May 6th marks the anniversary of the tragic end of the airship Hindenburg, destroyed by fire as it came in for a landing at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station, New Jersey, in 1937. Last year, to commemorate the anniversary, we posted the story of Anne “Cookie” Chotzinoff Grossman, who, on October 9th, 1936, spotted the Hindenburg in flight from her Connecticut schoolyard. She took off in hot pursuit along with her brother Blair, but the giant airship got away from them; Cookie and Blair trudged back to school, and Cookie was made to write “I will not follow the Hindenburg” on the blackboard a hundred times.
Last week I mentioned this story to my colleagues at the Museum’s Archives Division reading room at the Paul E. Garber Facility, and Bill Eaton, one of our volunteers, told us proudly that he too had chased after the Hindenburg as a child. We begged him to tell us the story; here it is:
The scene opens in the schoolyard of Blessed Sacrament School, Providence, Rhode Island. It’s the early afternoon of May 6th, 1937 and recess has just started. A bunch of the kids, including young Bill Eaton, seven years old and in the third grade, have just chosen sides for a round of Alevio, the hot game of the season. Suddenly, another group of kids starts shouting and pointing upwards. Bill looks up and spots the Hindenburg, sailing over Providence…
“… I really took a step back — Holy Smoke, it was big, really big! [It was] pointed right at us — just then, it began a slow turn to the left, showing us its complete side and tail. We could hear the motors — a vibrant hum — not too loud, but strong…”
Huge uproar among the Blessed Sacrament students ensues — ”What is it?” “Where’s it going?” And even “Is it dangerous?” Bill recalls that a number of the children were terrified of the huge, looming shape — one of the younger kids even had an unfortunate accident (Bill refuses to name the victim, even at this late date). One of the more air-minded kids tells the others that they’ve spotted the Hindenburg; Bill, his pal Bobby Aldritch, and a bunch of the other boys jump the schoolyard fence and take off after the dirigible, out to Regent and down Academy Avenue.
The Hindenburg soon pulls out ahead of its pursuers, and as the kids watch, the airship begins a slow climb, levels off, and it’s gone, on its way to Lakehurst. Recess was still going on as Bill and his friends returned to the schoolyard. One of the teachers turns on the radio and they hear all about the great airship’s journey from Germany.
Later on at home, Bill’s mother also turned the radio on, and they heard the news from Lakehurst — at 7:25 PM, the Hindenburg caught fire as it was coming in to land — 13 passengers, 22 crew members, and one member of the ground crew died. On Saturday, Bill and his buddies went to the movies and saw the famous newsreel footage of the disaster.
Bill didn’t have to write at the blackboard, as Cookie did, because of his escapade, but he didn’t get off entirely scot-free, either. The eagle-eyed principal of Blessed Sacrament had spotted Bill legging it from the playground, and she called Bill’s father and turned him in. As his father listened to the principal’s testimony, Bill waited in trepidation — his father was not shy about handing out punishment. Imagine Bill’s relief when he heard his father reply, “Sister, Bill saw a piece of history today!” It was decided that, as a witness to history, young Bill could be excused just this once. And after his father hung up the phone, he said to Bill, “Son, you won’t forget this for the rest of your life.” Today, Bill Eaton is 81 years old, retired from the Air Force as an Electronic Warfare Officer on B-52s and B-66s. He lives in Vienna, Virgina, and kindly volunteers his time helping us catalogue and rehouse photographs from our Wright/ McCook Field Still Photograph Collection. And he still hasn’t forgotten the day he and his pals chased the Hindenburg down Academy Avenue.
Allan Janus is a museum specialist in the Museum’s Archives Division.