Of the 36 people who died as a result of the Hindenburg disaster, one who is very often overlooked is the sole casualty among the ground crew, Allen Hagaman. Little has been written about him, possibly because so little is known about him, and unfortunately what has been published about him is very often plagued by factual errors.
Today, on the 77th anniversary of his death, I hope to correct at least some of these errors with the following article.
Allen Orlando Hagaman was a civilian laborer at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station. Born in Cassville, NJ to Charles and Jane Hagaman in 1885, he had lived in Lakehurst since 1912 and had operated a grocery store there at one time. He was married, and he and his wife Anna had a teenaged daughter named Sarah. Hagaman’s sister, May Hagaman, lived in nearby Van Hiseville.
As of May 6th, 1937, the 51 year-old Hagaman had been employed by the Lakehurst Naval Air Station for approximately a month, and was hired by the Zeppelin Company to serve as a member of the civilian ground crew that would help to land the Hindenburg. To augment the 92-man US Navy ground crew, 139 local men from the Lakehurst area would be paid a dollar each to work the giant airship’s landing ropes and guide her in to her mooring mast at the end of her first North American flight of the 1937 season.
The Hindenburg had first arrived over Lakehurst on the afternoon of May 6th at about 4:15 PM, Eastern Daylight Time, running almost half a day behind schedule due to persistent headwinds during her North Atlantic crossing. However, the ground crew were not scheduled to be mustered for another 45 minutes, as many of the civilians would still be working their day jobs. Getting the ground crew into position on the airfield would take an additional half hour or so. The Hindenburg flew on toward the New Jersey coast to wait.
At 5:00 PM, the Lakehurst air station’s steam whistle blew, calling the local members of the landing crew to report to the air base’s vast Hangar One, which had housed the Hindenburg on two of her flights the previous year. Once Allen Hagaman and the others arrived, they were each handed an ID button which they would wear while working out on the airfield. Once the Hindenburg had been safely landed, they would turn their buttons in and receive their dollar payment.
After receiving their buttons, the men walked out to the mooring mast, where they were divided up into groups by Chief Boatswain William A. Buckley. Some would handle the Zeppelin’s long manila landing ropes, while others would hook up the various mooring connections.
Allen Hagaman was assigned to the aft ground handling team, led by Chief Boatswain’s Mate George Moser. The aft team was further divided into three groups. The port and starboard groups would handle the aft landing lines. The stern car group, to which Hagaman was assigned, would remain directly under the Hindenburg’s tail and attach the ship’s lower tail fin to a specially designed rail car that ran along the outer rail of the mooring circle. The stern car would keep the Hindenburg’s tail anchored while she was in port and allow the ship to easily rotate around the mooring mast with the wind. Hagaman and several others reported to Chief Boatswain’s Mate James Edward Wescott, who was in charge of the stern car group.
By 5:30 PM, the ground crew was in position and ready to land the Hindenburg. However, at about 5:45, the wind shifted and a light rain began to fall. The ground crew was called back to the mooring mast, though it provided scant shelter from the rain. Somebody spotted the Hindenburg off in the distance, flying south along the New Jersey coastline as it waited for the weather over Lakehurst to clear.
After about 20 minutes the rain let up and the ground crew returned to their positions out on the field. Within minutes, a heavier rain arrived and the men were once more called back to “shelter” next to the mooring mast. This time, the men waited for about 45 minutes for the rain to pass, and by the time they were sent back out to their positions on the airfield again, the Hindenburg was approaching the landing field. It was just after 7:00 PM.
This time the rain did not return, and the Hindenburg made a wide circle around the airfield as she prepared to land. Allen Hagaman and the others were lined up directly to the north of the mooring mast so that the airship could be held with her bow into the wind while her landing lines were being connected to the winches that surrounded the mooring area. By 7:21 PM, the ship was directly overhead and Hagaman and the others watched as her bow lines were dropped. The stern car group kept themselves positioned beneath the ship’s gigantic tail fins, talking amongst themselves as they waited for the ship to descend
Several minutes later, there was a sudden light underneath the Hindenburg’s hull, and the men in the stern car group realized that the ship was on fire. From this point onward, until he was admitted to the base hospital half an hour later, nobody really knows exactly what happened to Allen Hagaman. None of the rest of the men in his group saw him, as they were all trying to get out from under the burning Zeppelin before it fell on them. Many of them were either knocked to the ground by the sudden blast of heat or tripped in the wet sand as they attempted to run. The ship’s tail fell to the ground almost immediately, and several members of the ground crew were caught under the wreckage, including U.S. Navy Machinist’s Mates Arthur Clarence Terry and Charles Henry Barnes as well as two civilian ground crew members – Charles Exel and Allen Hagaman.
