Picture this: A group of some of the wealthiest American industrialists and financiers gathers to embark on an all-day aerial foliage tour of Connecticut and Massachusetts aboard a huge aircraft emblazoned with the swastika-bedecked flags of Nazi Germany. This is what happened on an autumn morning more than 80 years ago.
On Oct. 9, 1936, her last day in the U.S. before making the final return crossing of the season to Frankfurt, the great German dirigible Hindenburg was ready to take off on a New England foliage excursion.
The trip was co-sponsored by the Esso Marketers sales organization and the Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei (DZR), the German airship company that ran the transatlantic service. It was billed as an exhibition flight, a gesture of farewell and appreciation to the American public, American commercial interests and the government personnel who had helped inaugurate the Hindenburg’s passenger service to the U.S.
At the time, dirigibles had been making occasional flights over Connecticut for more than a decade. The first was the U.S. Navy’s Shenandoah in 1923. But it was Germany’s airships that most captured the attention of state residents. Before the Hindenburg arrived over U.S. soil, the Graf Zeppelin craned necks here. Offering the world’s first commercial passenger transatlantic flight service, the 776-foot Graf Zeppelin flew over Connecticut five times between 1928 and 1933.
On that foggy fall morning in 1936, the Hindenburg lifted off from its U.S. docking port, the New Jersey naval station at Lakehurst, at 6:57 to the shouts of “Schiff hoch!” (“Up ship!”). Dr. Hugo Eckener, head of the DZR and the former commander of the Graf Zeppelin, was in the control car along with Cpt. Ernst Lehmann. On board were more than 70 American dignitaries. The passenger list read like a who’s who for 1936, which led the press to refer to it as the “Millionaires’ Flight.” Those on board included: Nelson Rockefeller, a 28-year-old New York financier, scion of the Rockefeller oil fortune, and future New York governor and U.S. vice president; Winthrop Aldrich, chairman of the board of Chase National Bank; Paul Litchfield, president of the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.; Byron Foy, an auto executive who would go on to head the Chrysler Corp.; Juan Trippe, founder of Pan American World Airways; Eddie Rickenbacker, World War I flying ace and director of Eastern Airlines; three admirals, a general, assorted government officials and a cadre of newspaper and magazine correspondents. John B. Kennedy, a reporter for NBC, was on board to provide in-flight radio broadcasts on the NBC Blue and Red networks.
The only woman among these elite passengers was Mary Goodrich Jenson, a 27-year-old Wethersfield native who was the first woman to obtain a pilot’s license in Connecticut. She was the aviation editor for the Hartford Courant and the first woman to fly solo to Cuba in 1933.
This prestigious passenger list had been carefully planned by Eckener. He sought to convince those aboard of the viability and safety of airship travel, with the ultimate goal of generating American interest in international commercial airship passenger service.
Preceded by a small plane towing a banner reading “Hindenburg Coming,” the great airship proceeded north and circled New York City, providing a bird’s-eye view of the two recently completed skyscrapers, the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. She followed the Hudson River to Peekskill and then headed east to Connecticut. At 9:45 a.m. she was over Danbury, adding to the excitement of the 67th annual Danbury Fair. F. Hayward Merritt and Brandes Meeker of Danbury flew small planes out to meet the Hindenburg west of Brewster, New York. They accompanied the ship over Danbury as far as Brookfield, keeping a specified one mile away. In the neighboring small town of Bethel, Harry Kibbard became somewhat of a celebrity by being the first to spot the zeppelin.
The Danbury News-Times reported that within minutes of the sighting, people were running from homes and stores to view the spectacle. Telephones rang all over town spreading the news. Instead of cheering, most people stood silently, apparently awed by the size and majestic beauty of the ship. Just over 800 feet long and 135 feet high, she was the size of the U.S. Capitol building and nearly as long as the Titanic. Yet amazingly she floated in the air, with more than 7 million cubic feet of lighter-than-air hydrogen providing the buoyancy. Powered by four Daimler-Benz diesel engines, each generating 1,100 horsepower, she was the largest aircraft to ever fly. Many people noted the swastikas on the tailfin as the most conspicuous marking.
