps, and the Navy’s first helicopter squadron. The base was the first international airport in the US and was the western terminus for both German dirigibles Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg

And, saving the best for last, the first live ejection seat tests were done there. How could anyone pass all of that up? 

As they say on late night infomercials, but wait, there’s more. The tour also promised The Cathedral of The Air (what?), the Navy Lakehurst Heritage Center, The Ready Room, the POW-MIA Room and Historic Hangar One. No wonder it was scheduled for three hours.

I emailed about a reservation and got an ALL CAPS reply instructing me to fill out the CONTACT FORM. After I sent in the appropriate info, I got another ALL CAPS reply. The acknowledgement started with this line: DO NOT GO TO THE MAIN GATE AT NAVAL BASE and went on from there, in a style that can only be described as military English as a second language. But it was good to know that “A GIFT SHOP IS AVAILABLE”. Available for what, well, your guess is as good as mine.  

The acknowledgement included driving directions from the Newark Airport and Patuxent River, MD (seriously) but did not include directions for getting there from what used to be called the “shore points”. They didn’t include a street address for plugging into a GPS or even the name of the place I was looking for. The instructions ended with this bit of info:  Bear left on Route 547 at traffic light and proceed about ¼ Mile on left large church parking lot. (If you go over RR tracks you went too far).

So, I figured out how to get there on my own, though it was difficult to pass up the turns for Leisure Village....

... and Leisure Knoll. 

The large church parking lot turned out to be the parking area for the Cathedral of the Air. And I was there right on time too, even counting that nanosecond delay when I actually considered going to Leisure Village. 

There were about ten people there for the morning tour, including two families with kids. There were two docents on hand to guide us through the morning’s tour. The taller one, with bearing and voice like an NCO, did most of the talking. The other guide, of a more avuncular mien, was a tad forgetful and seemed like the backup docent. 

As you might expect from something having to do with the military, it was hurry up and wait. We had to be there promptly at 9:30 so we could flog our yo-yos in Calcutta-like heat and humidity in a large church parking lot. The reason? A TV station was filming b-roll in the Cathedral. Seriously, they couldn’t have scheduled the TV station to shoot b-roll at some other time? 

The Cathedral of the Air is a non-denominational chapel, rather than a cathedral, which as churchy folks know is the seat of a bishop.  

When it was built in 1932, it was on the Lakehurst base, but in the intervening years both the border of the base and the highway were moved, so now the building is in sort of no man’s land, with its back to the roadway. 

Someone with too much of someone else’s money thought that the place might be a terrorist’s target, and so after 9/11 we taxpayers paid for a big fence around the place. 

The Cathedral of the Air was conceived by Gill Rob Wilson, a World War I aviator who was ordained as a Presbyterian minister after the war. It was designed by well-known Philadelphia architect Paul Phillipe Cret in a Norman Gothic style. 

Rev. Wilson sounded like an interesting guy. After this ordination, he was called by the 4th Presbyterian Church of Trenton, and while there served as the Chaplain for the American Legion in New Jersey.  After his wife and daughter died of influenza, he lost the ability to speak and doctors recommended total silence if he wanted to regain his voice. Yikes!  Wiki is unclear here, but presumably his voice returned at some point.

Rev. Wilson left his calling and became the Director of Aeronautics for the State of New Jersey, presumably because safe air travel in the 1920s required lots of prayers. He went on to become not only the first director of the Civil Air Patrol but also the first member of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. If that weren’t enough, he witnessed an atomic bomb test at the Bikini Atoll and became the editor of Flying magazine. The airport in Parkersburg, WV is named in his honor. 

In case you’re wondering, none of that info is on the tour. Conveying that info would have taken up valuable time that we spent flogging our yo-yos. 

After what seemed like forever but was probably 20 minutes, the TV folks had their b-roll and the docents showed us into the building. We gathered in the narthex where they pointed out the bronze tablets that were memorials to two US Navy airships: The USS Akron and USS Shenandoah.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Navy’s rigid airship program, USS Shenandoah (ZR-1) was the first of four United States Navy rigid airships. Almost 700 feet long, it was constructed during 1922–1923 at Lakehurst. 

