Hindenburg Crash Mail

Object Spotlight
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Hindenburg crash card

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Herb Morrison, WLS Chicago radio reporter, and engineer Charlie Nehlsen captured the Hindenburg disaster on lacquer disc.

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It’s starting to rain again; it’s… the rain had slacked up a little bit. The back

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motors of the ship are just holding it just enough to keep it from…

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It’s burst into flames! … Get this, Charlie; get this, Charlie! It’s fire… and it’s

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crashing! It’s crashing terrible! Oh, my! Get out of the way, please! It’s burning

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and bursting into flames and the… and it’s falling on the mooring mast. And all the folks

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agree that this is terrible; this is the one of the worst catastrophes in the world. … Crashing,

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oh! Four or five hundred feet into the sky and it… it’s a terrific crash, ladies

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and gentlemen. It’s smoke, and it’s in flames now; and the frame is crashing to the

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ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity! And all the passengers screaming

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around here. I told you; it — I can’t even talk to people, their friends are out

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there! Ah! It’s… it… it’s a… ah! I… I can’t talk, ladies and gentlemen.

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Honest, it’s just laying there, a mass of smoking wreckage, and everybody can hardly

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breathe and talk… I’m sorry. Honest, I can hardly breathe. I’m going to step inside

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where I cannot see it. Charlie, that’s terrible. I… Listen folks, I’m going to have to

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stop for a minute, because I’ve lost my voice… This is the worst thing I’ve ever

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witnessed.

message in German on reverse of crash card
Message on reverse of the Hindenburg crash card

The German zeppelin Hindenburg made sixty-three flights, including ten roundtrips to the United States in 1936. It met tragedy May 6, 1937. Attempting to land at Lakehurst, New Jersey, the giant airship burst into flames near the mooring mast. In only thirty-two seconds, the zeppelin was smoldering wreckage. Amazingly, nearly two-thirds of the passengers and crew survived (thirty-five people on board died plus one member of the ground crew; sixty-two survived). The zeppelin was 803’10” long—almost three football fields end-to-end. The cause of the disaster has never been determined. However, the prevailing theory is that a discharge of electricity from the storm that evening ignited some leaking hydrogen. Sabotage has been ruled out as a possibility due to lacking evidence of any kind.

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Outer fabric salvaged from the wreckage

This postcard was part of the mail salvaged from the wreckage. The U.S. Post Office Department enclosed the fragile, charred remains in a glassine envelope and officially sealed it before delivery to the addressee. This folded postcard, also known as an ‘economical folded business card’, allowed the sender to type the address and message without turning the card over. After typing, the address portion was folded to become part of the card face and then glued into place. This card, addressed to John Schoonbrod in New York City, has a typed message on the reverse in which Ernst wrote that he was sending greetings by air, asked why he had not heard from Hans for awhile, and suggested a reply on an upcoming return flight of the Hindenburg. The international postcard rate was 15Rpf and, therefore, the rate is overpaid by 10Rpf. Though 10 Rpf was the required rate for airmail service in the U.S., no airmail was needed for a New York City destination.

To Whom It May Concern, This is to certify that the attached piece of fabric was salvaged from the airship HINDENBURG when she met with an accident at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937. F.W. von MEISTER- letter from Hans Royter, official representative of the Zeppelin Company
Letter from Hans Royter, official representative of the Zeppelin Company.

Postal officials salvaged approximately 358 pieces from the 17,609 estimated pieces of mail on the flight. Of these, 176 salvaged items were unburned (with a few exceptions) because they were stored in a protective, sealed pouch awaiting postal service on the return flight, and they later received a paquebot postmark. Several other varieties of Hindenburg crash mail exist from the final flight, including mail dropped over the city of Cologne in Germany, mail posted onboard (two cancel types) by passengers and crew, mail transmitted from other countries (Danzig, Netherlands, Austria, and Switzerland), mail found in the wreckage after the postal inspectors left, and mail intended for the return flight. Forgeries exist.

This philatelic gem is from the John P. V. Heinmuller collection, a collection including over two thousand zeppelin covers that Heinmuller donated to the National Postal Museum.

Suggested Readings

Harold G. Dick with Douglas H Robinson, The Golden Age of Passenger Airships: Graf Zeppelin & Hindenburg (Washington DC: 1985).

John Duggan, LZ129 Hindenburg - The Complete Story and Zeppelinpost: LZ129 Hindenburg (Ickenham GB: 2002, 2004).

Arthur Falk, Hindenburg Crash Mail: The Search Goes On (New York: 1976).

Martin Feibusch and Cheryl Ganz, “Hindenburg Crash Cover Forgeries and Passenger Moritz Feibusch,” The Zeppelin Collector (July 1988): 51-54.

Cheryl Ganz, “Come Take a Ride on the Hindenburg: Creating an Aerophilatelic Display Class Exhibit,” The Airpost Journal (February 2003): 67-74.

Dieter Leder and Siegfried G. Scheike, “Forgeries of the Lakehurst Mail,” The Airpost Journal (June 1988): 217-219.

Michel Zeppelin- und Flugpost-Spezial-Katalog 2002 (2nd ed.) ( München, Germany, 2002).

Sieger Zeppelinpost Spezial-Katalog (22nd ed.) (Lorch: Germany, 2001).

Historic Airplanes: Hindenburg 

Written by Cheryl R. Ganz