Friday, May 30, 2014

SHADOW OF THE HINDENBURG - Eastern Canada 1936

"He was a child of eight with impetigo on his knees, and he was standing on the bare clay playground of a country school when he looked up and saw the airship.  Silver, wearing for a reach across the wind, it floated over the schoolyard, scattering in the air behind it tiny objects that floated down - Baby Ruth candy bars on small parachutes. Running after the airship, Michael could stay in its shadow the length of the schoolyard, the other children running with him, scrambling for the candy bars. Then they reached the plowed field at the edge of the school yard and the shadow moved away, rippling over the rows. Lander in his short pants fell in the field and tore the scabs off his knees. He got to his feet again and watched the dirigible out of sight, rivulets of blood on his shins, a candy bar and parachutes clutched in his hand."   
(Childhood memory of "The American,"  the psychopath who plots to obliterate the Superbowl)     BLACK SUNDAY    Thomas  Harris, 1975.

Passenger handbook, Zeppelin D-LZ129, the HINDENBURG

On June 24, 1936  Zeppelin  D-LZ129 the HINDENBURG, passed over Saint John, New Brunswick and created an instant sensation.  The port city was one of several cities in Atlantic Canada that had a  municipal airfield, and its promoters constantly touted expansion of passenger service. But in truth the "aviation age" was passing them by. The zeppelin overflight was unexpected, because the huge dirigibles usually logged flights directly over the Atlantic, south of Nova Scotia. When local radio station CHSJ began announcing sightings of the zeppilin's approach  along the Fundy shore, all those with film in their cameras moved into the open to attempt a capture. It was a school day, so most of the kids missed it, but many, including my grandfather, had an experience they would cherish for the remainder of their lives. Canada was still three years from being thrust into a second war with Germany, so none were  offended by the giant red and black Nazi swastika flags passing overhead. [1936 was the year of the spectacular Nazi Olympiad and HINDENBURG also sported the five rings - blue, yellow, black, green and red.] Most were content to have witnessed one of the great technological wonders of their era, a form of swift transportation - "Two-Days to Europe" - which was priced well beyond reach of most folks during that  hard decade of economic depression.

Europe in 2 Days,  the HINDENBURG, Zeppelin advertisement 1937

A trip on a German Zeppelin cost  US$450 one-way, with a 10% discount for a round trip booking.   Those who kept up with current events in 1936 were very aware of the technological advances of Hitler's Germany where an outstanding female pilot had safely flown an autogiro into the  middle of a crowded stadium and where select sports events were already being broadcast on television.  North American aviation enthusiasts and the stamp collecting fraternity were downright passionate in their following  of  the GERMAN ZEPPELIN TRANSPORT COMPANY and as a result we can today find an astonishing diversity of ephemera on the market today.  In 1936 the HINDENBURG  was the darling of the popular press in the U.S. and in June when she passed over Canada,  our news stands were stocked with magazines which featured her as cover stories. 

Max Schmeling observes the shadow of the HINDENBURG
From the promenade deck of the HINDENBURG boxer Max Schmeling
watched the cool shadow ripple across whole American city blocks.

The flight which passed over Saint John departed Lakehurst, New Jersey on June 23, 1936 and was expected to reach Frankfurt, Germany 48 hours later. (One flight was exactly 48 hours and 8 minutes.) Given the high price of tickets the passenger manifests often included prosperous celebrities, and this flight included the German boxer Max Schmeling, who had recently fought Joe Louis in New York.  Schmeling made two trips in the HINDENBURG and many pictures exist of him being mobbed at airfields at both ends of the route. The only photo I have seen of him aboard the zeppelin is the award winning Joe Haas shot which shows him peering down at the streets of Philadelphia. (above)

Many in Saint John did capture a photograph of the giant airship, but the trick was to hold your camera steady and remember to squeeze a piece of Saint John into the corner of the image.  Most of the snapshots which survive are of low quality. There are sharper images of HINDENBURG passing over the rooftops of Halifax, but I favor those from Saint John as it was my birthplace.

The HINDENBURG slowed its engines over Saint John and made a single broad orbit of the  harbour. It would be nice to say the captain did it for the benefit of the passengers, but in fact the German's made a practice of photographing ports and military installations wherever their zeppelins flew. The Americans maintained photo-sets of Canadian ports in their intelligence archives, so why would not the Germans?  And as it happened, there was three American military observers among the passengers that day. The HINDENBURG carried seven extra passengers on this June trip and they were required to sleep on folding cots.  Given the number of cameras onboard, I hold out some hope that we may someday see lost images taken of Saint John from the HINDENBURG's promenade deck.  

This photo (below) shows the HINDENBURG passing over the train station in Saint John. The vantage point is the sidewalk opposite the New Brunswick Cold Storage plant. Image graininess is due to the fact it is a scanned newspaper clipping.  It is though my favourite of the HINDENBURG set because my grandfather was working directly below the airship at the moment this photo was taken, and for the rest of his life all he had was memory.  As a young father he had struggled to provide for his family during the early years of the Great Depression and had just secured a job the C.P.R.. He was working in the freight sheds astride the station and his recollection was of the immensity of the near-stationary airship and of the full minute it eclipsed the sun.

HINDENBERG over Saint John, N.B.

The HINDENBURG is one of the most heavily documented aircraft in aviation history and it was very difficult to decide which photographs to include with this article. I have for example, several colour images of the promenade decks, cabins and lounges.  The airship's extraordinary interior have been featured in several Hollywood movies, often in outrageously fanciful scenarios, such as in Disney's THE ROCKETEER and Brooklyn Films SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW. Both DVDs are recommended. Lot's of funky fun!

The passenger section was forward on the HINDENBURG so I
indicate the vantage point of Max Schmeling in the Joe Haas photo.

This cutaway diagram of the passenger berths and amenities is very helpful in understanding the flight experience.  Should intercontinental airship flight return, I would definitely be among those purchasing tickets.  These illustrations also help to put the HINDENBURG visit into some perspective, and are a reminder that when the ship into flames at Lakehurst, New Jersey  a year later, people died on those decks.  The explosion of the HINDENBURG at Lakehurst, New Jersey  is rated as one of the top news events ever captured on film and it destroyed an industry.   The newsreel of the ghastly disaster played in movie theatres throughout Canada, as did films of Max Schmeling's heavy-weight fights. 

After taking a good look at Saint John harbour  the Germans resumed course, continuing on their two-day flight  to Europe. A lucky few on the ground managed to get photographs of the HINDENBURG overflight, but hundreds at least had a story to tell their children.   The airship passed over several New Brunswick and Nova Scotia communities before heading out over the open Atlantic.

Hindenburg over Halifax, N.S.

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