Travel Log: Airships and Aircraft Carriers

Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum

(Smithfield, Rhode Island; July 19, 2017) – The Hindenburg blew up and crashed in flames May 6, 1937 near Hangar No. 1 at the Lakehurst naval air station in New Jersey. The disaster killed 36 people (35 people on the ship, one on the ground). The 803-foot long ship, veteran of 62 successful flights, was obliterated in less than 30 seconds.

Today one finds a chain-link marker and small metal silhouette of the vessel at the site where the airship’s control gondola smashed into the naval air station’s tarmac. It is a very quiet place; the wind whips across the abandoned airfield and grass is slowly consuming the disused pavement. A mile or so away the modern joint-base airfield is busy, and occasionally giant jet aircraft will fly directly over this place where lighter-than-air aviation largely died.

The Hindenburg crash claimed very few casualties, but the emerging technology of film captured the horrible crash and turned public opinion against lighter-than-air travel. After 1937, lighter-than-air aviation became centered on smaller military and civilian blimps used for patrols and advertising.

Hindenburg Crash Site
The silhouette of the Hindenburg marks the spot where the great airship’s control gondola crashed during the 1937 disaster.  Half a mile away Hangar No. 1 looms above the Lakehurst landscape.  July 18, 2018.

At one time, though, Lakehurst was the center of the United States’ lighter-than-air effort. The massive Hangar No. 1 was designed to house two giant airships at once. In fact, one 1929 photo shows the Navy’s USS Los Angeles (ZR 3) and the German Graf Zeppelin (the Hindenburg’s immediate predecessor) housed side-by-side with comfortable room to spare. The hangar is 966 feet long, 350 feet wide, and 224 feet high. It’s floor covers 211,434 square feet.

Today Hangar No. 1 is open to the public as a museum dedicated to the story of the Navy’s lighter-than-air efforts, as well as remembering the Hindenburg. The museum also houses the USS C.A.L.A.S.S.E.S. (Carrier Aircraft Launch and Support Systems Equipment Simulator), a 1/3-sized simulated flight deck used to train flight deck sailors for over 30 years. The museum is free; you will only need to get a visitor pass at the base’s front gate is you don’t have a military ID card. I visited on July 18 (yesterday, in fact) and the hangar was hosting a constant stream of summer camp groups and Navy Sea Cadets.

Take time to speak with the volunteers who staff it. They are a wealth of stories and listening to them can fill hours with fun, laughter, and eye-popping anecdotes (such as Nick, who, as a Seaman Apprentice 40 years ago, bumped a two-star admiral from a space-available flight because the admiral’s travel priority was lower than an Army sergeant traveling on emergency leave!).

Lighter-than-air has largely become a niche technology. But once, not that long ago, lighter-than-air was the safest, most economical means of air travel. Unfortunately, those giant rigid airships, even when filled with helium instead of dangerous hydrogen, were highly susceptible to the vagaries of weather and wind. The ghosts of the great airships now slide quietly only through the skies of history.

Hangar No. 1
To get an idea of the true size and scale of Hangar No. 1 in Lakehurst, look at the minivan driving just in front of its giant doors.  July 18, 2018.

Continuing the theme of naval history, the single most significant artifact from one of the two most decorated ships in Navy history is preserved in a very unlikely spot—River Vale, New Jersey (notice a New Jersey theme here?). I’m speaking of the sternplate of the World War II aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV 6). The Enterprise was the single-most decorated U.S. ship of all of World War II, and stands with the frigate USS Constitution as one of the Navy’s two most famous ships. Enterprise was involved in every major action of the Pacific War but one—the Battle of the Coral Sea. While Coral Sea was being fought, the Big E was providing escort and cover to USS Hornet as the Hornet carried Col. Jimmy Doolittle’s raiders for their 1942 bombing run on Tokyo.

The first major effort to save a World War II ship was the drive to save the Enterprise…and it failed. However, the loss of the Big E gave preservationists a baseline to know exactly what it took to save a major warship, thus resulting in the successful preservation of several other carriers, battleships, destroyers, and submarines. But the Big E had to be scrapped, and the unenviable job had to fall to someone. W. Henry Hoffman wound up with the assignment of leading the scrapping for the Lipsett Corporation. Originally the ship’s tripod mast was supposed to be mounted on the Naval Academy’s football stadium, but the stadium engineers whined that the metal mast would require maintenance they didn’t want to do. Alas, the single most distinctive piece of the ship’s silhouette was lost.

In the end, Hoffman was only able to save two pieces of the hull. One, a porthole, is on display in the Enterprise exhibit at the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola. The other is the 16-foot long, one-ton sternplate bearing the ship’s name. It is maintained in Hoffman park by the River Vale Public Library on River Vale Road in River Vale, New Jersey (say all that five times fast!).

A visit to the library will bring more than a chance to touch the largest remaining piece of the most famous ship of World War II. Take a minute to walk into the library. If you are very lucky, you’ll meet Nancy Liguori, a librarian and all-around cool person. She is more than willing to show you the library’s small Enterprise exhibit and tell you the story about the sternplate’s odd journey to this most unlikely sanctuary. She might even introduce you to the library’s director, Ann McCarthy. Between these two ladies, you’ll not only learn some of the Big E’s history, you’ll also get a very succinct overview of the New Jersey’s part in the Revolutionary War.

I’m not kidding. Ann, Nancy, and the other staff are eager to talk about places usually ignored by most history books. For instance, River Vale was the site of the 1778 Baylor Massacre. Nearby in Hackensack is New Bridge Landing, a key position that allowed General Washington to save the Continental Army after the defeats in New York. Deptford Township in southern New Jersey was the site of the landing of the first-ever flight in North America: a balloon flight in 1793 that originated in Philadelphia and witnessed by President Washing. New Jersey is an treasure trove of American history often ignored and over-shadowed by the glittering lights of nearby New York City.

Go to Lakehurst to learn about the great airships. Then go to River Vale to learn about (and touch) the greatest aircraft carrier in American history. Make sure you meet Ann and Nancy; their passion for history is infectious…even to a historian like me!

Oh, and just why did the Enterprise sternplate wind up in River Vale of all places? Well, Nancy will be glad to tell you the answer: W. Henry Hoffman was a resident of River Vale!

USS Enterprise Sternplate
The sternplate bearing the name of the USS Enterprise (CV 6) is now on permanent display in Hoffman Park next door to the River Vale Public Library in River Vale, New Jersey.  July 18, 2018.

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