Though separated by thousands of miles, history has connected Werner Franz and Werner Doehner. Both men, now in their eighties, are the last living survivors of the Hindenburg, the airship that crashed at New Jersey's Lakehurst Naval Air Station 75 years ago on May 6, 1937.
At the time, Franz was a 14-year-old cabin boy serving the wealthy passengers as the great airship, the pride of Germany, made its first Atlantic crossing of the 1937 season.
Doehner was eight years old and was travelling with his parents, Hermann and Matilde, and his siblings, 10-year-old Walter and 16-year-old Irene. The Doehner boys were the youngest of the 36 passengers on board during that flight.
Today, Doehner lives a quiet life as a retiree in Colorado. He declined to comment on this story beyond saying, “I lead a private life. That happened in the past and I’d prefer it stay there.”
Franz lives in Germany. He could not be reached for comment.
Carl Jablonski, president of the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society, said both men have been invited to ceremonies to mark the anniversary but neither would be able to attend. “Mr. Franz’s health and the health of Mr. Doehner’s wife prohibit either from attending,” he said.
However, Dr. Horst Schirmer, whose father helped design features of the airship and is one of the last three people still alive who flew aboard the Hindenburg, is expected to attend the weekend’s events which include a dinner on Saturday night and a memorial service on Sunday.
Other guests are expected to include Robert Buchanan of Waretown, a surviving member of the ground landing crew that day; Alexander Pruss, grandson of Hindenburg captain Max Pruss; Mary Alice Noone, grand-daughter of passenger J.B. Dolan who perished; and Rick Zitarosa, the society's historian.
Both Doehner and Franz have spoken about the crash previously, however.
Barbara Moreau, a retired third grade teacher in the Toms River School District and now a volunteer with the Ocean County Historical Society recalled the day, a few years ago, when she took a number of members of the Society’s junior members on a tour of the crash site in Lakehurst.
“We were told that both Werner Doehner and Werner Franz were both alive. I asked where they lived and were told they couldn’t tell us that,” she recalled. “That was all I needed to hear,” she chuckled.
With a little amateur sleuthing, she tracked down Doehner’s address and sent him a letter of introduction on behalf of the junior members.
“I wrote him and sent a photo of the kids out at Lakehurst, a picture of the marker, pictures of a few artifacts we have. We said, ‘we just want to know, are you well?’”
A few weeks letter, he sent a letter in reply, “thanking us for our letter and the pictures.” The children were overjoyed.
Moreau and the children decided to continue the correspondence. “We made a scrapbook of photos of artifacts. He was really touched and replied with photos of him with his brother and sister and a charred postcard his father had mailed to their address in Mexico City,” where the family lived for the father’s business interests.
After successfully contacting Doehner, Moreau decided to try to find Franz. “Through mutual friends in Germany, we were able to track him down. We got the German teacher in Lacey to translate what we wanted to say.”
He, too, replied to the letter and sent photographs of himself in response.
“I asked the children, ‘How do you know it’s him?’ They all said, ‘Look, he’s got the same nose!’”
Franz escaped from the crash after a water tank above him broke drenching him and dousing a small fire that had trapped him in smoke and flame. He then kicked out a hatch and jumped to the ground, nearly without a scratch.
Doehner and his family were not as lucky.
Although the airship would normally have landed early in the day on Thursday, May 6, storms had delayed the airship by nearly 12 hours during the two-and-a-half day passage from Frankfurt, Germany. With temperatures in the 50s and wind gusts up to 25 knots, continued squalls over Lakehurst led the Hindenburg to circle the area late in the afternoon, passing over Toms River, flying out to Seaside Heights and heading up the coast to Asbury Park before turning south to Forked River by early evening.
As the barometer began to rise and the winds lulled, the Hindenburg returned to Lakehurst in order to land.
Doehner, along with his brother, sister and mother, were in the portside dining room, watching the landing activities. His father was not with them as sailors on the ground crew rushed to secure the landing ropes dropped by the airship.
Suddenly, at 7:25 p.m., while the ship was about 200 feet off the ground, the first mushroom-shaped burst of flame appeared just forward of the vertical tail fin.
The ship immediately began to settle at the stern as the highly flammable hydrogen gas, which gave the airship its buoyancy, ignited. As the flames spread forward, the entire length of the Hindenburg became engulfed.
At 761 feet long, the Hindenburg was only 78 feet shorter than the Titanic, victim of another tragedy only 25 years earlier. The entire airship crashed in a mere 34 seconds.
As the flames spread and the airship began to crash to the ground, Doehner’s mother first threw his brother Walter to the rain-softened sand dozens of feet below and then picked him up to do the same. However, he bounced off the frame of the dining room window and she had to throw him out a second time.
As Matilde turned to her daughter, Irene proved to be too heavy and the mother was forced to jump from the window herself, breaking her pelvis upon landing but alive.
Irene was rescued from the burning wreckage but later succumbed to her injuries.
Hermann Doehner perished in the wreck.
Doehner’s brother, Walter, reportedly died in the 1950s.
Of the 92 people on board the Hindenburg, 22 crew members and 13 passengers died. One member of the ground crew also died, according to Jablonski. Remarkably, 57 people survived.
Of those, only Doehner and Franz remain alive today.
For more information about this weekend’s events, see the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society’s website or call Carl Jablonski at 732-244-8861.