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The Hindenburg's Conspiracy-less Doom

It has been brought to my attention that I have a sort of odd sense of style. I carry a pocket watch, don't own a pair of sneakers, and on special occasions wax up my moustache in a manner that would make Snidely Whiplash envious. I've also considered getting laser eye surgery on only my right eye, so that I'll get to wear a monocle, and have been looking to get one of those old fashioned bicycles with the gigantic front wheel. The point is, I don't much care for the young people today, with their baggy pants and "rock and roll" devil music.

This sense of style is one of the many reasons that people should not be surprised that I think Zeppelins are the coolest thing of all time. Sadly, the era of the airship was brought to a grisly end when the Hindenburg was reduced to a pile of smoldering ashes over the skies of New Jersey. (This, and not the complete inability to make left-hand turns, is the reason that crossing the river into the Garden State is a most bitter event for me.)

However, like with so many things, conspiracy theorists have since gotten their teeth into the tragic event, contending in the face of all reason and evidence that the doomed dirigible met its end at the hands of sabotage.

The Hindenburg was, basically, a monster. Stood on end, it would have dwarfed the Washington Monument. It could carry 112 tons of cargo; it could cross the Atlantic Ocean in a mere two days (something airplanes couldn't do at the time); and, just to underline the fact that the Hindenburg was the most stylish form of transportation ever devised, only the finest of gourmet foods were served on only the finest china. Originally this monster was to be filled with helium, a non-combustible gas, but America didn't want to sell it to Hitler's Germany out of fear that somehow he would use the helium in his war effort. (This was 1937, but even then, we could see trouble coming.)

So instead, the thing was filled with hydrogen, the lowest and most execrable of the chemical elements. On May 3, 1937, the Hindenburg arrived in America, passing over Boston as it traveled to New Jersey, that state which has claimed so many innocent lives. Weather in New Jersey was poor (of course), so the captain, Max Pruss, decided to hang out above New York City, passing over a baseball game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Pittsburg Pirates.

After a while, the weather cleared, so the airship flew on to the Naval Air station at Lakehurst. Hovering about 275 ft. off the ground, as a mooring line was dropped to the ground, the whole thing burst into flames, killing 35 of the 97 people aboard.
Herbert Morrison, a radio commentator covering the landing, summed it up with the startled exclamation "Oh, the humanity!" This was later immortalized by illiterates with internet connections and a copy of Photoshop, summarizing the event with the words "Oh, the huge manatee!"

The point is, there was an investigation. The pride of one of the most powerful nation in the worlds' air fleets doesn't explode over a semi-hostile country without a stink being raised. Both the American and German governments came to the conclusion that static electricity sparked, setting off the hydrogen in the Zeppelin.
However, conspiracy theorists have never let scientific investigation get in their way: They claim it was a bomb, planted either by the German government itself or by those that hated the German government.

If some anti-Reich group planted the bomb, it was to destroy the most obvious symbol of Germany's power. If the Germans planted the bomb, it was to provoke an international incident, giving them a reason to ignore America's objections to whatever terrible plans they had cooking. ("Yeah, we're invading Poland, but you guys let our Zeppelin explode. Leave us alone.") The conspiracy theorist, usually so well-armed with elaborate explanations, has only one thing to support his theory: the location of the beginning of the fire. It was towards the back of the Zeppelin, by the tail fins. One thing that you rarely see is a picture of the Hindenburg showing the tail fins: Each of them was painted with gigantic Swastikas.

The Hindenburg was not just a stylish mode of high-class travel, but had been used for propaganda at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, among other things. It was a symbol of German power; it makes sense that if someone was targeting it with a bomb, to attack the 1,000 year Reich symbolically, that the bomb would go off near the Nazi flags on the blimp's ass-end.

Other than that, the conspiracy theorist has idle speculations as to who planted the bomb: If it was not planted by the German government before it left Germany, it must have been planted by a passenger. The conspiracy theorists single out two men, a passenger and a crewman, as likely bomb-planting suspects, despite the fact that the only evidence pointing in this direction is that the crewman probably didn't like Hitler and the passenger kept going to the back of the ship to visit his dog. I am resoundingly unimpressed by this argument. As Dr. Jacobs would say, it's "evidence free."

A theory that makes a little more sense was proposed by someone at NASA. He looked into the material with which the outer skin of the Zeppelin was painted, and realized that it is chemically similar to gun powder. The paint would have waterproofed the fabric, but would also, so the theory goes, have been explosive. In fact, when a 60-year-old sample of cloth treated with a layer of iron oxide covered in cellulose butyrate acetate mixed with powdered aluminum, it caught fire quickly - almost as quickly as I caught a bad case of Hulkamania in third grade. So basically, an airship filled with flammable gas was painted with a waterproofing agent that was extremely volatile. I don't really think any bomb was needed here. There's been some talk that the Germans designed the ship with the flammable waterproofing agent, expecting it not to be a huge problem since it would be filled with helium and, after the incident, covered up this alarming negligence. However, since there's not a whole lot of proof for this either way, I shan't mention it. Once again, as always, I implore you: Ask yourself which is more likely. That a ship filled with explosive gas and painted with explosive paint exploded when it tried to land shortly after a thunderstorm, or that there's some sort of international conspiracy reaching to the highest level of government that has not been revealed after almost 70 years?

Be seeing you.

First Published in The Triangle, 18 November 2005