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Historical Groups, Authors Remember Hindenburg Disaster 75 Years Later

Local historical societies and published authors recall naval and aviation legacy in Lakehurst

In the minds of some, it may be hard to believe that this past Sunday marked 75 years since the infamous crash landing of the Hindenburg airship at Lakehurst Naval Air Station.

On that horrific day, May 6, 1937, the German zeppelin caught fire during its attempt to dock with its mooring mast. Among the airship’s 97 passengers, 36 did not survive the disaster.

To commemorate the day, the Lakehurst Historical Society and Navy Lakehurst Historical Society came together to host the “Hindenburg and Lighter Than Air" exhibit at the borough's Community Center.

“Lakehurst residents have a lot stories about and connection to these events,” said Lakehurst Historical Society member Mary Earley. “When the (75th) anniversary of the Hindenburg crash was nearing, we thought we would have a display (recognizing that)."

Her husband Leonard Earley said that the Hindenburg was a rigid airship (one which used structural framework to maintain its shape) and was considered a luxurious method to travel at the time, featuring dining and sleeping compartments.

Earley described bringing the 75 year-old memories back to the forefront in this exhibit as “very moving."

“Years ago, people in Lakehurst were mostly Navy people, they were all my neighbors. They worked on the dirigibles, and to find out years later what heroes they were is very special,” said Earley. “These guys were pioneers of aviation.”

Exhibit visitor William Schuck described that he had once seen the Hindenburg travel over Long Island, N.Y. when he was just a young boy in the mid-1930's.

Also in attendance were authors Eric San Juan and William Althoff, signing copies of their respective books on Lakehurst itself and U.S. Naval history.

, describes Lakehurst’s history, discussing “visionary railroad barons, innovative military advances, and quirky residents.”

San Juan, a Lakehurst native, described falling in love with the history of the town as he became an adult, and started to research and write about it from that point on. In fact, along with other interesting tidbits in his book regarding local politics, railroads and airship history in Lakehurst, there is ample emphasis given to the Hindenburg disaster.

“There is an entire chapter in the book dedicated to the Hindenburg,” San Juan said. “I received some very good accounts (of the disaster). One gentleman remembered (the airship) traveling back and forth over New Jersey. Another recalled the German sailors visiting his dad’s shop in town.”

San Juan added that the publishing of his book generated offers for further accounts and testimony of life in Lakehurst, which he felt would perhaps later lead to a second edition of his book.

Althoff’s new book — his sixth — is Arctic Mission: 90 North by Airship and Submarine, which recounts the U.S. Navy’s penetrations of the Arctic in 1958.

Althoff, originally a trained geologist who now writes full-time in his retirement, described his love of aviation and naval history as having began from his parents purchasing a summer home in Toms River in 1955, which he described as “isolated” and “sleepy” back then. 

“My first book was dedicated to the memory of my father," Althoff said. “It read: 'To my dad, who started all this.'"

At the outset of his writing career, Althoff had received a pair of grants from the New Jersey Historical Commission to conduct research, which yielded between 600 and 700 hours of recorded audiotape testimony.

The author hopes to donate his audiotapes to the Smithsonian Museum, where he served as a fellow in 1999 and 2000, to be archived digitally before they eventually degrade and become unusable.

“Oral history is important in adding color. The vignettes, the remarks, the comments about the inside” can all reveal so much, Althoff said. When taken with solid documentation, Althoff described that as the ideal combination for good research material.

“Memories can be faulty, but that’s why you have documents,” he said.

Among his interviews was one with a Lakehurst resident named Melvin Cranmer Sr., a retired chief quarterman at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station, who witnessed the Hindenburg disaster in 1937. Cranmer also spoke of the history of the town’s railroads, and of the Naval Air Station coming to Lakehurst after the first World War. Cranmer later passed away in 1991, as have many of Althoff's interview subjects in recent years.

However, it is those same interviews which led Althoff to described his research process as “extremely gratifying”.

“You can see it in (the person’s eyes). They forget they’re being interviewed, and they’re back to that moment in time. They remember the experience so well,” Althoff said.

“I’m very fortunate. All because my parents bought that summer house, I met men who did great things and contributed to this country. That’s the return on my investment,” Althoff said.

Althoff noted that his first book, 1990’s Sky Ships, which details the history of U.S. Navy airships from inception to conclusion, will be reissued this November.

The Lakehurst Historical Society Museum, located across the street from the Community Center, was also open during the scheduled exhibit hours.

“Visitors will gain additional appreciation for the town’s history and its role with the military base,” said society trustee Barbara Cummings of Sunday’s opening.

Other items for sale at the exhibit included: Signed limited editions of “The Hindenburg” over the Pine Tree Inn by Toms River artist Francis McGinley; “Airship Excursions” by Zeppelin Airship; “Early Manchester and William Torrey” by William Dewey; “Scene, Yesterday” by Frank Wainwright; plus many other items. 

Lakehurst’s Cub Pack 10 also assisted with dessert sales at the event, in conjunction with their community service award.

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