On May 6, 1937, Roger Laws was getting ready for bed when he learned of the disaster that unfolded 50 miles away. At 7:25 p.m. that evening, the German airship LZ 129 Hindenburg burst into flames while attempting to moor at Naval Air Station Lakehurst, in New Jersey. The images, film, and reporting by Herbert Morrison of the huge fireball consuming the Hindenburg, shocked the world. It marked the beginning of the end of the era of the airship and is one of the most famous disasters in aviation history. The crash, however, was only the beginning of the story.
After the crash, the U.S. Navy reacted quickly to rescue survivors, treat the wounded, and secure the site, even as the wreckage continued to smolder. Roger Laws was aboard the USS Antares stationed near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Antares was a receiving ship, acting as a floating barracks for sailors between assignments. He described the events that night in a letter to his wife, Mildred, and stated:
I heard it [the Hindenburg] crashed just before I turned in last night and at eleven forty five they called me and told me I was going to Lakehurst. Belt + leggings. So at twelve oclock I left the ship with six more in the Ships Service truck. There was another truck from the Receiving ships along with us and a police escort. So we sure travelled. The cops had a hard time keeping up with us.
Roger Laws and others arrived at the site amid the chaos and were ordered to set up a perimeter around the wreckage. Roger explained, “I guess there were over 1500 men here from the surrounding forts, Ships and marine bases. They even have Coast Guard Surf men here.”
The soldiers, sailors and Marines were placed in charge of guarding the site for several reasons. First, investigators from both Germany and the United States were already gathering information to determine just what caused the crash of the airship. Both the German Investigation Commission and the United States Commerce Department produced reports after a thorough investigation including interviews of witnesses and survivors, examination of the photographs, film footage of the disaster, as well as a close examination of the wreckage left in the aftermath of the crash. Both reports concluded that a leaking gas cell allowed hydrogen from the airship to mix with oxygen from the outside air, and a spark, possibly from static electricity, ignited the gas leading to the fire that consumed the Hindenburg.
Laws detailed the other reason the guards were needed near the end of his letter when he wrote, “If there wasn’t so many curious people they wouldn’t have us up here. But it seems as though the whole Station is surrounded by them. They keep climbing over the fence and try to run the blockade.” Much like with the crash of the USS Shenandoah over Ohio in 1925, curious civilians clamored to try to grab souvenir pieces of the wreckage, leading to the need for more security, especially as the material was needed for the accident investigation.
After the investigations were complete, the wreckage of the Hindenburg was cleared away, and some of the more valuable metals were shipped back to Germany for recycling. A permanent memorial was constructed at Naval Air Station Lakehurst, forever marking the site where the once mighty airship fell. The memory of the Hindenburg lives on to this day and is a vital part of the lighter-than-air collection at the Museum. The letter written by Laws to his wife, as well as a piece of fabric he took from the crash site, were recently donated by his family, and are now part of the collection of the National Air and Space Museum. They are available online and can be accessed from the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives (SOVA).