In September 1925, during its 57th flight, it crashed in bad weather in Ohio, killing 14 of the 43 men on board. 

USS Akron (ZRS-4) was built in Akron, OH and was commissioned by First Lady Lou Hoover in August 1931. 

The 785-foot-long Akron was designed to be a flying aircraft carrier of sorts, with the ability to launch and retrieve up to five Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk biplanes.

In April 1933, Akron crashed in a storm off New Jersey’s Barnegat Light, killing 73, including an admiral. It's safe to say that there would have been more survivors had the Navy thought to provide life jackets for those onboard. (There is no record of ordering folks to put their tray tables in an upright and locked position.) Interestingly enough, the US Navy dispatched a blimp to search for survivors, and it crashed, killing two more men. 

You don’t have to go too far into the building before deciding that riding on a US Navy airship was kind of a dicey affair.

The building is a bit forlorn; it feels like a church that’s been shut up for years.  The grounds need some TLC, there are no announcements pinned to bulletin boards, no friendship registers at the end of pews, and the hymnals are ancient. The furniture in the chancel looks as if someone moved it in order to run the vacuum cleaner and never bothered to put it back. 

What we did see were the spectacular stained-glass windows designed by D'Ascenzo Studios and Willet Studios, both of Philadelphia.  

I didn't expect to see the first air mail flight depicted in stained glass...

...or the Wright brothers...

and especially not a flying carpet or Roman centurion with a carrier pigeon! 

Most of the windows are about the history of flight, though one of my favorites told the incredible story of the Four Chaplains—two Protestants, a Roman Catholic, and a Rabbi--who gave up their life jackets to American soldiers and went down with the ship when the troopship USS Dorchester was torpedoed by the Nazis in 1943. 
A 1930 Time magazine article said that the plan was to have altar vessels made out of salvaged metal from the USS Shenandoah. I don’t know if that actually happened, but it seems a bit creepy to me.  
The Cathedral of the Air is a relic, and rather sad, but it has so much potential. It needs to be used for something--by a church, as a wedding venue, or even for concerts.
But there was no time to dwell on that. We had to head out into the Calcutta-like heat and humidity to see where the Hindenburg crashed. 

We formed up in a caravan for the short drive to the base. We were warned not to take any photos of the gate and check in procedure. Security, you know! We had to navigate through a chicane of concrete Jersey barricades and show our ID to the soldier staffing the gate so she could check us off on her list.

We followed the lead docent out to a big clearing marked by a post with a tiny zeppelin shaped weather vane on it. We weren’t on a runway, or the road, but on some abandoned piece of tarmac, which seemed to be the natural ground cover of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. 

Thick anchor chain, painted yellow, outlined a patch of earth that was perhaps 10’ by 50’. In the middle of the rectangle was a small bronze tablet, placed there by the freeholders of Ocean County on May 6, 1987, the 50th anniversary of the Hindenburg crash. 

The marker is in the approximate spot where the Hindenburg’s gondola hit the ground. It’s not much of a marker, but at least it’s something.

We gathered around the docents as they told us the story of the Hindenburg’s final hours, how it came in to land after its first scheduled transatlantic voyage of 1937, caught fire, and crashed. 

At the end of his clear, detailed, and compelling story (elapsed time: 5 minutes) the lead guide hit play on a boom box held it over his head so we could hear the famous Herbert Morrison recording (“…oh the humanity!”) of his account of the crash. Interestingly enough, Morrison was a radio reporter and was not shooting film, so any bit of film synced to the recording was created after the fact.

Our guide's belief was that a spark of static electricity ignited leaking hydrogen causing the crash.  For those of you keeping track at home, there were 97 people on the airship—36 passengers and 61 crew—there were extra crew on board for training. Of the 36 who were killed, 13 were passengers, 22 were crew, and a civilian on the ground crew died too. Many of those who survived had terrible burns. 

