My Shocking Third Birthday: “What began as a routine landing of the transatlantic airship ended in a holocaust.”

By Mike Feinsilber

On my second birthday, May 7, 1936, The New York Times printed a story bylined by a well-known British journalist, Lady Drummond Hay, and written from aboard the German dirigible, the Zeppelin Hindenburg. The daughter of a dog food manufacturer, she already was a veteran of Zeppelin travel; she had gone around the world in a dirigible and had been a passenger seven years earlier on another dirigible, the Graf Zeppelin, on its first transatlantic crossing.

“It was a delightful feeling to be literally floating on air again and all memories of the more than 50,000 miles I have traveled in Zeppelins were stirred,” Lady Drummond-Hay wrote in the Times that day.

I know all this (with a little help from Google) because on May 7, 2020, my 86th birthday, my wife presented me with a book custom created by the Times which carried a reproduction of every May 7 front page of the Times from May 7, 1934 to May 7, 2019.

I can’t tell you much more about Lady Drummond Hay’s observations because her story jumps inside after seven paragraphs. The beginning of the eighth is intriguing: “To an old Zeppelin veteran it was both amusing and interesting to watch the reactions of those pas- Continued on Page Twelve.”

Turn the book’s page to the Times’s front page of another year later, May 7, 1937, and the Zeppelin is news again.

The headlines:

Great Dirigible Bursts
Into Flames as It Is
About to Land
Some Passengers Are Thrown
From the Blazing Wreckage,
Others Crawl to Safet
Sparks From Engines or Static
Believed to Have Ignited
Hydrogen Gas

Page one was dominated by a four-column black and white photograph showing the dirigible–-half of it missing, the jagged other half touching the ground, atilt, flames many feet high.

The main story carried the byline of Russell B. Porter. “The accident happened just as the great German dirigible was about to tie up to its mooring mast four hours after flying over New York City on the last leg of its first transatlantic voyage of the year,” he wrote. “Until today the Hindenburg had never lost a passenger throughout the ten round trips it made across the Atlantic with 1,002 passengers in 1936.”

A sidebar said:  “What began as a routine landing of the transatlantic airship ended in a holocaust.…So suddenly that it left passengers on the verge of hysteria for some time afterward, the ship burst into flames. Some one on the ground crew yelled ‘Run for your lives!’ and the crew did…”

Another sidebar, from Washington, quoted Dr. Hans Luther, the German ambassador. He said he was horrified, but added: “It must not cause us to lose faith in dirigibles because the Graf Zeppelin has operated safely and efficiently on the run from Europe to South America and elsewhere.”

So now I know what Times readers talked about at their breakfast tables on a May morning 83 years ago.

I sneaked a glance at the Times’s front page a year after the Hindenburg disaster. The off-lead headline is intriguing: MUSSOLINI REVEALS POWER OF HIS ARMY AS HITLER LOOKS ON.

We all know how that turned out…

Mike Feinsilber spent about a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and about a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach. He was a deskman, reporter, and editor, and he covered Congress and 18 political conventions.

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