Photo of the Hindenburg’s tail moments after the outbreak of the fire with cropped detail (right) showing the stern car group (just beneath the bright white horizontal line) just as they began to run for their lives. Allan Hagaman may be one of the men seen in this photo.
Three of the four men escaped from the wreck with relatively minor injuries, due largely to the fact that their clothes were still wet from the rain storms. Terry suffered a compound fracture of his left arm, and Barnes and Exel received minor burns. Charles Barnes later gave his account of what happened to US Navy investigators.
“I was running with the ship and saw that I couldn’t get out from under it, so I turned around the other way when I was either tripped or thrown. I was in that position when the fin settled on me. I got a glimpse of one man to the right and a little in back of me. As I recall, he had on a blue sweater. He was a civilian. I couldn’t see. I could hear him coming out after me, but I couldn’t see him distinctly. He was close behind me when I got out. I turned around to look at the ship, but there was no one there.”
When asked by investigators if he believed the man behind him would have been badly burned, had he remained inside the wreckage, Barnes replied, “He was closer to the keel than I was, and would have had a better chance of burning than I.”
It is unknown whether the man Barnes heard trying to escape the wreck behind him was Allen Hagaman or not. Hagaman either managed to crawl out of the wreckage or was dragged out by rescuers, but not before he had suffered third-degree burns over much of his body. He was brought into the air station’s dispensary at approximately 8:00 PM, most of his outer clothing burned away. Hagaman was in severe shock and uncommunicative, and it was some time before doctors could determine his identity. The physician on duty, Lt. Carl V. Green, ordered that Hagaman be placed in one of the dispensary’s beds and given first aid for his burns.
Meanwhile, Bart Donahue, another member of the civilian ground crew who has been in charge of gathering men from Lakehurst to join the landing crew, had finished aiding in rescue work and decided to check on the men from his town. He walked back to Lakehurst and went to each man’s house to make sure that everyone was accounted for. Everyone had reported home except for Charles Exel and Allen Hagaman.
At about 9:30 PM, Hagaman’s daughter Sarah knocked on Donahue’s door and asked after her father. Donahue told her that he was sure that her father was fine, and after she left he called the air station’s dispensary. Doctor Green was put on the line, and he told Donahue that they had indeed admitted a man named Hagaman. Donahue immediately went over to the Hagaman home over on Cedar Street and learned that two nurses had already come to the house and taken his wife and daughter to the base dispensary.
Donahue hurried back to the dispensary to find Hagaman in one of the beds with Anna and Sarah sitting at his side. Hagaman was still in shock, but recognized his family. Allen Hagaman passed away shortly before 10:30 PM, approximately three hours after the disaster.
Following a funeral ceremony at the family home on Cedar Street in Lakehurst, Allen Orlando Hagaman was buried on Monday, May 10th, at the cemetery in his home town of Cassville.
Most of this article was based largely on information from two sources – Allen Hagaman’s obituary from the May 14, 1937 edition of the Lakewood Citizen, and the official transcript of the US Navy Board of Inquiry into the Hindenburg disaster (which had just enough time to interview 12 witnesses about the death of Allen Hagaman before being closed down due to jurisdictional conflict with the US Commerce Department’s investigation.) Additional information was drawn from John Toland’s Ships in the Sky: The Story of the Great Dirigibles (New York: Henry Holt; London: F. Muller, 1957).
Unfortunately, I have been unable to find any further sources of information about Allen Hagaman’s life. Nor have I been able to locate a photo of him.
As I mentioned above, what has appeared in print about Hagaman is often at odds with more reputable sources such as the two listed above. For instance, it has variously been reported that Hagaman tripped over a landing circle rail and the ship’s burning hull fell on him, or that he was crushed beneath one of the Hindenburg’s aft engine cars when it fell to the ground – neither of which are accurate. There were no landing rails within at least 50 feet of where the Hindenburg’s tail fell, and Hagaman died of burns and not from injuries consistent with having been crushed beneath a diesel engine. In fact, many online sources continue to list Hagaman, a member of the civilian ground crew, as a “Navy linesman” – an inaccuracy that originated almost 40 years ago in director Robert Wise’s heavily fictionalized movie “The Hindenburg”.
I have made every effort to correct these errors without adding new ones. If anyone has any further information about Mr. Hagaman’s life, please contact me at Rumi68@gmail.com. I would greatly welcome the opportunity to expand the scope of this article beyond the last few hours of his life.