And a Possible Disaster on Whitman Terrace
After WWII, my parents bought their first home on Whitman Terrace in Pennsauken, NJ. It was a time for our country to return to normalcy after the war. However, there were echoes of the trying times during the war. In less than an hour’s drive from Pennsauken, you will find the Lakehurst Naval Air Station. Adjacent to Lakehurst is Fort Dix, where my dad got his basic training before going to OTS at Fort Bliss, TX.
One of my first memories living on Whitman Terrace was watching blimps flying overhead. This photo is what I saw many times as a child.
I was fascinated by the blimps. When they floated above me, I would run after them. This is where my memory gets a bit foggy. I remember seeing a long rope hanging from the front of the blimp. I was determined to catch the blimp as if it was just a huge balloon. To be honest, the genesis of the rope notion was due to my parents telling me how blimps tide to a mooring mast at Lakehurst.
Nevertheless, I did run down Whitman Terrace chasing the blimps. This is a photo of me taken by one of my parents. My younger brother, Ken, didn’t seem interested in chasing a blimp’s mooring line.
That is the backstory. On May 3, 1937, the Hindenburg left Germany and headed to Lakehurst, NJ. It arrived at Lakehurst on the 6th. The Hindenburg was a huge dirigible with a metal frame, sixteen gas bags, and a covering over the airship. It was as long as eight football fields and was the largest dirigible ever constructed.
The Hindenburg took half the time to cross the Atlantic than a steamship. Only the very wealthy could afford a transatlantic crossing. A round trip ticket from Frankfurt, Germany, to Lakehurst, NJ, and the return flight would cost $1000 per person, equivalent to $15,000 in today’s dollars.
Nonetheless, that flight started amid a storm in Germany. In fact, most of the flight was flown in clouds and rain. By its arrival at Lakehurst, it was raining.
The other foreboding issue was that these airships were designed to use helium. However, America had most of the helium and had restricted sales to Nazi Germany. Therefore, the Germans used hydrogen, which is extremely combustible. However, the Germans understood the flammable issue and never had a problem with hydrogen. Therefore, that tell-tale issue would soon be seen. Before 1937, the Germans had successfully dealt with the hydrogen problem for years without any explosion. Therefore, they thought confident that the Hindenburg was safe. Nevertheless, as the Hindenburg floated over Lakehurst, it was a hydrogen bomb waiting to explode.
The explosion of the Hindenburg was caused by static electricity. It was safe from any explosion during the flight. However, the Hindenburg arrived at Lakehurst on May 6, 1937. The ground crew grabbed hold of the landing ropes, which caused the spark that resulted in a massive hydrogen explosion. There had been a leak in one of the hydrogen bags near the tail or rudder of the airship. The explosion occurred four minutes after the ground crew grabbed the mooring lines. However, the rain had made the ropes wet in a few minutes. The wet roped acted as ground. The resulting sparks ignited the leaking hydrogen bag. In a couple of minutes, the Hindenburg was completely engulfed in flame. All the static electrical energy had been stored on the shell of the airship, which acted as a capacitor unstill the sparks caused the gigantic explosion.
That brings me back to my trying to grab the rope of the blimps as I ran down Whitman Terrace. I wonder what would have happened if it had been raining and the rope was wet. I could have caused an explosion of a blimp.
These videos discuss the Hindenburg explosion. This first video is a condensed version of the PBS video.
This is the complete PBS video.
This is the Smithsonian video.