In this episode, we’ll learn about historical events that happened this week in history as they were depicted in Gods and Generals, The Right Stuff and The Hindenburg.
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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.
May 2, 1863. Chancellorsville, Virginia.
“It’s confusion, sir!”
An officer delivers this news to his general.
The two men talking to each other are each on horseback, as are the other half-dozen or so men in the background watching the conversation. Everyone is wearing the grey uniform of the Confederates during the United States Civil War. They’re surrounded by green trees, although it’s also obvious the sun is starting to go down as things are getting a little dark in the early hours of twilight.
One of the men, Stephen Lang’s character, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, tells the other officer that he’ll tell General Hill to push forward to keep driving the enemy. Then, a moment later, General Hill rides up and General Jackson does exactly that—he tells Hill to take his division forward. Hill replies that it’s late in the day and they don’t know the ground.
That’s not a good enough excuse, Jackson calls on someone else to help get used to the area and find the rear of the enemy’s position so we can cut them off!
General Hill and a few others ride off while General Jackson and the remaining soldiers turn their horses off the road and go into the woods nearby.
In the next shot, it’s almost pitch black. It seems to be full night now, or maybe part of that is because we’re inside the woods now and the trees are blocking out what little remaining light of the day is left.
Regardless of the reason, it’s dark, but there’s just enough light to see General Jackson and a few other men on horseback walking slowly through the woods. With pistols drawn, look around them carefully—on guard and at the ready in case they encounter the enemy.
Then, they stop. The camera switches to up ahead.
It’s impossible to see anything, but through the dialogue, they’re thinking it’s Federal soldiers who are digging in. Since these men are Confederate soldiers, that’s the enemy. General Jackson points out that sound carries at night, which lets us know they’re not seeing anything but they’re hearing something. Jackson also thinks they might be a ways off. But, they might be closer. It’s hard to tell.
It’s also not worth the risk.
Then, one of the men points out that they’re behind enemy lines.
“This is no place for you, sir.”
Jackson agrees. They’ll have to wait until tomorrow.
“Gentlemen, let us return to the road,” Jackson says, and they all turn their horses around to head back to where they came from. After a moment of retracing their steps, the camera cuts to a row of soldiers raising their rifles.
Then, the silence of the night erupts into a hail of gunfire.
The men on horseback are taken by surprise, many of them falling to the ground under the barrage of fire. Immediately, one of the men on horseback yells at the soldiers shooting at them to stop firing.
“You’re firing at your own men!” he yells. Another yells something similar, alerting the firing soldiers to the fact that they’re shooting at their own men.
Someone yells back, “It’s a lie! Pour into them, boys!”
For a while, the gunfire continues. More men are hit.
When they finally stop shooting, General Hill arrives to see what has happened. It was their own men. Confederate soldiers shooting at Confederate soldiers.
Among the wounded is General Jackson.
This scene comes from the 2003 movie called Gods and Generals, and it shows us an event that happened this week in history when, on May 2nd, 1863, “Stonewall” Jackson was fatally shot by his own men in something that many historians believe might’ve altered the course of the entire war.
We’ll circle back to the reason for that in a moment because the movie actually does a pretty good job of showing the event we’re talking about today.
The battle we see happening in the movie is now known as the Battle of Chancellorsville because it was located around the town of Chancellorsville, Virginia. For some geographical context, the closest large city nearby is Fredericksburg, Virginia, which is about 10 miles or 16 kilometers, to the east of Chancellorsville.
United States General Joseph Hooker was leading a force of about 130,000 men, which he planned to use to trap the 60,000 or so troops commanded by General Robert E. Lee, who was the overall commander of the Confederacy.
On May 1st, 1863, the two sides fought for a few hours before Hooker ordered his men back to Chancellorsville. Faced with a larger force, that evening, Generals Lee and Jackson devised a plan to face the larger force. That plan involved taking their smaller force and dividing it up even more so Lee’s men could keep Hooker’s attention on them while Jackson’s force would flank them.
So, on May 2nd, General Jackson took about 28,000 men and secretly made their way behind enemy lines to swing around behind Hooker’s soldiers. It took most of the day for Jackson’s men to make it around the other side without being noticed, something that surely was helped by Lee’s 14,000 or so remaining men holding their focus the opposite way.
At about 5:00 PM on May 2nd, only two of Jackson’s three divisions were in place for their surprise attack on the right, rear flank of the Union position. The sun would go down soon and it’s not like they had night vision in 1863, so when the sunlight ended so, too, did most of the major fighting.