Lehmann and Eckener had received numerous telegrams at Lakehurst the previous evening. They conveyed welcome greetings from mayors and civic organizations eagerly anticipating the next day’s fly-over. Utilizing the technology of the time, German officials planned to respond during the flight by sending messages by radio to an RCA facility in Chatham, Massachusetts, that would then be forwarded by Western Union telegram. One such radiogram received by Danbury’s mayor, Adam Roth, read:
Many thanks for your kind greeting recently extended us. Pleasure to visit hat center of the world and regard from aloft enterprise your community as represented Danbury Fair. Colonial Esso Marketers and other guest [sic] join our felicitations.
(signed) Eckener, Lehmann.
A similar message was sent to G. Mortimer Rundle, president of the Danbury Agricultural Society and one of the city’s earliest mayors. It was read over the public address system to the crowd at the fair’s racetrack.
Twenty-six minutes after leaving Danbury, the airship circled Waterbury, flew on to New Britain and at 10:34 a.m. was over Hartford. Public schools were let out for the occasion while thousands on the ground cheered and factory whistles blew. The Courant described the scene this way:
Above the gaily colored trees, her silver bulk moved steadily, the nose occasionally dipping up or down as her pilot adjusted his altitude. Traffic was stopped on every highway leading into the city as drivers stood beside their cars and looked upward. There was hardly a large building in Hartford that did not have its quota of roof-watchers. Football practice at the Trinity College Athletic Field and tennis games on the courts of Goodwin Park all came temporarily to a halt as the dirigible went over.
Hartford Mayor Thomas Spellacy received a radiogram from the ship that read, in part, “Your insurance capital of world impressive to Hindenburg officers and crew.”
After its leisurely swing over Hartford, the ship turned north and proceeded into Massachusetts, passing over Springfield and Worcester. At noon, the guests sat down to a luxurious meal which included Indian swallow nest soup, cold Rhine salmon with a spice sauce, tenderloin steak with a goose liver sauce, château potatoes, beans a la princesse in butter, Carmen salad and iced California melon. The wine list featured a 1934 Piesporter Goldtrőpschen and a 1928 Feist Brut. Pastries and liqueurs were served for dessert, accompanied by Turkish coffee.
The meal reflected the luxury of traveling on the Hindenburg. She sailed along more quietly and smoothly than contemporary ocean liners. With a top cruising speed of 80 mph, she could cross the Atlantic in two days, more than twice as fast as the speediest cruise ships. Her 70 passengers had hot and cold running water in their cabins, were served gourmet meals in a spacious dining room, relaxed in a reading and writing lounge and could even enjoy a cigar in the special smoking room. Promenade decks on each side of the ship had large observation windows providing breathtaking, panoramic views, and a specially designed, lightweight aluminum baby grand piano offered musical entertainment. In the tradition of the finest continental hotels, passengers could leave their shoes outside their cabin doors each evening and find them freshly polished the following morning.
Circling Boston, the Hindenburg made a graceful turn and headed south, flying over Quincy, Brockton and Attleboro. Proceeding over Providence, she crossed back into Connecticut over New London, and flew on to New Haven. Factory whistle blasts greeted her as she approached the Elm City at 2:05 p.m. Schools were let out so children could watch the passage while people congregated on the historic New Haven Green for a good view of the dirigible. The New Haven Register described the sight: “As it idled over this city, majestic in size and grace, the ship undoubtedly made an impression.”
The New Haven Chamber of Commerce received a radiogram from the ship:
Thanks for your message. We return greetings. Your city displaying to us progressive industry and evidence far-reaching influence of university. Auf wiedersehen, Elm City.
The ship made a slow semi-circle over the Green and headed for Bridgeport, Stamford, New York City, Philadelphia and eventually to a gentle touchdown at Lakehurst at 5:17 p.m.
As an exhibition flight, the day was a huge success. During the 10-hour flight, the Hindenburg had traveled 618 miles, flying over six states. It was estimated that as many as 20 million people had seen the airship. Photographs of her passing graced the front pages of many local newspapers. The reactions of those on board were enthusiastic. Some commented that railroad trains had looked like toys around a Christmas tree. Edward Neil, an Associated Press writer on board, said that the progress of the huge airship through the skies was “as uneventful as a calm sea trip on a huge ocean liner.” Acting Secretary of the U.S. Navy William Standley described the day as “a wonderful experience.” All were impressed with the quiet, secure and luxurious comfort of the flight.
