As 17-year-old Frank Ward grabbed a rope to help the Hindenburg dock in New Jersey in 1937, he looked up, saw the airship’s captain leaning out his window and thought, “What a great job that would be.”
“Someday, not too many years away, I would get out of college and maybe go and study, become a captain. He probably gets a good salary,” Ward (Educ ’53) recalls thinking. At that moment, the future of dirigibles looked promising. “Every country will have one. We’d travel all over. And that wouldn’t be a bad profession.”
Within seconds, though, promise turned to nightmare. The Hindenburg burst into flames, creating a horrific spectacle in the sky. The sequence of events—from the first spark to the final crash—took only 34 seconds, but the memories have lasted a lifetime.
“It seems to play back in slow motion to those Navy and civilian ground crew close to the intense heat who felt helpless watching the bow come crashing down,” says Cheryl R. Ganz, who is coordinating an upcoming exhibit at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. “Their first reaction was to run, but then they were compelled to move back toward the burning airship, helping save so many lives.”
Ward did just that—he instinctively ran away, then ran back to help. But things were happening fast and the heat was intense. “The fabric was burning as quickly as you could burn it, almost like tin foil when you put a match to it,” Ward recalls. “And then we saw the frame—the frame was getting redder by the minute.”
The loss of life “was a terrible, gory sight,” Ward says. Of the 97 passengers on board, 35 were killed. The experience, however, left Ward with no emotional scars, no nightmares, no post-trauma stress. “All through my life, I have never had that kind of emotion, for some reason. It just didn’t affect me that way. So I went home with my father [a nautical engineer at Lakehurst Naval Air Station, where the incident occurred], and the next day I went to school.”
Ward went on to serve in the Army, seeing combat in World War II and Korea; he met his future wife at Walter Reed General Hospital, then came to UVA under the GI Bill. His timing proved fortunate—the track coach had just retired, and because Ward had experience both as an athlete and coach, he was hired on the spot to coach UVA’s track team.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Ward says with a chuckle. After graduating, he continued in education, for many years coaching football and teaching history at Lake Forest Country Day School in Illinois.
Now a Charlottesville resident, Ward, 91, is one of only a handful of surviving eyewitnesses of the Hindenburg disaster. About 10 years ago, he returned to the site and, at a small museum nearby, discovered some interesting memorabilia, in particular a medal and documents signed by Nazi officials—including Hitler himself—thanking Americans for their help. The medals were never distributed because of anti-Nazi sentiment at the time.
More valuable than any medals, though, are Ward’s memories of the event.
“He has vivid memories of the eyewitness experience,” says Ganz, chief curator of philately at the postal museum. “Like other tragedies, the stories of rescuers and survivors help us deal with the humanity of it all.”