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Airship Archeology

June 2024
3min read

In 1971, when I was fifteen years old, my family moved to the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in the pine barrens of New Jersey. Once the home of giant airships, Lakehurst was known to history as the spot where the Hindenburg exploded into a ball of flame as the world looked on. I set out at once to read anything I could find about the place.

Lakehurst had once teemed with activity. In the 1920s and 1930s, the U.S. Navy maintained a squadron of rigid airships there; the Shenandoah, the Los Angeles, and the Akron—all were familiar sights to the residents of central New Jersey. And what magnificent sights they were! Each was more than six hundred feet long, as large and as graceful as an ocean liner and held aloft by a vast expanse of helium gas. Sometimes the Germans landed their airships there as well; but with the explosive hydrogen that buoyed them, the zeppelins were a dangerous novelty in the sky.

When I arrived at the base, I somehow expected to see many reminders of the airship age. But Lakehurst’s glory days were long gone. After the Hindenburg tragedy in 1937, both the United States and Germany had given up on the big ships. America kept an LTA (lighter-than-air) fleet of blimps, but by 1971 even they had long been out of service. Now the base was used mostly as a reserve facility for helicopters, which had replaced the blimps in antisubmarine warfare. This was a huge disappointment to me. Worse yet, it seemed that nobody knew anything about the old ships. As someone explained to me, no town wanted to be remembered for a disaster. So there were no markers or outward signs; Lakehurst was content to let its past fade away.

There were six enormous hangars, and they stood out over the surrounding pines like the great pyramids of Egypt. To me they seemed just as old, especially the biggest of them all, Hangar One. I had never seen anything like it. At more than eight hundred feet long, a mass of asbestos shingles and rusting iron, Hangar One was said to be so huge that rain could fall inside. Its doors alone weighed thousands of tons and required several diesel engines to open and close them.

According to local folklore, the Hindenburg blew up just in front of the place. Or maybe in back of it—nobody knew for sure. I had almost despaired of finding out the real story when I learned that America’s greatest authority was still living in the area. Adm. Charles E. Rosendahl had been the navigator on our first airship, the Shenandoah. Later he commanded the Los Angeles, and then the whole airship fleet. He was at the scene of almost every milestone in American airship history, and when the Hindenburg exploded, it almost crashed on top of him. If I had any questions, he’d be just the person to ask. So I called him.

It had been years since the general public had shown any interest in airships, and Admiral Rosendahl seemed a bit surprised that some fifteen-year-old kid would look him up just to get the story. But he talked freely about the old days, and told me that the Hindenburg had crashed to the ground just south of the old mooring station. That was long gone—or so the admiral thought.

I often hiked over the old airfield, and one sunny day I got a strange chill. The shadow of a cloud passed over, and I imagined one of those huge ships of the sky looming over me. I thought about what Admiral Rosendahl had said, and then it hit me: This was the site of the old mooring mast. Could any trace be left of it? I kicked around in the sand and found a metal trap door, about three feet by four, buried and long since forgotten. Brushing away the sand, I struggled with the heavy iron slab. And sure enough, it hid a great treasure—a hook. Not just an ordinary hook but an enormous one, made of iron and looking much like the kind that used to anchor the airships. In minutes I had found two more, arranged in a large triangle about forty feet to a side.

This was exciting! I felt like an archeologist all alone in the Valley of the Kings. Here was a bit of history, a direct link with the past, awaiting discovery after all these years. My digging and scraping and kicking paid off. In the middle of the triangle I found a small underground room, full of dials and switches, painted battleship gray. Along one wall were two large vertical pipes marked in faded letters: HELIUM, FOR AMERICAN USE ONLY and DANGER—HYDROGEN—DANGER. This was it! At this very spot the Hindenburg was to have docked and taken on gas—the same explosive hydrogen that caused it to burst into flames just a few yards away.

In the past twenty years new buildings have gone up nearby, and asphalt has overtaken the site of the old mooring station. It’s now beneath the parking lot of the Navy Exchange. But once in a while I still go back there just to take a look around and remember.

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