Frank Ward, Ground Crew Member (1920-2015)
Hindenburg, May 6, 1937
I had been on the grounds crew the previous year, five times.
And all those five times when it came over, it varied very little in its approach
coming over the New Jersey Pines
and then onto the field and making a big turn
and then decending and going down
hooking onto the mooring mast with the help of the grounds crew.
This time we waited
through rain and rain again and then clearing and so
when they finally got the go ahead sign,
the ship came in, and when somebody hollered, "Here's the ship, here it comes,"
it came out of the New Jersey Pines
and you could see it suddenly appear.
It was going faster, at a greater speed
than at any other time I had seen it.
It was higher in the altitude
than at any other time, and it seemed to be speeding towards the field.
And then it slowed down,
made a big U-turn,
and then started to decend toward the landing crews.
And, uh, I was staring right up captain Pruss who had his gondola window open and
had his elbows on the window sill, looking out surveying this situation.
And I, my thoughts at that time as I looked up,
we were pulling on the rope
and one chief petty officer from the tower of the
204 foot mooring mast would be yelling orders.
Bow ... Pull ... Starboard
What's you other side? -Port. -Port. Thank you.
Port, port, starboard, ... and guiding us and pulling.
And I looked up at Captain Pruss and I thought you know my thoughts went back
this is not a bad job because the future is
still ahead and perhaps someday
the sky will be filled with blimps
and big 700, 800 foot airliners
that'll be going from country to country and that wouldn't be a bad job, I might
look into that someday,
in few years, not thinking of a war or anything else like that.
Well as every group is pulling all along the line and I'm,
my thoughts I've told her, and then suddenly
somebody in our group said, "Hey, look down at the end there at the tail.
A bunch of fellas are moving, look at, they're running."
And so we looked and we're 800 feet away.
I didn't pay any attention.
I said, oh yeah, I don't know, may be possible maybe some oil or gas fell out
and they're running to get away from it.
And, 20-30 seconds went by, and then closer to the middle
of the ship another group or two started running
and I said, "Boy they must be, must be something wrong."
Oil or gas or something.
It was actually, it was not hydrogen
but if it were a form of a chemical
that's what it would have been.
So, I, ignorant about the whole thing, I start pulling with other men,
and others started running, and then suddenly,
the ship made a very precipitous drop right above us,
about 150 feet, or something like that, not much higher.
And somebody said, "Hey, oh look the fire!"
"She's caught on fire! Look at the back, it's burning, it's burning!"
"Look at everybody running!" So, I woke up with others,
and being young, it didn't take me long to lead the pack running.
And so I said, "Holy cow let's get outta here!"
So we ran, everybody scattered quickly.
I don't think we went 20 yards,
and then we heard this eerie
sound when the metal of the ship
hit the ground, the mud, and it started
crackling, and the fires burning along,
and very heavy black smoke, and the coverage,
the fabric is burning very quickly.
And so, when I heard all this, the eerie sound from when it hit and so on,
that brought me to a quick stop
and I turned to see what had taken place.
And these people, especially the civilians
who had paid the price of the ticket,
were in, ...frantic.
You can't really use the right word, but they were grabbing the metal,
and then falling because the metal was just red-hot.
It had turned red from the,
naturally the fire and so on, canvas fabric had burned quickly.
and they were falling, man in civilian suits who had paid.
One gentleman, middle-aged man, had held onto his briefcase.
He wouldn't let go of it, and he stumbled over the metal trying to get out.
A lady did the same thing,
grabbed a hold of the metal and
just, her hands I guess started to burn, fell.
Others were coming out.
What do you do in a situation like that?
And the the Chief Boatswain's Mate who was
the announcer giving order from the tower was yelling out,
"All crewmen", not crewman but the grounds crew,
"standby, Navy get in there and help Navy men, Marines, help!"
And there was not a large number Marines or sailors at that base.
So, they moved forward as best they could with the heat and all.
The civilians, myself and others, did not pay much attention to his orders and we moved forward as well.
But you couldn't get too close.
People were coming out burning, their clothing, and then falling in the mud
because it had rained heavily that day.
Puddles of mud and water, and it was a horrible sight to see.
Frank, I have a little surprise for you.
I went to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland
to investigate the Hindenburg Investigation Papers.
And, in addition to the testimony of everyone who was before the board,
they had a lot of documents that they had prepared in advance including documents from ground crewmen.
So here's one of those forms. Can you tell me the name at the top on the form?
Yeah, Francis E. Ward, Beechwood, New Jersey,
May 17th, 1937.
That's right, and so the first question says,
state your position in relation to the ship, including the distance from the ship.
And how did you answer that?
Starboard, bow line, approximate, 200 feet from the ship.
And in addition to these questions they asked you,
they gave you a form to fill out with a diagram of the Hindenburg.
And they asked you to mark where you were standing under the ship.
And you can see, you put an "X" right here on the Starboard bow side.
Everybody used to say,
"Gee I guess when you returned the next day you were a big hero," this, that, and the other.
I don't think three people mentioned it,
and the ones that I do remember very much
mentioning it, when I went out on field
the next day for track and baseball, that followed,
both coaches chewed me out,
"Where were you yesterday?"
And I said, well, "I went to pull the Hindenburg down."
"Why didn't you say something? We didn't know about it. Did you know about it?"
"No I didn't know about it. You could at least tell somebody,"
and, this, that, and the other, and blah blah blah.
So, I said, "I wasn't a great hero to coaches,"
ha, ha, 'cause they chewed me out for missing practice.