Jackson had to make a decision about whether or not to launch his attack before the sun goes down or wait until the next day.
In the movie, we see Jackson’s decision to attack being a wild success for the Confederates. And that is true. This is a quote from a military report written by General Robert Rodes of the Confederate States Army about what happened as a result of that decision:
“So complete was the success of the whole maneuver, and such was the surprise of the enemy, that scarcely any organized resistance was met with after the first volley was fired. They fled in the wildest confusion, leaving the field strewn with arms, accouterments, clothing, caissons, and field-pieces in every direction. The larger portion of his force, as well as intrenchments, were drawn up at right angles to our line, and, being thus taken in the flank and rear, they did not wait for the attack. On reaching the ridge at Melzi Chancellor’s, which had an extended line of works facing in our direction, an effort was made to check the fleeing columns. For a few moments they held this position, but once more my gallant troops dashed at them with a wild shout, and, firing a hasty volley, they continued their headlong flight to Chancellorsville.”
What slowed the Confederates more than any resistance from the Union army was nature. Although it’s not that way today, in 1863 that area around Chancellorsville was filled with dense bushes, thorny vines and trees that were some 30-feet tall. That’s over nine meters.
In the movie, we see the darkness of how it looked inside the woods at night, and in reality there were some soldiers who said even at the brightest point of the day the sunlight couldn’t penetrate to the ground—that’s how dense it was.
Between the retreating sun and the dense vegetation in the area, the Confederate army was forced to slow their assault on the Union army. By dawn, the element of surprise would be gone. That’s why, in the movie, we see Stephen Lang’s version of General Jackson urging his men to continue the pressure.
He thought he could use the nearby road, called Plank Road, and the better visibility it provided to continue the pressure on the Union soldiers to keep them on the run. If he stopped the attack, he knew the Union soldiers would fortify their positions overnight and in the morning, they’d be facing a much more difficult task against well-defended positions.
Would Plank Road provide the visibility he needed overnight? He wasn’t sure.
Another man in the cavalry who grew up nearby was called on to give a recommendation. That man, a Private named David Joseph Kyle, told General Jackson there was a smaller road nearby that might work. It was the kind of road in the backwoods that only someone local would know—it wasn’t on any maps. That’d be the perfect place for Jackson’s men to use to pull yet another surprise on the Union army.
Just like we see in the movie, General Jackson and some other soldiers rode ahead. The movie doesn’t mention that they were riding ahead to check out whether or not the place Private Kyle recommended would work or not, but we do see them riding ahead to scout the location—so the basic idea is kind of there.
And similarly, there were some other differences with the details of what happened compared to what we see in the movie.
For example, in the movie, they hear a noise. That really did happen. It was so dark they couldn’t see for sure who or what it was, but it sounded like they were digging in and knowing the Union soldiers were nearby they decided to turn around.
Remember when earlier I mentioned that two of the three divisions under General Jackson’s command were ready for the assault before the sun went down that surprised the Union soldiers? Well, the third of those divisions was under the command of General Hill.
And as it would so happen, General Hill’s men were getting close and with the darkness upon them they also decided to do some scouting around. But unlike General Jackson, Hill and his men didn’t have someone who had grown up locally. So, they didn’t know about the little road that Private Kyle told Jackson about.
Meanwhile, as fate would have it, there actually were a few Union soldiers who got lost in the thick woods. They were found and captured by the Confederates, which left them on high alert for anyone else who might be in the area. When another Union soldier on horseback happened to appear, the Confederates opened fire. But it wasn’t like they opened fire on just that one soldier on horseback. They didn’t know how many there were, so a bunch of Confederates started firing. The more that shot, the more joined in the shooting down the line of Confederates.
Most of the men with General Hill who were scouting were caught in the fire and killed. General Hill himself wasn’t killed, though. Just like we see in the movie, they started shouting for a cease-fire—you’re firing into your own men! But the Confederates in the line had seen the Union soldiers pull a lot of tricks, and since they’d seen a soldier on horseback just moments ago they knew was a Union soldier as well as the others they captured, they thought this was just another trick. So, just like we see in the movie, they shouted back that it’s a lie and more gunfire ensued.
