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Hindenburg History: Former Police Chief Recalls Airship Disaster

Retired chief of police and lifelong Toms River resident, had unique vantage point to history

There are those moments. Moments that seem frozen in time. Moments that are hard to forget.

When the towers fell. Assasinations and riots. Pearl Harbor.

Before them all, there was May 6, 1937. That was the day the great airship, the Hindenburg, was to return to the United States from Germany for its first Atlantic crossing of the 1937 season.

Thirteen-year-old saw it fly over his house repeatedly that day. Now in his eighties, Clement said the sight of the dirigible will always be with him. “It was quite a sight. The biggest thing you ever saw,” he said.

Clement, the retired chief of police and lifelong Toms River resident, had a unique interest in the Hindenburg.

His family owned a dairy farm in Ridgeway that “provided all the milk to the Naval Air Station out in Lakehurst for years,” he explained. Clement would work on the dairy farm in the summers when he was a child.

In addition, Clement explained a further connection. “My grandfather was from Germany. He was friendly with the officers on the Hindenburg. During previous trips, they were all out to the dairy farm.”

According to Carl Jablonsky, president of the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society, the Hindenburg had made 10 flights to the United States in 1936.

So Clement was understandably interested in the Hindenburg’s return that May.

The airship would normally land early in the day but poor weather conditions had delayed the landing. With temperatures in the 50s and wind gusts up to 25 knots, a line of intermittent thunderstorms had passed through the area early in the day although improving conditions provided an opportunity for the dirigible to land.

“A bunch of us guys were playing football or something and we kept seeing the Hindenburg pass over,” Clement said recalling that Thursday. “It kept going back and forth.”

Waiting for a break in the storms passing over the area, the Hindenburg cruised over Toms River out to Seaside Heights, turned up the coast to Asbury Park before circling down to Forked River late in the afternoon.

Clement said someone suggested they go out to Lakehurst. “One of the guys was old enough to have a driver’s license,” so they all piled into a car and drove out to the base.

“I can remember the place we picked to stand, right by the No. 1 Hangar which was the only thing out there. Nothing else, just little clumps of grass.”

Soon, they saw the Hindenburg return as it started to make its final pass before landing.

“It came right over,” Clement explained. “It came in and made a circle to the north. It slowed down and dropped the ropes. We could see the sailors on the ground crew running for the ropes.”

From his vantage point less than a quarter-mile from the airship, Clement could clearly see what happened next. “All of a sudden, it tilted down at the back. It was like someone just pushed it down. Then flames shot out of the nose.”

The crash happened so quickly, Clement and his friends didn’t know what to think. “At first we thought lighting hit it.”

But what stayed with Clement was the horror of the crash. “It just took seconds but with all the people jumping out of it, it was just terrible.”

From an estimated altitude of approximately 250 feet, it took just 34 seconds from the first appearance of flames to erupt near the vertical tail fin until the Hindenburg came to a final rest in the sand. In that time span, 36 people died, including 22 crew members, 13 passengers and one member of the ground crew, according to Jablonsky.

Remarkably, of the 92 people onboard the Hindenburg, 57 survived.

 “It’s amazing anyone survived,” Clement said.

“We stayed around for a while. The fire trucks and the ambulances all came out there. There was nothing for us kids to do, so we just went home.”

The boys rode home in silence, too shocked to talk. “You just couldn’t believe what you were looking at, what you had seen.” 

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