In 1937, radio announcer Herb Morrison gave what must be the most famous radio news story in history, his voice breaking with emotion as the passenger airship Hindenburg burst into flames and fell to the ground in front of him. But despite what many believe, Morrison was not actually there to do a news story, and his live reporting was not being broadcast.
When the giant airship Hindenburg left Germany for the United States on May 3, 1937, it was not considered by most of the American press to be a newsworthy event. The zeppelin had already crossed the Atlantic ten times during 1936. On this trip, the first for 1937, the passenger cabins were only half filled: there were almost twice as many crew aboard as there were passengers. But the Hindenburg was a propaganda bonanza for the Hitler regime in Germany, and the Nazis made sure that a wire service photographer and a newsreel cameraman would be in Lakehurst NJ to record the zeppelin’s arrival.
The Germans had long been the leaders in airship technology. During the First World War, zeppelin bombers had launched a spectacular series of air raids on London. In the 1920’s, zeppelins were fitted with passenger cabins and were reborn as luxury transatlantic transports, competing with British and American ocean liners (the long-distance passenger airplane was still years away). In 1929, the German passenger airship Graf Zeppelin became the first vehicle to fly around the world. After Adolf Hitler’s Nazis took power in 1933, they immediately laid plans to build a bigger and better airship, intended to show off German technical know-how and racial superiority. The 804-foot Hindenburg was originally designed to use helium as its lifting gas, but the Americans, who had a virtual monopoly on the industrial production of helium, refused to sell it to the Nazis, and the new airship was built to use hydrogen instead. With the huge black and red swastika markings on the tail fins, the Hindenburg was a flying advertisement for the Third Reich.
At radio station WLS in Chicago, on-air commentator Herb Morrison was having a discussion with his editors. His regular assignment was as an announcer at live music performances, but he recently had done a live piece of reporting while flying in an airplane over some flooded areas of Illinois, and now he wanted to do more “feature” stories like that. Although the editors did not consider the Hindenburg’s flight newsworthy either, they agreed to allow Morrison and a sound engineer, Charlie Nehlson, to travel to New Jersey and run a field test on a new piece of equipment, a Presto D6 Recorder. The Presto used a microphone and stylus to cut grooved sound recordings onto a lacquer-covered aluminum disc, something like a vinyl record album. At the time, the NBC radio network’s policy prohibited the broadcast of any pre-recorded material (mostly because the sound quality was so bad–magnetic audio tape hadn’t been invented yet), but it was hoped that this new recording equipment could eventually be used to record on-location radio stories for later broadcast. To test out the equipment, Morrison and Nehlson would do an audio commentary on the Hindenburg’s arrival, followed up by interviews with the crew and passengers.
When the Hindenburg arrived in New Jersey at 4pm on May 6, the weather was bad, with high winds reported at the landing site in Lakehurst. The airship was already ten hours late: she had been flying against headwinds for most of the previous day. Now, the huge airship flew a series of long circles along the Jersey coast, waiting for the winds to die down. Instead, the weather got worse as thunderstorms moved in. Meanwhile, Morrison and Nehlson were setting up their Presto D6 inside a building a short distance from the landing mast, both to keep the equipment out of the rain and to prevent the wind from interfering with the microphone.
Shortly after 6pm the lightning stopped, the rain slackened, and a radio message was sent to the Hindenburg, “Conditions now suitable for landing.” But it took almost an hour for the Hindenburg to reach Lakehurst. At 7:10pm, as the airship slid into sight, another radio message was sent: “Conditions definitely improved recommend earliest possible landing.” The Hindenburg made a sharp left turn and approached the landing mast. At 7:20pm the captain ordered water ballast to be dropped, followed by another release a few minutes later.
