Forgotten airship disaster recalled 80 years later
History buffs will gather this week near the New Jersey coast to commemorate a major airship disaster.
No, not that one.
Newsreel footage and radio announcer Herbert Morrison’s plaintive cry, “Oh, the humanity!” made the 1937 explosion of the Hindenburg at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station probably the best-known crash of an airship.
But just four years earlier, a U.S. Navy airship seemingly jinxed from the start and later celebrated in song crashed only about 40 miles away, claiming more than twice as many lives.
The USS Akron, a 785-foot dirigible, was in its third year of flight when a violent storm sent it plunging tail-first into the Atlantic Ocean shortly after midnight April 4, 1933.
“No broadcasters, no photographers, no big balls of fire, so who knew?” said Nick Rakoncza, a member of the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society. “Everybody thinks that the Hindenburg was the world’s greatest [airship] disaster. It was not.”
A ceremony to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the crash, the deadliest airship disaster on record, is taking place Thursday at a veterans park where there is a tiny plaque dedicated to the victims. Below it is a small piece of metal from the airship.
Few in the area seemed to know about the disaster, let alone the memorial plaque; even a Navy officer sent on an underwater mission to explore the wreckage many years later had not heard of the Akron.
“It’s almost a forgotten accident,” said Rick Zitarosa, historian for the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society. “The Akron deserves to be remembered.”
The Akron crashed off the community of Barnegat Light just a few hours after taking off from Lakehurst, killing 73 of the 76 men aboard, largely because the ship had no life vests and only one rubber raft, according to Navy records and the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society. They had been moved to another airship and were never replaced.
Lt. Cmdr. Herbert Wiley, Moody Erwin and Richard Deal were pulled from the frigid waters by a German tanker that had been nearby.
Erwin and Deal had been hanging on a fuel tank. Wiley was clinging to a board, according to an account he gave to a newspaper the next day.
In a newsreel interview, Wiley, standing next to the other survivors, said he was in the control car just before the crash.
He said crew members could not see the ocean until they were about 300 feet above the water.