- Historic Sites
Death of a Dirigible
“Come and see the boiling cloud,” said a woman on the ground; aloft, the slender Shenandoah headed straight into the eye of the vicious squall
February 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 2
It had taken the “Daughter of the Stars” three hours to die piecemeal, and all day to be stripped bare. But her story was far from over.
Even before the survivors’ train reached Lakehurst it became evident that the disaster was to be a cause célèbre. In bold headlines Mrs. Lansdowne was quoted as accusing Secretary of the Navy Curtis D. Wilbur of forcing her husband to take the flight for political purposes.
On September 4, a second sensational charge came from Captain Anton Keinen, a German airship expert who had taught many of the Shenandoah ’s men to fly. “I tell you it was murder to take that ship out,” he said to a reporter from the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin . The original eighteen helium safety valves, he explained, had been reduced to eight. The ship had broken in two because the expanding gas, with insufficient outlets for escape, had crushed the frame. The victims, he declared, “gave their lives to save precious helium.”
On September 21 at Lakehurst, a Navy Court of Inquiry opened hearings to investigate the Shenandoah crash. The inquiry almost turned into a brawl when Captain Heinen was called upon to explain his inflammatory remarks. The following week the proceedings were transferred to Washington, and there, on October 9, Mrs. Lansdowne made her first appearance, dressed in deep mourning. Most Navy people thought the attractive 23-year-old widow would repudiate the statements attributed to her by the newspapers. Instead, she bluntly repeated them.
On the evening of November 7 the judge advocate (in a naval court, the prosecutor) paid a surprise visit to Mrs. Lansdowne at the Washington home of her uncle, where she was staying for the duration of the hearings. He said the Navy would like her to appear again.
The next day the wife of the Lakehurst commandant invited Mrs. Lansdowne to lunch at the Mayflower. As they were leaving the hotel, the older woman slipped a piece of paper into her hand, saying it was something which the judge advocate thought she could use in court.
It was a draft of a statement declaring that Mrs. Lansdowne had changed her mind; that her husband had regarded the Shenandoah as a man-of-war and that he had been ready to use it at any time regardless of weather. Furious, she tore it up.
Three days later, on November 11, Mrs. Lansdowne appeared once more at the Navy hearings. She and her counsel, Joseph E. Davies, walked into a hostile courtroom. The usual tensions of such a hearing had been heightened by the fact that at the same time, in another part of the capital, the Army’s court-martial of Colonel William (“Billy”) Mitchell was in progress. (At Mitchell’s request Mrs. Lansdowne appeared at his trial and told the court about what she regarded as the Navy’s attempt to influence her testimony.) The glare of publicity from the two trials had put the services on the defensive, and at the Shenandoah hearing the navy wives who made up the majority of the courtroom audience were on the Navy’s side.
Davies (later United States ambassador to Russia just before World War II) insisted that he be allowed to advise his client. The original judge advocate had resigned in order to appear as a witness at the Mitchell trial and answer Mrs. Lansdowne’s charges. A successor, Major Henry Leonard of the Marine Corps, had been appointed, and at this juncture he rose to object. This was not a civilian court, he declared, and Mrs. Lansdowne was merely a witness.
Davies told his client not to testify without his advice. The presiding officer, an elderly admiral, warned Davies to be quiet. Davies insisted on his client’s rights. The admiral, losing his patience, ordered him to be quiet or leave. When Davies did neither, the admiral reluctantly turned to the marine guard and said, “You will remove the gentleman from the court.”
“My client is entitled to counsel!” shouted Davies, but the marine grabbed him by the collar and escorted him, still protesting, from the courtroom.
For three hours Mrs. Lansdowne was questioned. Every time Major Leonard scored a point there would be a burst of applause from the Navy wives. Whenever Mrs. Lansdowne scored, the incensed women would boo and hiss. Leonard pointed out that there had been a “prudential” clause in Commander Lansdowne’s orders that would have allowed him to postpone the flight if he had thought conditions warranted it. But Mrs. Lansdowne, who was managing very well without a lawyer, seized upon the conclusion of the clause, which read, ”… remembering, however, that this route will be published in the press and that many will be disappointed should the Shenandoah fail to follow the approved schedule.”
“That,” she said, “is the pressure that is brought on officers in the Navy Department.”
Mrs. Lansdowne was excused. The court never recalled her.