At about this time, Nehlson started up the recorder and placed the stylus onto the lacquer disk. Morrison began his commentary and described the airship’s approach to the landing mast: “It’s practically standing still now. They’ve dropped ropes out of the nose of the ship, and they’ve been taken a hold of down on the field by a number of men. It’s starting to rain again; it’s—the rain has slacked up a little bit. The back motors of the ship are just holding it just, just enough to keep it from–”
During this time, witnesses at the scene were already seeing a small flame appear at the back of the airship, just in front of the top fin. Within seconds, it apparently burned its way into one of the hydrogen cells, igniting them with a loud blast.
The shock wave from the explosion traveled across the ground, hitting the Presto recorder and bouncing the stylus head, causing it to scratch a deep gouge into the lacquer disk. Immediately Nehlson picked up the stylus and placed it back into position, just in time to record Morrison’s shocked reaction to the explosion: “It burst into flames! It burst into flames, and it’s falling, it’s crashing! Watch it, watch it! Get out of the way!” Turning to Nehlson, he exclaimed, “Get this, Charlie! Get this, Charlie!”, and then turned back to see the flaming wreckage of the Hindenburg falling 300 feet from the sky. “It’s fire, and it’s crashing! It’s crashing, terrible! Oh, my, get out of the way please! It’s burning and bursting into flames and the, and it’s falling on the mooring mast, and all the folks agree that this is terrible, this is one of the worst catastrophes in the world. It’s, it’s, it’s the flames, four or five hundred feet into the sky and it, it’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. It’s smoke, and it’s flames now, and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast.” Then, in what must surely be the most famous phrase in radio history, Morrison continued, “Ohhh, the humanity, and all the passengers screaming around here.”
And then he breaks down, “I can’t talk, ladies and gentlemen. Honest, it’s just laying there, a mass of smoking wreckage. Oh! And everybody can hardly breathe and talk, and the screaming.” Now he bumps into someone running by and says, “Lady, I’m sorry,” before continuing, “Honest, I can hardly breathe. I’m going to step inside where I cannot see it.” At this point, Morrison went inside the building where Nehlson was sitting at the Presto, and remarked to him, “Charlie, that’s terrible.” He then ends with, “I can’t. I, listen, folks, I’m gonna have to stop for a minute because I’ve lost my voice. This is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed.” A few minutes later, after Morrison regained his composure, they filled several more recording discs with descriptions of the rescue operation and interviews with witnesses. At one point, Morrison learns that there were survivors, and says, “I hope that it isn’t as bad as I made it sound at the very beginning.”
Of the 32 passengers and 61 crewmen aboard, 13 passengers and 21 crew died in the fire, and one member of the New Jersey ground crew was killed by falling debris.
Morrison and Nehlson knew that they had a dramatic radio story on their disks, but they almost lost it. The Nazi government had immediately dispatched embassy staff from New York to the crash site: their fear was that the airship had been sabotaged as an anti-Nazi political act, and they wanted to control the situation and carry out their own crash investigation. When the Germans heard that somebody had been recording the whole thing, they immediately went looking for the radio reporter and tried to confiscate the recorded disks. Morrison distracted them while Nehlson hurriedly packed up the Presto machine and the disks and slipped away. Later that night, the pair got on board an American Airlines plane and flew back to Chicago. Breaking its policy against airing pre-recorded stories, WLS broadcast the entire contents of all Morrison’s disks, then hastily edited together a shorter version, recorded that onto another disk, and flew it to New York, where it was aired on the NBC evening news the next day as the first simultaneous coast-to-coast radio broadcast.
Today, Morrison’s audio is most often heard as an overlay with the newsreel footage that was also shot at the time, but in reality the newsreel was taken by a different company, and when it appeared in theaters it had its own audio commentary that was recorded in a studio. Most renditions of Morrison’s audio, in addition, are inaccurate: the Presto 6D was recording about 3% too slow, so when the audio is played at normal speed, it makes Morrison’s voice sound higher-pitched than it actually was.
WLS later donated the original recorded disks to the National Archives in Washington DC, where they remain today.