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Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Herbert Morrison (1905-89)

"It's crashing. It's crashing terrible. Oh, my...get out of the way, please. It's bursting into flames! And it's falling on the mooring mast. All the folks agree this is terrible, one of the worst catastrophes on the world. Oh, the flames, four or five hundred feet in the sky! It's a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. The smoke and the flames now and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity and all the passengers..."

Herbert Morrison was born May 14, 1905, in Scottdale, Pennsylvania, 49 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. He was a career broadcaster.

At WLS in Chicago, Herb was a music announcer, a job that was later called a disc jockey. He was also the man who announced yacht races on Lake Michigan (once or twice), dished out the celebrity gossip (unwillingly), and did all the mundane duties that no one else wanted to do. And they were going to resume airship traffic between Germany and the United States the first week in May. Guess who was chosen to cover it?

This job in New Jersey given to Herb was a dream assignment. All he would have to do is describe what he saw. The German Consulate-General of Chicago gave him a brochure that had explained everything. And he carefully memorized the parts of the airship. He learned the difference between a blimp and a dirigible. A blimp does not have a frame. A dirigible has one. This was Herb's first air flight--he flew from Chicago (Midway) directly to Lakehurst on American Airlines special flights for Hindenburg passengers), then stayed at a hotel in Toms River, New Jersey.

His companion for the trip was sound engineer Charles Nehlson. Their luggage was one simple overnight bag for each of the men, who didn't share a room, and a complicated transcription disc recorder. This rather complicated contraption made almost instantaneous 16-2/3 RPM records. These could be played over the air immediately. The plan was to record the landing and give the record to a man from the NBC network in New York, who would be waiting after the pomp and ceremony were all over.

Although Herb was away from his beloved wife Mary Jane, he was happy to have an easy job for a change. He didn't like the takeoff from Midway Field and had told Nehlson he was thinking about taking the train back to Chicago. After all, it was Thursday and they didn't have to be back work until Saturday (it was a two day trip, and the train would get in Friday afternoon). Nehlson, whom Herb always called Charley, was a friendly professional who understood what Herb felt. Neither one of them really wanted to go up in the sky again after they saw what happened to the Hindenburg.

At the time of the explosion, the word about it did not go out immediately. It was actually a phone call from the man that Herb and Charley met from NBC who called station WEAF that let the folks know in New York that something was wrong. News crews from New York did their best to get to the Lakehurst Naval Air Station (an interesting fact is that both the German and U.S. terminals of the route of the Hindenburg were naval bases). The word went out to WOR, WJZ (which, even though located in the same building, had a different news crew), WABC, WINS, WNEW, WHN, and WMCA (maybe others). They used their own personal vehicles to get to the base. Troopers from the New Jersey State Police had a 10 mile perimeter around Lakehurst sealed off limits from the public. Sabotage was suspected.

As soon as Morrison and Nehlson had what they needed for the report, they tried to look for the man from WEAF to give him the record. They called a taxi to take them back to Philadelphia, put their bags into the trunk, then realized they were being followed by two SS agents. This thwarted their plans of taking the train back to Chicago. They took the first airplane out and arrived home that evening.

They had made two recordings, one for NBC and a second which would air on Saturday afternoon. The SS agents were after whatever they had. They would take great pleasure in destroying their transcription disc recorder!

Anyway, they arrived home safe and sound. Even after they took the disc to the station the next day, the paranoia didn't leave them for weeks.

Herbert Morrison left WLS in 1939 to take a news position with the Mutual network at radio station WOR in New York. During World War II he served in the Army Air Forces. He was the first news director at WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh after having a similar position at radio station KQV in the same city.

Charley Nehlson retired from WLS in the early 1960s. Both he and Herb received gold watches for their work they did with the Hindenburg report shortly after it aired.

Retiring near Morgantown, West Virginia, Herb often gave lectures and speeches to school and news organizations. Herbert Morrison died at a convalescent home in Morgantown at the age of 83. He was survived by his wife Mary Jane. Herb is buried in the Scottdale Cemetery.


2 comments:

LoyalTubist said...

There's a personal side to this story:

My last duty station in the U.S. Army was Fort Dix, New Jersey, which borders the Lakehurst Naval Air Station. I married my (now ex-) wife in July 1985 and we moved into post housing the following month.

Playing in the 19th Army Band at Fort Dix, we played for many ceremonies at Lakehurst, since the U.S. Navy Band Philadelphia had been dissolved a few years prior. The hangar that had been used for the various airships (a huge thing!) was used for all the ceremonies they had on the base. But when I went with the Army Band, I never had a chance to stay around and read all the stuff they had about that history.

Being married meant no more fast food or mess hall meals. I now had a wife who could cook for me (well, I was teaching her to cook for me). We could go to a big supermarket, the joint Fort Dix-McGuire Air Force Base Commissary, or...

the Lakehurst Naval Commissary!

No bigger than a tiny supermarket, the fruit was much fresher than anywhere else (I kept telling this to my wife). Of course, I would always manage to drive by the hangar, offer my wife a Coke, and spend a few minutes (maybe hours) looking at all the stuff they had about the Hindenburg and the other airships.

Some friends told me that no one had ever cleaned up the ground (not in the Navy, anyway) since the 1930s and I might be able to find some kind of German medal or something. (Never happened and I wasn't expecting it!)

My wife always knew that I didn't go to Lakehurst for the good bananas. But so what?

Bill

lind said...

George Jones

You info on Herbert Morrison is sadly incorrect!

For example, he did not have a wife while at WLS in 1937.

He married Mary Jane some 11 years later in 1948.

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