General Jackson’s scouting party got caught in the barrage. He and others were hit. Interestingly, even despite this coincidental turn of events, many historians still think the likelihood of General Jackson himself being hit was very small. After all, it’s not like the muskets of the time were extremely accurate with a great line of sight. And that’s far from what they had in the dark of night in the middle of woods so thick it was reportedly pitch black even in the brightest part of the day.
The movie was also correct to show that Jackson didn’t die immediately, although it doesn’t mention how long it took. After being shot on May 2nd, Jackson was being treated for his wounds and thought to be recovering despite having to have his left arm amputated as a result of his injuries.
He also developed pneumonia as a result of those injuries, which ultimately took his life on May 10th, 1863 at the age of 39.
So, circling back to what I mentioned earlier, why was this event considered a turning point in the Civil War?
The reason for that can be summed up in a single line from an article published in The New York Times back on May 14th, 1863, which said the “rebels have unquestionably lost by far their greatest military leader.”
His military skill was something acknowledged by soldiers on both sides of the struggle, meaning not only did the Confederacy lose his leadership but it was also a massive blow to their morale. As is the case with any war, you’ll never get every historian to agree that there was a single moment to change the course of the entire war. And that’s certainly the case for the death of “Stonewall” Jackson, too, but it certainly did have a major impact on the war.
The overall commander of the Confederate States Army, Robert E. Lee, said of Jackson’s death that he “lost his right arm” leaving historians since then to mark this event as one of the “what if” moments that could’ve changed the shape of history had it gone a different way.
Oh, and that little quote is something the movie shows, albeit the sources I saw mentioned Lee said that after Jackson’s death while in the movie we saw Lee mention it after Jackson lost his left arm.
If you want to watch the event that happened this week in history, check out the 2003 film called Gods and Generals. The event we talked about today starts at about the 4-hour mark in the movie.
May 5, 1961. Florida.
There’s text on the screen telling us we’re at Cape Canaveral.
It’s nighttime. Some lights are being powered on.
There’s a sequence of shots to give us some more context. In the first, we can see a rocket dimly lit against the night sky. Then, a white truck with the words “NASA Transfer Van” written on the side drives by.
Meanwhile, as these shots continue, we hear some voiceover that says it’s been three weeks since Yuri Gagarin’s flight surprised everybody. He goes on to say many people question whether or not we’re ready to send a man into space.
Now we can see who is talking, and it’s a news anchor sitting behind a desk as he’s speaking into the camera. He’s not in a newsroom, but he’s out here in the dark along with everyone else at Cape Canaveral.
He goes on to say that despite the questions, out here in the night sits a rocket. Soon, one American astronaut will climb atop that rocket. Then he points out a new question that everyone is asking: Which astronaut will be first?
Behind him, we can see the white steam from the rocket being highlighted by the lights against an otherwise dark, night sky.
The camera cuts to the astronaut. We can’t see who it is yet, though, because the camera is looking from behind him. All we can see is his helmet and suit as he walks toward the rocket to the claps of the men around him. The camera work cleverly conceals his face, even though we can see his visor is up, as he walks up the red scaffolding surrounding the rocket. NASA workers and people on the ground continue to clap as the elevator takes him up.
Once at the top, the camera focuses on his feet as he climbs into the capsule at the top of the rocket. Inside the capsule, we can see a note taped to the control panel. The note reads:
NO HANDBALL PLAYING IN THIS AREA
The astronaut takes it down. Just then, another man peers inside and takes the note with a smile. This is Ed Harris’ version of John Glenn. Now we can tell who the astronaut inside the capsule is: Scott Glenn’s version of Alan Shepard. He laughs about the note. It’s not funny, John, but I do appreciate it. John Glenn shakes his colleague’s hand and smiles.
Then, they close up the capsule and the launch process continues.
From outside, the sun is starting to come up. It’s a beautiful scene with the sunrise in the background and the rocket in the foreground.
The news reporter mentions there’s another hold from NASA. Another delay as Alan Shepard is patiently waiting in the capsule.
Just then, the camera cuts to Alan Shepard who informs the command center of something very important: “I have to urinate.”
Inside, one of the scientists questions this. We didn’t plan for this, it’s only a 15-minute flight! But, he’s been up there for hours waiting. Can he just do it in his suit? That might be dangerous to introduce liquid into the pure oxygen environment. It could cause a short circuit; it could start a fire. No, he cannot urinate.
This is passed on to Shepard.
The movie doesn’t indicate how much time has passed, but from outside we can see the sun is fully up now. Back inside the capsule, Shepard starts fidgeting in a way that I think we’re all familiar with when you have to go but can’t.