Shortly before the ship moored in New Jersey, Eckener indicated that progress had been made toward the financing of two large airships in the U.S. The New York Times agreed that the trip had done “much to further the speedy expansion of commercial airship development in the United States.” The mighty airship and New England’s foliage seemed to have worked the magic Eckener had hoped for.
The day, however, was not without its downsides. An editorial in the New Haven Evening Register commented on the ship’s majestic size and grace. However, it added “there is much in our record to temper whatever envy any current or near future exhibition flight may happen to arouse.” This was an obvious reference to the fatal crashes of several U.S. Navy airships dating back to 1925. The most recent one, the Macon, had occurred in 1935 with the loss of two lives. Another newspaper editorial noted and dismissed rumors that the purpose of the Hindenburg’s trip was to film U.S. munitions plants.
One unfortunate footnote was the news of the only casualty related to the flight. An auto mechanic in Newark, New Jersey, fell through a skylight 25 feet to his death as he stepped backward on a roof to get a better view of the Hindenburg as it passed overhead.
Seven hours after the trip ended, the Hindenburg lifted off from Lakehurst on her last North Atlantic crossing of the season back to Frankfurt. An expanded 18-round-trip schedule was already planned for 1937. Eckener must have been very pleased with the trip through New England and the new hope which it afforded his dream of expanded international airship travel.
However, that dream was never to be realized. The lasting image of the great airship for most Americans was a horrific one of fiery destruction. It was on the Hindenburg’s next trip to the U.S., on May 6, 1937, that she burned and crashed while landing at Lakehurst. Lehmann and 34 passengers and crew were killed. (A ground worker was also killed, bringing the total death toll to 36.) Eckener was asked to take part in the inquiry into the tragedy. He made the solemn journey to America on the ocean liner Europa, rather than by airship. (Though controversy over the cause of the calamity persists to this day, the leading hypothesis is that a spark from static electricity ignited leaking hydrogen gas.) The spectacular disaster helped to bring an abrupt end to the future of commercial airship travel. It was a future which only seven months earlier had seemed as bright as the colorful Connecticut foliage.
The Final Flight
The Hindenburg passed over Connecticut 21 times during its 17-month service, including round trips to Germany and the Millionaires’ Flight. The last time was on the fateful date of May 6, 1937, en route to New Jersey. Fairfield resident Roy Ervin, a local lawyer and one-time town attorney, was a child at the time, but he “remembers it like yesterday,” according to his description published in the Fairfield Citizen newspaper in 2014:
I was 6 years old — my childhood was spent on Lalley Boulevard, three blocks from Fairfield Beach. It was a beautiful spring day — blue sky with puffy white clouds. I was in the street bat-hitting a tennis ball with our Irish setter who would bring it back to me.
Suddenly I heard a strange noise, a rumbling, low-pitched wailing noise. I looked up, and slowly and loudly starting to come directly overhead, was this huge dirigible, virtually just over tree-top high — perhaps 400 to 500 feet. The size of the airship was mammoth. And in reality it was. Today’s dirigibles you see at football games, etc., you’d think are the size of this airship but they are only about 170 feet long and 30 feet in diameter. The airship above me, however, was the Hindenburg on its very last journey.
I ran to my house to call my mother and she came out and we watched this giant airship slowly pass over us. We also saw what I thought was a huge spider emblazoned on its tail. As a 6-year-old, I did not realize it was a giant swastika. The airship slowly continued on its path to New Jersey and, of course, later that day as it landed, it caught fire and crashed with 36 people dying.
Some years after, a neighbor friend who knew I saw the Hindenburg’s last voyage had secured a piece of the airship from a news photographer. It was about 4 by 6 inches in size, which I placed in my bedside table. Years later, it disappeared and my mother informed me that she thought it was a useless cloth and when cleaning my room, she threw it out with the garbage. I can’t blame her, but I wish I had it today as it would be quite a piece of memorabilia (and maybe even worth some real money).
Ervin was correct about the piece of cloth being “worth some real money.” In February, a 6.25-inch-by-5-inch canvas swatch from the airship sold for more than $36,000 at auction. While the pre-auction estimate was only a few thousand dollars, the piece was unique because, unlike most of the Hindenburg’s gray canvas, this cloth was red and likely came from one of the Nazi flags emblazoned on the tailfin. The purchaser witnessed the crash from the ground as a teenager, her father a member of the naval crew tasked with docking the airship.