Although the Hindenburg crash is the world’s most famous airship disaster, twice as many people were killed when the Akron went down. The famous photos, newsreel footage, and Morrison’s narration are seared into our collective memory. Very few know the story of USS Akron which crashed when no one was there to record the scene.

After we had our fill of the crash site, we motored over to Historic Hangar #1—yes, that’s what it’s called--which was built in 1921 for dirigibles. The hanger is 966 feet long, 350 feet wide, and 224 feet high. The word enormous does not do it justice. The USS Shenandoah was built in the hangar, and it was used to store other airships, including Hindenburg.

Since the US Navy is fresh out of dirigibles, the hangar now contains a mock-up of an aircraft carrier flight deck used for training, some airplanes under restoration for display at various bases, quite possibly the worst museum ever, and as far as I could tell, tons of crap. 

One of the more interesting bits of crap is a prop from the 1975 film Hindenburg starring George C. Scott and Anne Bancroft. The filmmakers built a life sized model of the control room and when they were finished with it, tried to donate it to the Smithsonian. The “nations attic” wouldn’t take it since it’s a movie prop and not an actual historic artifact. However, the US Navy said sure, we have room for more crap in the 996 feet long Historic Hanger #1. 

And so there it is. 

It looks more like something out of a Jules Verne story than anything someone with a lick of sense would fly in.

After a quick look at the control room, it was time to head into the Navy Lakehurst Heritage Center. This was a couple of rooms under the aircraft carrier mock-up used as a—well, heritage center.  

It’s filled to the brim with model airplanes, tchotchkes, memorabilia, and various small pieces of crap. Or as they put it in their brochure, “photographs, models of aircraft, ships, military equipment (of all US forces), clothing, patches, POW/MIA artifacts and other items”. 

And Mr. NCO docent decided to tell us about each and every item. 

To his credit, there were a couple of young children on the tour who were super interested and he did a great job with them. But for me, who spent a fair part of my childhood building model airplanes, listening an exegesis on the different paint schemes on a Grumman F6F Hellcat was pretty much the same as the Chinese Water Torture. Especially since that talk was followed up by an equally long discourse on the next airplane model in the display case.

I’d just been to the Stone Harbor American Legion Museum a few days before and it was the same sort of stuff, only more of it. However, the Stone Harbor American Legion Museum does not have mannequins that looked as if they were transitioning. 

Very Tom of Finland, no?

Alas, Coastie GI Joe has no Earring Magic Ken to chill with. They'd be cute together, no?
It was quite something.

After what seemed like a lifetime of this, I slipped away from the group. I was decidedly unready to see the Ready Room, and I was going to be MIA when it came to the POW/MIA Room. 

I headed for the gift shop/museum.  Yes, it had some schlock.

I bought a facsimile version of Airship Voyages Made Easy, a brochure by the Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederi (German Zeppelin Shipping Company), which is pretty cool. 

But I passed up the 80th HINDENBURG ANNIVERSARY GOLF SHIRT BLOW OUT.  Oh my. I mean, really. 

I didn’t look at my watch, but I was there about three hours. A LONG three hours. It was time to put Stone Harbor into my GPS and head home.

The historical society has a lot to work with—the Cathedral of the Air is an incredible artifact. The story of the Hindenburg disaster is still riveting more than 80 years after the crash. 

But the organization runs on a shoestring and it shows. The website is terrible, the ticketing system is ancient, and guides are knowledgeable and well-meaning but need a real script. Yes, there are wow moments. But they are overshadowed by the general dreadfulness of the experience. There were times when I thought, “having a ticket on the Hindenburg couldn’t have been this bad”.  

As far as tourist experiences go, it wasn’t as bad as the Mob Tour of Las Vegas—which is the undisputed king of bad tourism—but, as Herbert Morrison might have said, Oh the humanity!

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