The camera cuts to shots of liquid in other areas. The coffee being poured by Alan’s wife and friends. The water cooler in the NASA control center, bubbling up. The sound of the toilet flushing as another NASA scientist exits the restroom.
Shepard can’t hear any of this, of course, but when the camera cuts back to his face we can tell it’s getting more and more difficult to hold it in.
He radios back to the control center: “Request permission to relieve bladder.”
Then, the camera cuts to the control center as they look around at each other.
A brief pause and we can hear Shepard’s voice.
Dennis Quaid’s character, Gordo Cooper, is sitting behind the mic that communicates with Shepard in the capsule. He relays the obvious. Either they let Shepard go, or we get out the lug wrench and pry him out.
The movie doesn’t mention it, but it’s obvious this would cause even more delays.
Finally, they get permission to go in the suit. Cooper relays this to Shepard and we can see a smile crossing Shepard’s face as he relieves himself in the suit. Sensors start going off as the temperature changes in the suit. They ignore the alarms and resume the countdown.
From outside now, we can see the observers turn to watch the rocket as it’s T-minus ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one…ignition!
The rocket blasts off from the ground as NASA ground and command crew cheer the successful launch. We can see the atmosphere outside the capsule window go black as Shepard enters space for a brief moment. Inside the capsule, Shepard counts the G-forces he’s feeling as he re-enters the atmosphere: Eight. Nine. “I’m okay! I’m okay!” he grunts as the capsule shakes and rattles violently.
Then, a band plays triumphant music as we see the capsule peacefully descend to the ground underneath a parachute.
That’s a sequence from the 1983 movie called The Right Stuff and it’s depiction of an event this week in history: Alan Shepard becoming the first American to enter space, which really did happen on May 5th, 1961.
And the movie is also true to suggest this was as a direct result of the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin traveling to space. That happened on April 12th, 1961 when he did a single orbit around the Earth, meaning the Soviet Union won what’s commonly been known as the “Space Race.”
That drove the United States to do something as a response. And on April 18th, the U.S. performed their first simulation of a launch for their own spacecraft—the one we end up seeing in the movie. The capsule Alan Shepard was in was called Freedom 7, the number at the end to commemorate the original group of seven NASA astronauts.
Freedom 7 sat on top of what’s called a Redstone rocket—something the U.S. Army first used as a missile.
There’s a lot of the true story the movie doesn’t mention, though. For example, the mission was first planned for May 2nd. Bad weather pushed it back a few days, though, which is partially why they didn’t want there to be any further delays. Not only that, but the movie was also correct to show people watching the launch. There were about half a million people gathered around beaches in the vicinity of Cape Canaveral to watch it and another 45 million or so watching it on TV—including then-President John F. Kennedy.
But, things don’t always go according to plan, and the movie was correct to show that there were delays of the launch on May 5th.
It doesn’t really go into the details of them, though.
The original launch was supposed to happen at 7:20 AM. No doubt eager to make history, Shepard entered the Freedom 7 capsule at 5:15 AM. That’s why it was so dark in the movie.
Oh, and that funny “NO HANDBALL PLAYING IN THIS AREA” sign that we see in the movie? I’m pretty sure that happened based on anecdotal evidence, but it’s also the kind of thing that wasn’t officially documented by NASA. Nor were there any photos of that exact moment, and a sign like that wouldn’t last long—like we see in the movie, it gets taken down pretty fast.
But, the idea behind that joke from John Glenn was that he knew Alan Shepard loved to play the game handball. So, it was intended to relieve the stress of the situation.
If you’re wondering why John Glenn was there when we just learned about seven NASA astronauts, for this particular mission, Alan Shepard was assigned as the primary pilot while John Glenn was the backup—so they both prepped for the flight. That includes the steak and eggs breakfast with coffee and juice they had beforehand, something that would become a tradition for astronauts afterward. They ate that breakfast at about 1:30 AM.
Then, as we just learned, Shepard was in the capsule at 5:15 AM.
Fifteen minutes before the launch was supposed to happen, at 7:05 AM, they decided to postpone the launch to let some clouds pass by. While the rocket could obviously go through clouds, they wanted to photograph Earth from a perspective no American had ever seen before, and clouds would block that.
When the clouds passed, a power supply had to be fixed. Another short delay. Then a computer had to be rebooted at the flight center, causing another delay—computers in 1961 didn’t reboot quite as fast as they do today.
