In May of 1928, disaster hovered in the air above France. The Graf Zeppelin, a German airship marginally shorter than the Titanic, ten stories tall and filled with one hundred thousand cubic meters of hydrogen (the world’s most flammable gas) had lost several of its engines.
The forward port engine had lost its main shaft and two other engines had immediately seized, leaving the ship floating on its last two engines. In response, Commander Hugo Eckener, a very skilled aviator, tried to return the airship to its base in Germany. But then a fourth engine stopped, stranding the ship and its passengers with the Alps between themselves and safety.
The choice was either to abandon ship, or to attempt an emergency landing in France. To land on the open ground would cause the ship to bounce, unless gas could be released fast enough to prevent it—a major fire risk. Instead Eckener maneuvered the Graf Zeppelin to an old French hangar, where French troops waited. The French helped the Graf Zeppelin to land but immediately locked down the base—“after all, the last Zeppelin landing in France had been a war machine.” [i] The Graf Zeppelin and its passengers, as well as the two gorillas on board[ii], were saved.
It was an exciting time in the history of flight. Two years before, Charles Lindbergh had flown from New York to Paris in about thirty-three hours, sparking a huge rise in popularity for aviators and a surge in the public’s interest in flight. Commander Hugo Eckener and the Zeppelin Company wanted to build upon this fascination by using the Graf Zeppelin to circumnavigate the globe.
The problem? They did not have enough money. Their solution came from the American news mogul William Hearst. Hearst wanted to capitalize upon the excitement that aviators and grand adventures sparked in the American public and, after some haggling, he offered to fund half of the money for the trip in exchange for the rights to the story in the U.S. and Great Britain. Hearst had three reporters on board: the famous explorer Sir George Hubert Wilkins, Lady Grace Drummond-Hay, and Karl von Wiegand.
Hearst also demanded that the trip begin and end in the U.S. Eckener agreed, but planned to travel right back to the Zeppelin’s home base in Friedrichshafen, Germany after beginning in America, allowing for a complete circumnavigation from both Lakehurst and Friedrichshafen (thus satisfying both his home country and his primary sponsor).
This is how the Graf Zeppelin, after its inauspicious trial run in May, came to be traveling again across the Atlantic toward the U.S. on the 1st of August, 1929. Ninety hours after departure, the ship landed in Lakehurst, N.J. before returning to Germany. From Friedrichshafen, the Graf Zeppelin traversed Siberia before landing in Tokyo, Japan, and continuing across the Pacific Ocean to Los Angeles, California. The last leg was a jaunt across the United States, back to Lakehurst.
By this time, the Graf Zeppelin had run out of drinking water, though this did not stop Eckener from pushing forward. Instead the passengers subsisted on wine and other alcohol—substances still illegal on the U.S. soil below their feet. Upon its arrival, the Graf Zeppelin broke the record for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe and was met with massive fanfare and celebration.
George Hubert Wilkins, a famous Australian polar explorer and one of Hearst’s correspondents on the Graf Zeppelin, collected photographs and memorabilia related to the flight. Over two hundred of these images were recently acquired by The Ohio State University’s Polar Archives in 2015 and join the larger Wilkins Collection held by the repository. These images range include mass-printed German postcards; images of life aboard the airship; photos of the Graf Zeppelin in flight or in a hangar; as well as photos of crowds cheering and celebrations.
Wilkins himself is not featured in many images. He is seen in only a few formal photographs, as well as several that depict him dining with Captain Eckener and his fellow correspondents. The exception is a fabulous photo in which Wilkins is examining a book of photographs in the dining area, with a small dog (one which greatly resembles an early Boston terrier) in his lap.
Such depictions of life aboard the ship are numerous among the collection and cover everything from work to play. There are images of one crew member rather smugly playing the piano accordion; the radio operator Fruend precariously hanging out a window with a dangling wire; Chef Manz cooking; Commander Eckener solemnly monitoring everything on the control room; and Lady Drummond Hay happily climbing one of the gondolas while the ship was in flight.
Other images show the world in relation to the massive form of the Graf Zeppelin. Several images depict the Graf Zeppelin landing or taking off, surrounded by small white smudges that only vaguely look like people. Another photograph, apparently taken from the Graf Zeppelin itself, shows the Zeppelin’s shadow, which looks rather like a large missile, over a field. Even from the air, the Zeppelin’s shadow is several times larger than the houses and barns on the ground. Some photos display the huge impact of the Graf Zeppelin’s flight, even without the Graf Zeppelin being the subject of the image. One such photo displays two long rows of U.S. sailors feasting after aiding in the landing and departure of the Graf Zeppelin. Another shows Japanese florists preparing flowers for those visiting the Graf Zeppelin while it was moored in Tokyo.
Finally, the collection has printed memorabilia that Wilkins gathered, mostly postcards and tiny printed cards. These seem to be German in origin, given that all are captioned in German, and display wonderful drawings of the Graf Zeppelin’s plans or of the luxurious cabins and dining areas inside. One tiny image shows the Graf Zeppelin when its frame is only half formed, extending out toward the viewer in a spiral fashion, while unattached parts mimic its swirls on the ground.
For more information about Sir George Hubert Wilkins, please visit the Polar Archives website: https://go.osu.edu/polararchives.
[i] Nasht, Simon. 2005. The last explorer: Hubert Wilkins : Australia’s unknown hero. Sydney: Hodder Australia.pg, 195
[ii] These gorillas inspired one of the passengers, Merian Cooper, to create the movie King Kong.