USS Shenandoah, a 700 foot zeppelin, was the first American air vehicle to successfully complete a transcontinental flight—Frederick Tobin was honored to be a member of its crew. It was 1925 and the Shenandoah was touring the States, demonstrating the nation’s technological accomplishments to its citizens. As the airship visited state fairs and made anticipated flyovers across major cities, Tobin often manned the control gondola at the fore, a suspended metal cockpit just beneath the airship’s nose. Every time that they left a city, ascending thousands of feet, Tobin watched as asphalt and brick grids faded into tapestries of grass, corn, and wheat. Those on the ground watching the Shenandoah depart saw its patriotic emblazoning: a blue circle filled by a white five pointed star with a red dot at its center. “Daughter of Stars”—that was the native meaning of its name, or at least what those of the United States thought it to have been.
New Jersey’s Lakehurst Air Station was abuzz as the Hindenburg sailed down from the sky for the first of its yearly visits to the United States. It was 1937. With quick gestures and shouts, Frederick Tobin commanded the ground landing crew which would aid in the mooring (the docking of the Zeppelin to a grounded, towerlike fixture) and refueling of the German airship after its transatlantic journey. Despite all his years in aviation, there remained an impossibility to the sight—an 800 foot long torpedo floating through the air. Its duralumin frame weighed hundreds of tons, yet it navigated the world in the company of clouds. Over his years, Tobin had witnessed engineers’ ingenuity redefine possibility, but he knew that engineered possibilities were things of fragile balance. As the bleak airship adjusted its oblong hover, angling for descent, Tobin watched rudders come into view, bearing the emblemized patriotism of Germany’s recently risen rulership: proud red flags and tilted swastikas.
The Shenandoah was breaking from its 1925 tour of the states for a stop in Michigan, to test an experimental piece of mooring equipment. Tobin napped on a cot in the sleeping quarters toward the aft, the rear end, of the airship. A few rooms away from him, separated by fuel cell and water storage rooms, other crewmen on break played cards and jabbered over a late lunch. The sound of high gales against the airship’s helium-containing fabric, and the roar of the propellor motors, provided a nice blanket of static sound for Tobin to drift away under. Expecting to awake hours later, over a Michigan air station, he was instead surprised awake shortly after drifting off—deep, strained groans reverberated throughout the airship, interspersed with clangs that shook sleeping quarters and creaking the thin frames of all the cots. A thunderclap whacked the airship, tossing Tobin out of his cot. He slammed against the metal floor, tangled in his blanket. The metallic groaning intensified as Tobin struggled to stand and everything aboard the Shenandoah shuddered.
Lowered to 650 feet, the Hindenburg dropped its guiding ropes and its metal mooring cable down to the airfield. Tobin and his men rushed to meet them as the ship. They would have to link the cable to the mooring mast, a stout, four legged tower of crossed metal beams that would anchor the nose of the ship for refueling. The landing crew would connect the ropes to a series of winches which would gradually pull the airship down and satbalize it, parallel to the American soil which its many passengers were eager to greet. For Tobin and his crew, the Hindenburg now was the sky. It’s shadowy gray underbelly, continually sinking toward the ground, was about all that they could see when they looked up. As Tobin and his men began guiding the ropes and cable to their proper places, a brief rumble emanated from overhead. For an instant, it boomed like a distant storm—then it erupted into a bright, hydrogen-fueled cacophony. The Hindenburg’s dark underbelly now eclipsed the bellowing explosion of the gas which had kept it afloat. Heat from the light of the blast rained down onto Tobin and his men, who stood but a few hundred feet beneath the Hindenburg and its bellowing mushroom cloud.
The archway leading from the sleeping quarters toward the Shenandoah’s fore, toward the control gondola, wailed as it was invaded by rushing storm winds. When Tobin finally managed to get himself upright and get to the fore-facing archway, he heard the airships groans end with an abrupt snap, even louder than the assaulting thunderclaps—the ship’s skeleton had given way to the roughly shifting pressures. An icy fog infiltrated the Shenandoah and enveloped Tobin. He watched through the foggy archway as the ship’s duralumin bones snapped and its fabric flesh split open, revealing the thick, flickering grays of the lightning riddled, gaseous sea. Against a wall, Tobin lay on the ground, listening to the winds mangle the airship and release its helium to mingle with the furious atmosphere. The sleeping quarters encapsulating Tobin would ultimately be destroyed, alongside most of the ship, at the conclusion of its plummet onto Ohio farmland. Tobin emerged from the wreckage alongside twenty-eight other survivors of the forty-three man crew.
The Hindenburg’s ruptured, blazing tail end sank to the earth, engulfing one of Tobin’s crewmen. Its revealed duralumin framing buckled against the ground, twisting and cracking, while the upward pointing nose of the ship burst open, releasing a hundred foot stream of fire. While onlookers cried out about the terrible loss of humanity, Tobin shouted to his crew, “Navy men, stand fast!”
He commanded them to defy all instinct, to face the fiery collapse of the Hindenburg, to rush back to it when it’s violent grounding was completed, “We’ve got to get those people out of there!” Better than anybody else there, Tobin understood that this travesty was survivable. He thought that the Shenandoah was hell, but now the Hindenburg had brought the inferno itself before him.
Ultimately, Tobin and his men would rescue nearly two-thirds of the Hindenburg’s passengers and crew from the airships scorching impact.