By this time, Alan Shepard had been in the cramped Freedom 7 capsule lying on his back for about three hours.
So, that whole sequence with Shepard needing to urinate? Yup, that happened. The original plan was for the flight to last between 15 and 20 minutes, so no one even thought about building anything into the suit to allow for him to relieve himself.
While this is purely my speculation, since they only started the tests and final plans for Shepard’s launch in April, adding the ability for him to urinate in his suit would add extra space, extra weight, extra time to develop, extra everything. So, in my mind, this is the result of the rush in the Space Race.
Alan Shepard had to go.
At first, he asked if he could leave the capsule to hit the restroom. Well, I’m sure he didn’t phrase it like that. But just like we see in the movie, they denied his request.
The reason for that was because leaving would mean they’d have take the time to open the capsule. I saw something in my research that suggested there were 70 bolts sealing the hatch shut, each one having to be opened with a wrench. That would take quite some time. On top of that, they’d also have to redo what essentially amounted to a clean room around the spacecraft. Basically, that would cause another delay.
There had been enough delays.
No, you can’t leave.
So, there was a problem. Without being able to leave, there only seemed to be one solution. Shepard said he’d have to go in his suit.
They didn’t factor this into the equation either. But…what are you going to do?
In the great words of Jeff Goldblum from the movie Jurassic Park: “When you gotta go, you gotta go.”
And Alan Shepard went.
Soon after, the countdown resumed and at 9:34 AM, the Redstone rocket with Freedom 7 atop lifted off.
Fifteen and a half minutes later—well, 15 minutes and 28 seconds to be precise—Alan Shepard had experienced an altitude of 116.5 miles at a velocity 5,134 miles per hour.
To convert that to metric, that’s an altitude of 187 kilometers at a velocity of 8,262 kilometers per hour.
In the movie, we see Scott Glenn’s version of Alan Shepard mention the G-forces of eight and nine. In truth it didn’t stop there, because Shepard experienced a maximum G-force of 11.
If you want to watch the event that happened this week in history, check out the 1983 movie called The Right Stuff and the text on screen starting the events of May 5th, 1961 start at an hour, 46 minutes and 40 seconds.
And once you watch that, you can learn even more about the Space Race when we compare The Right Stuff with history on episode #75 of Based on a True Story.
May 6, 1937. Lakehurst, New Jersey.
Beneath a clock that reads 5:05 is a sign indicating the wind is blowing southwest at 16 knots. There’s another spot beneath the wind speed to indicate gusts, but that isn’t showing any reading as two men appear to be working on the sign.
We seem to be at some sort of an aircraft hanger. Outside the hanger, the ground is covered with people who look up to see a strange shape emerging from a big, white cloud in the blue sky.
We can hear someone below yell, “Look up there! Here she comes!”
The crowd watches eagerly as the full shape makes its way through the cloud. It’s an oval-shaped craft. A uniformed man notices the gusts aren’t showing on the sign and asks what’s happened there—that wind has to be at least 25 knots. The other officer says they can’t get the sign fixed. Frustrated, the commanding officer picks up a phone and orders them to flash red.
A red light flashes on the sign, something picked up by the men inside the craft. They’re all wearing uniforms, too, although they’re different uniforms than the ones worn by the men below.
The man who seems to be in charge there says they’ll delay the landing.
From below we can see a shot of the hanger in the foreground with an American flag inside. Above the hanger is the craft, a dirigible balloon, bearing a Nazi swastika on its tail fins. It floats slowly back into the clouds.
At this point in the movie, we’ll jump ahead a little bit and pick up at about an hour and 44 minutes when the command is sent from the ground to flash green. The ground crew is ready for landing. The clock shows the time as 7:09.
Inside the dirigible, the order is given to go to landing stations. There’s a flurry of activity as men make their way to what we can assume are their landing stations. That is, it seems, except for one man. George C. Scott’s character, Colonel Franz Ritter, asks some of the men if they’ve seen Boerth—referring to William Atherton’s character, Karl Boerth. They reply they haven’t seen him, but he should be there!
Ritter goes on to try and find Boerth. Some other men tell Ritter that Boerth’s landing station is in the nose. Ritter looks at his watch as the second-hand passes from 7:13 to 7:14.
The sound of the dirigible’s engine can be heard as it lines up with a massive tower, and the men below are ready to connect with the balloon and anchor it to the ground.
