Elwood Betts Remembers The Hindenburg

Westport has no direct living links to the Titanic tragedy, 100 years ago last month.

But 86-year-old Elwood Betts remembers another disaster well.  75 years ago today the Hindenburg burned in a hellish fireball, as it attempted to dock with its mooring mast in New Jersey.

Just a few hours earlier, it had flown gracefully over Westport. Here is Elwood’s story.

May 6, 1937 was just another routine day. I was probably daydreaming about the last day of school. I would leave Westport for rustic Norwich, Vermont, to spend the summer on my grandfather’s farm. I’d drive the cows to pasture, feed the horse, and take him to the blacksmith shop. I’d carry a couple of bags of last year’s potatoes to pay the smith. Good potatoes would be a treat this time of year.

Elwood Betts today. The Evergreen Cemetery restoration is one of his many civic projects.

But in the back of my 11-year-old mind, there was the excitement of seeing photographs in Life magazine. Soldiers in Italy strutted in their stiff lockstep, and thousands of German youths gathered in the stadium saluting the Nazi swastika.

If my mind wandered as I sat in Mrs. Caswell’s 6th grade homeroom at Bedford Elementary School (now Town Hall), it was jolted by the PA. Word came to go quickly into the playground, in the back of the school.

As we burst outdoors we saw the massive circle of the nose of the monstrous airship Hindenburg. It loomed directly toward us. Its altitude was so low, and the path so close to the edge of our playground, that we actually saw passengers lean out the gondola windows. We all waved frantically.

Above the roar of the engines, we were mesmerized by the huge swastika emblazoned on the tail fins.

The Hindenburg. It carried the only swastika ever to fly over the United States.

We soon were dismissed from school. We left exhilarated, having seen another great technological advance that was becoming the hallmark of the new Nazi Germany.

The next morning I rose very early. I biked downtown to Lamson’s Newsy Corner on Taylor Place (across from the Y), to pick up the morning newspapers to deliver on my regular route.

To my complete amazement, there were the now-famous pictures of the Hindenburg burning explosively as it docked at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station. The scene of horror, as people jumped from the windows we had seen only the afternoon before, and running among sheets of flaming debris falling all around, will never leave me.

The New York Daily News sent a bundle of extra copies. They were distributed to each of us, to sell for 3 cents apiece. I went directly to Smitty’s Diner, next to the then-new post office.

I was a shy boy. But I surprised myself by bursting into the diner, shouting like I had seen in the movie newsreels, “Extra, extra! Hindenburg burns!

I sold all the papers immediately. Most people gave me a nickel — a 2-cent tip. I was rich.

On reflecting that 36 people died — in just 37 seconds — I was humbled thinking of my previous day’s exaltation at the mastery of Germany technology.

The disaster, as reported in the Westporter-Herald the following day.

The next fall, we had the privilege of having Al Scully — future first selectman of Westport — and Frank Kaeser as our social studies teachers at Bedford Junior High School. These gentlemen took pleasure in holding after-class arguments with us boys about the headlong fall of the rest of the world into the chaos of aggression and local wars.

One believe that the American continents should be isolated from the turmoil of the world, as Teddy Roosevelt had championed in another era. This was the position taken by most of this country at that time.

The other side felt we must prepare with urgency to meet the rapidly mounting aggressive advances of the militant regimes of Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia. Thrown out was the challenge that we, the United States of America, should step in and eliminate the “plague” before it could completely overwhelm the world — perhaps including even ourselves — if we were not prepared.

To this day, the Hindenburg disaster of May 6, 1937, is held in my mind as the inflection point when my attention was diverted from dreaming of a future life as a country farmer, to the events leading to that day on July 4th, 1943, when I boarded a train to leave home.

I did not return for 3 1/2 years, after service in the United States Navy.

On that day in May, my view for the future was changed in entirely new directions.

God bless America.

(Click below for remarkable footage of the tragedy, with commentary by radio newsman Herbert Morrison.)

11 responses to “Elwood Betts Remembers The Hindenburg

  1. Kerstin Warner

    Thank you, Dan and Mr. Betts, for sharing the connection of this moment in history to our town. I continue to be fascinated by the stories and details you find, Dan. Mr. Betts, you moved me to see this event from the vantage point of a young boy at a turning point in his life. Your story transformed today’s anniversary from a mere fact into an experience for me.

  2. Wow! What a story! I remember my dad talking about the Hindenburg, but I have never heard most of these interesting details (I had no clue the Hindenburg had a swastika on it.) Thanks for sharing this — and Mr. Betts, you sound like a fascinating man!

  3. That was fascinating! I, too, had no idea the ship passed over town … Given his great memory, I’m wondering how well Mr. Betts may remember the War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938?

  4. Fred Cantor

    Fascinating bit of local history.

    And reading his recollections of his social studies teachers brought back memories of our wonderful 6th-grade teacher at Coleytown Elementary School, Lee Hawes, who, in a similar vein, encouraged and allowed us to have a debate about the Vietnam War during its relatively early stages in the 1964-65 school year. I was part of the team defending LBJ’s policies and I remember writing to the Pentagon for materials in support of our position. Of course, my views ultimately changed about the war, but the most important thing was Mr. Hawes got the students very interested in and engaged in “current events.”

  5. Eric Buchroeder

    At the time of this incident here was a great deal of concern about using hydrogen in commercial airships as it is extremely flammable as the subsequent crash at Lakehurst NJ proved. Helium was a much better alternative and the US had long used it in their naval airships. The Germans did not have helium in sufficient quantities to equip their commercial air fleet and the US would not sell it to them for reasons of military security. The German government owned commercial air fleet Lufthansa was the guise under which they developed the Luftwaffe and most of their commercial airliners were reconfigured to bombers after Germany renounced the provisions of the Versailles Treaty which prohibited a military air force. We don’t have many first hand sources of this history left and Dan this is just another of your contributions through the many friendships you have in Westport.

  6. Nancy Powers Conklin

    Thanks Dan for this first-hand account of the Hindenburg passing over Westport. My father was 17 at that time and attending Staples High School which was on Riverside Avenue then. Don’t know where he got it but, when my sister and I were in elementary school, my father had a 78 rpm vinyl recording of the Hindenburg crash. We listened to it as kids and were very moved by the screams and sounds of destruction as it crashed in Lakehurst, NJ. Being the kids that we were and not valuing anything historical, we played frisbee (before the frisbee was invented) with the vinyl recording and it didn’t take long for it to hit the floor and break into lots of pieces. My father was disappointed, we were very sorry after the fact, and wished that we had that recording today to mark that fateful day in our history.

  7. Tim Caffrey

    Awesome story!

  8. Jamie Walsh

    A wonderful story that shows a critical turning point in Mr Betts life and the childhood innocence lost and the start to a new dawn in a land full of life. Thank you Mr.Betts for sharing this fabulous story.

  9. Elwood Betts, E L Docterow and I appear to have witnessed the same journey of the Hindenburg as it flew over Westport, The Bronx and Glen Rock, NJ. I was in 8th or 9th grade attending Glen Rock Jr. High Shool, I was on the school grounds as she passed. Her diesel engines were very loud.

    Docterow memtions this sighting in his book, “Worlds Fair”.

  10. Anne Flaxman

    I teach life story writing classes for adults in the Fairfleld County area. In my 12 years of teaching I have met 3 people who saw the Hindenburg on its final flight. And now here are more connections…thanks.
    Anne Flaxman