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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.)