Back inside, Ritter continues his search for Boerth. He looks at his watch again. It’s 7:16 now.
Someone tells the men lined up in their landing stations to standby for starboard line drop. We see two lines drop from the front of the balloon to the ground. On the ground, men grab the lines and attach them to a machine that starts to pull the line tight.
The camera cuts to another man on the ground, who is speaking into a microphone and giving a play-by-play of what’s happening. Through this, we find out she’s hovering just short of the mast as she waits for her nose cone to be connected up.
Back inside the dirigible, Ritter continues his search for what seems to be the missing Boerth. He runs along a plank inside the airship, looking behind a canvas flap. Not there. Is he over here? Nope, not there either.
Then, he sees him. Boerth is lying on the ground and a man is standing over him. The man points the knife in his hand at Ritter, commanding him to leave. Ritter doesn’t leave, though, and after a brief fistfight, Ritter gets the best of the man with the knife—who gets knocked out.
Ritter turns to Boerth. He says, “It’s 7:20! Where’s the bomb?”
Boerth seems delirious with blood on his face. Ritter says there are less than ten minutes left. Boerth mutters the words repair patch four, and Ritter immediately runs away to navigate the maze inside the balloon.
When he gets to the location, he cuts the canvas away carefully to reveal a small device in what looks to be a knife’s handle. This must be the bomb. Looking at the watch attached to it, we can see the time. It’s 7:23.
Ritter follows the wires on the device, carefully fiddling with a switch inside. His finger moves to the crown of the watch—that’s the name for the knob that adjusts the time. Below, the man who he knocked out calls Ritter’s name. Ritter looks down for a moment, then continues to slowly pull the crown to stop the watch from ticking.
The movie switches to black and white now as it shows the officers commanding the ship in the navigating room of the gondola feeling the blast.
From below, we see a huge ball of flame at the back of the balloon. The man doing the play-by-play on the ground starts yelling hysterically, “It burst into flame! It burst into flame!”
The fire quickly spreads, engulfing the entire airship. Panic ensues among the passengers as the camera cuts to a clock inside telling us the time: 7:25.
This is a depiction of an event that happened this week in history on May 6th, 1937, when the German dirigible airship known as Hindenburg exploded while it was landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey.
Three days earlier, on May 3rd, the Hindenburg left Frankfurt, Germany, to cross the Atlantic in something that wasn’t too common at the time. After all, most aircraft of the time couldn’t sustain a trip across the ocean and a ship’s time across the ocean was much more than a few days. In fact, it was the Hindenburg that made commercial air service across the Atlantic a somewhat normal thing as it carried over a thousand passengers across the ocean in 1936—10 round-trips between Germany and the United States and seven trips between Germany and Brazil.
The trip in May was its second of 1937, and for this trip it was only about half full with 36 of a maximum 70 passengers on board. Then there were 61 crew for a total of 97 people on board.
So, the movie was correct to show passengers on board in what would’ve been a rather luxurious setting—and probably with some room to spare, considering it wasn’t a full flight.
The main characters that I mentioned were based on real people, although a lot about them was changed so many have considered it a stretch to say it’s based on the real people at all.
For example, the character we see George C. Scott playing in the movie, Colonel Franz Ritter, was not a real person. Although he was probably based on someone who was real, and he was a Colonel in the German Luftwaffe by the name of Fritz Erdmann. And it is true that Erdmann was aboard Hindenburg, but he wasn’t a part of the security team on Hindenburg like we see Ritter being in the film.
William Atherton’s character, Karl Boerth, is the one that Ritter is trying to find in the scene I just described. Boerth was based on a real person named Erich Spehl, who was a rigger on Hindenburg. And it is true that there were some theories that Spehl was a saboteur who was part of a plot to destroy Hindenburg. Why? Well, because Hindenburg was the pride and joy of the Nazi Party in Germany in 1937. Remember that was before the start of World War II so the world wasn’t entirely aware of the atrocities the Nazis would stand for yet—but that doesn’t mean there weren’t plenty of Germans who were opposed to the Nazis taking over their country.
That’s a discussion for another day. Although the movie shows Colonel Ritter checking his watch over and over because of the bomb on board, so the point of mentioning all this about the idea of an anti-Nazi conspiracy to destroy the dirigible bearing the swastika is simply to say the idea of the Hindenburg disaster being an act of sabotage is real, but it’s never been proven.
