“What’s the use, Bill!” griped one of Pathe News photographer Bill Deeke’s colleagues. “You can’t shoot without light and the outfit will be soaked. Besides it’s a long, long way back to Times Square. What do you say if we pack it up and beat it?”
“We’ve come seventy miles to cover this story,” replied Deeke, “and we’ll do it if it takes till midnight!”
News crews covering a 1936 landing of the Hindenburg. Al Gold of Fox Movietone is seen on the roof of vehicle on left. (Photo: Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries, DeGolyer Library)
It was raining the evening of May 6, 1937 and the Hindenburg was late. Covering the clock-work landings of the airships in many of the newsmen’s eyes had become the equivalent of covering the arrival of every ship that steamed into New York Harbor and they were not happy to be there. The field crews constantly argued that it had no news value despite the orders from their desks to drive down to Lakehurst anyway.
Some of the newsreelers waiting on the wet airfield for the delayed Hindenburg were getting restless and one in particular, a unnamed impatient Universal Newsreel cameraman, finally left early out of frustration since he had a date and tickets to a show on Broadway. The other crews remained at the darkening airfield despite the assumption that this landing would be as routine as any other whilst griping among themselves whether they should follow the lead of the Universal photog and leave as well.
Fox Movietone had standing orders that two crews would cover every landing of the Zeppelins since managing editor Truman Talley always had a gut feeling that something major would happened to one of the German Zeppelins due to their use of highly-flammable hydrogen instead of helium. The Movietone crews that Talley sent that day were cameramen Al Gold, Larry ‘Bouy’ Kennedy, Deon de Titta, Jr., contact man (field producer) Alexander A. ‘Brownie’ Brown and soundman Addison Tice.
Al Gold at the time was one of the most senior newsreel photographers in the country, having started in 1914 with Universal. He also was one of the loudest protesters about covering the routine Zeppelin landings since he regarded it as a story not worth his time and skills due to his seniority. Yet Talley wanted an experienced photographer there just in case and Al Gold was sent off to Lakehurst for landing after landing year in and year out despite his protests.
The other crews who were there that night was Hearst’s News of the Day cameraman James J. Seeley and soundman Charles ‘Chic’ Peden. Pathe’s Bill Deeke was there as well as a stringer for Paramount News.
In 1937, it was very difficult to become a staff newsreel photographer. High union initiation fees discouraged many and the IATSE locals would only allow as many members as what was needed at all five of the newsreel firms in order to keep all their current members employed. As a result, hiring of new cameramen was a very rare occurrence that would mainly happened only when someone either retired or died.
Despite the mountain looming in front of him, an out-of-work newspaper photographer by the name of Thomas J. ‘Tommy’ Cravens, Sr. dreamed of being a staff newsreel cameraman. Cravens went from editor to editor at the New York newsreel offices, begging for a chance. The editor at Paramount finally relented and gave Cravens a shot to cover the routine landing of Hindenburg on May 6th instead of sending out a staff crew.
Around 7 p.m. local time, the much delayed Hindenburg finally made her appearance in the skies over Lakehurst. Twenty-five minutes later, the routine story that was the bane of the newsreelers turned into one of the most famous spot news stories in history. Fortunately some of the photogs who were there wrote down their recollections of that evening for posterity.
Al Gold recalled his experience a month later in an article he wrote that was published in International Photographer:
“…When the explosion occurred I was shooting the ground crew grappling with the ropes. Instinctively, without a thought, I panned up to the silver bag looking in my viewfinder to see what was happening. From then on what happened to me or my camera is a confusing memory.
It took only about thirty seconds for the big bag to strike the ground after the explosion. But if the Board of Investigation called me, I could never swear to that. It seemed an age or a moment. I couldn’t believe that what I was seeing was true. “I’m dreaming,” I said to myself over and over. The sense of time was like that in a dream.
I could only hear the grinding of my camera. Whatever other sounds were around the blazing pile never came to my ken. That there must have been hollering and screeching and the roar of flames I know, but I didn’t hear them. My wet belt was working. The film was unwinding before my lens. “I’ve got everything I can from this angle,” I thought.
“Hey, Ad,” I shouted to Addison Tice, my soundman, “lets move in.”
“Can’t make a foot, Al. The mud’s too deep,” he answered, calmly as though were were out on a picnic. “Hand me down the camera, we’ll have to walk.”
Shutting off the motor and putting a lens shade on my two-inch, I hoisted the camera to Ad, asking Brownie (A. A. Brown, contact man) to take the batteries as Ad and I went forward to the pyre for close-ups. As we hurried forward dodging through men running hither and thither I still though I was dreaming. All around the blazing mass we moved the three of us. We must have made ten set-ups before Brownie called a halt and said we had better begin thinking of getting our film on the way to New York.
“When they come to,” he said, “they may confiscate our film. It has happened before on stories of this kind.”
We then recalled Larry Kennedy and his assistant Deon de Titta, from our company, who was with us getting a different angle. The last we have seen of them there were directly under the tail of the ship. We started looking for them. From one cameraman to another we ran. Finally we found them. Like us they have been moving around the ship making every possible angle. They have been saved by a gust of wind that came up as the ship settled. It blew it over their heads and it landed about fifty feet from where they were standing. They have gotten many of the marvelous shots you saw on the screen in the Movietone News special. I was the only man given screen credit but many of the great shots in our release were photographed by Kennedy…”
A few days later Gold confided to Larry Kennedy back at Fox’s newsroom, “I acted automatically. It wasn’t until I started to cry four hours after the fire that I realized what had happened.”
Larry Kennedy recounted his experience in a Pittsburgh newspaper:
“This time Gold was near the mast on top of his truck. I was set up directly beneath the Hindenburg as she blew up.
All I could do was to pick up the camera and run. Deon de Titta, Jr., was with me. As we ran bits of the burning ship fell on us. Pieces of something zipped past us. The pieces turned out to be parts of a man.”
James Seeley’s memories of the unforgettable story he shot:
“I was panning my camera across the body of the ship when the terrific explosion took place near the stern. Suddenly flames leaped hundreds of feet into the air. I was stunned by what I was witnessing, but the training of every newsreel man gets to hold his ground stood me in good stead. By pure reflex action I kept grinding, even while passengers and crew were spewed out of the cabin windows of the monster and scrambled from beneath the mass of flaming fabric, their figures silhouetted against the background of seething fire. Not until my film ran out did I cease grinding.”
All Tommy Cravens had to say about that hellish night in Lakehurst was “I guess my camera can tell a better story than I can” (Cravens comments are at 11:16). Those pictures had earned the modest former newspaper photographer the coveted newsreel staff job he dreamed of.
As for Universal Newsreel, they had to obtain a copy of the explosion footage from News of the Day due to their impatient cameraman deciding to leave early. Other newsreel men said that he never bothered to come into work the next day for he knew he was fired.
Al Gold by the way, according to Lowell Thomas, never complained again about covering the zeppelins.