The idea of sabotage started a 1962 book by a historian named A.A. Hoehling whose research led him to believe Spehl planted a bomb on board. There has been no evidence to prove it to be true, and even though he researched his theory, Hoehling has admitted it’s circumstantial.
The movie, which was released in 1975, took its own storyline from a book that was released in 1972 by an author named Michael Mooney—he also followed the idea that Spehl planted a bomb on board. That’s something Spehl’s fiancée was asked about and denied as “absolute madness.”
As for Spehl himself, well, he was one of the victims of the crash. So, perhaps we’ll never know the full truth about that theory.
What we do know, though, is that the Hindenburg had just crossed thousands of miles—over 6,000 kilometers—from Germany to the United States in a rather uneventful trip. It was scheduled to land at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey using what was known as a flying moor. That’s what we see in the movie where the airship drops its cables to be tied down from crews on the ground.
Think of it kind of like a ship’s anchor in the ocean—except this time it’s an anchor of sorts being tied down by people on the ground. While it was a common tactic for American airships, it wasn’t done in Germany so the only times the Hindenburg crew had performed this was the handful of times they traveled to the United States.
At about 7:00 PM, Hindenburg made its final approach for landing. But, similar to what we see in the movie, the crew on the ground wasn’t ready yet. Captain Pruss, who is in the movie—he’s played by Charles Durning—was in command of Hindenburg and as the wind shifted he ordered the airship to turn. Then, he ordered over a series of water drops. That’s something we see in the movie, and the purpose of it was to relieve weight to steady the ship as it approached the mooring mast.
At 7:21 PM, Hindenburg was 295 feet above the ground—that’s about 90 meters. At this point, lines were dropped so the ground crew could grab the mooring lines. Four minutes later, at 7:25 PM, all hell broke loose.
Some witnesses mentioned seeing some fabric fluttering. Maybe a gas leak? Some mentioned seeing some flames. Others claimed the fire started on the port side. Still others said it started near the top fin. Or maybe it started near the lower side first. It all happened so fast, it’s hard to rely too heavily on people’s recollections of what happened after the fact.
You’ve probably seen the footage—if not, I’ll include a link to it in the show notes for this episode—but in studying that there have been varying suggestions of how long it took. The challenge is that none of the footage from that day started at the first moment of the flames. So, we have to partially rely on witness testimony. Although there have been some scientific analysis done to run the numbers on what should happen. Those numbers for how long it took for the Hindenburg to be engulfed in flames range anywhere from 16 seconds to 37 seconds.
That’s from the moment of the first flame appeared to the 803-foot, 10-inch airship crashing to the ground. It happened fast. Very fast.
That’s 245 meters long, by the way.
Speaking of the footage, perhaps one of the reasons why the Hindenburg disaster has lived so long in the history books was not only because of how terrible it was—but because the disaster was captured on film.
And that guy we see in the movie who is doing the play-by-play?
There really was someone doing that. His name was Herbert Morrison, and his radio broadcast of the disaster with the now-famous line “Oh, the humanity” elevated the public’s awareness of what happened.
Here is Herbert Morrison’s audio that he recorded while the Hindenburg disaster unfolded in front of him.
You can hear the emotion in his voice.
36 people were killed. 35 were on the Hindenburg and one ground crew member.
And while dirigibles for commercial travel didn’t go away immediately, the public’s trust in them started to wane. I’m sure seeing the footage of the disaster didn’t help. And then, of course, there was the start of World War II. Throughout the war, the technology for airplanes grew to where they could fly farther and faster than they ever could before.
Oh, and the movie’s scene we just heard doesn’t talk about this, but one of the reasons Hindenburg went up in flames so fast was because it was filled with hydrogen—which is extremely flammable. That acted like a starter because even though it all burned up in about 90 seconds, it was enough to bring the whole burning wreck down and cause the deaths while also igniting the engine’s diesel fuel which continued to burn for hours.
Why did they use such a flammable gas inside Hindenburg? It’s not because it was the only option. In fact, Hindenburg had been designed to use helium—a gas that is not flammable or explosive. But, the United States had export restrictions against Nazi Germany so they had to use hydrogen instead.
If you want to watch the event that happened this week in history on screen, check out the 1975 movie called The Hindenburg. The landing sequence leading up to the explosion starts at around an hour and 37 minutes.
And if you want to learn more about the true story, we did a deep dive into that movie over on episode #91 of Based on a True Story.