Several years ago, casting about for a subject of interest to me on which I felt I might be able to contribute in some small way, I wrote a blog post concerning the wreck of the United States Naval airship Shenandoah. Happy with the result, I had no idea that the piece would become a destination for readers from all corners of the internet, many of whom shared a personal connection either to the great ship herself or to the wreck.
Over the years, I’ve received first-hand accounts from people who watched the ship break up on the stormy fall morning of September 2-3, 1926. I’ve been sent photos, song recordings and lyrics, and family anecdotes. I have always taken care to highlight these contributions and to update the various posts treating of the event.
Early this month, I was contacted by Gregg Frisby, who kindly forwarded some scans of a family heirloom: a series of photos taken in the wake of the ship’s loss. Gregg thinks the pictures were taken early in the morning of September 3. They are of the tail section, and show a different and more intimate view of the section than this prior submission, which shows the port side of the tail section from quite a distance.
Interestingly, in reviewing my Shenandoah-related posts, I noticed a comment on the original:
My great-aunt Maude Phillips Harrison, and her husband John Harrison, lived in Caldwell, OH. We have several family pictures of the wreck of the Shenandoah, including a man in Navy uniform who may have been a survivor. Although Aunt Maude and Uncle John’s involvement in the wreck has been lost over time, the pictures are quite real and diffent than any “official photos” I have ever seen. I can only speculate that the Harrison’s (or someone they knew) took them very soon after the crash.
Posted by: Kim Frisby at February 28, 2003 7:12 AM
The pictures that Gregg has so generously shared are clearly these photos.
Gregg and I had an interesting correspondence over the images, which I’ll excerpt inline with the images.
Here’s most of Gregg’s initial note (interspersed with the images for effect):
My great-aunt Maude Phillips Harrison, and her husband John Harrison, lived in Caldwell, OH.
Attached are family pictures of the wreck of the Shenandoah, including a man in Navy uniform who may have been a survivor (see this photo).
They are not digitally enhanced in any way, but are in remarkably good condition for being over 80 years old.
Although Aunt Maude and Uncle John’s involvement in the wreck [remains unknown] they may have been in the photos, but they are not clear enough to tell and no one surviving in the family knew Aunt Maude when she was younger.
We can only speculate that the Harrisons (or someone they knew) took them very soon after the crash.
They were obviously taken before the Navy or War Department was able to come in and secure the site, or begin clearing away the wreck.
I looked at the picture of the man with the bandaged arm, and realized I might be able to propose an identity, if the man was indeed a survivor of the wreck. Here’s what I wrote back to Gregg with (my correspondence is blockquoted and italic):
The guy with the middy hat may very well be a survivor, given his bandaged hand. It’s been a while since I did my research, but my recollection is that until marines reached the site the survivors tried to secure the site from souvenir seekers, but were overwhelmed.
I found a site with some 1926 news clippings about the wreck, and under a section headed “Survivors” found this:
‘J. Cole, Philadelphia: “I had just got out of my berth and gone forward when I felt the upward lift of the bag. I heard the noise of the twisting framework as the ship buckled. As the center of the bag dropped I slid down a rope ladder. Burned my hands, but laded safely.” ‘
It was the only reference to minor hand injuries I could find online.
A countervailing point here: Mr. Cole’s narrative would tend to place him in the nose of the ship, and it seems most likely that any survivors photographed in these images early on the morning of the wreck would have been among those that came to earth with the tail section, eighteen of the total twenty-nine who survived. She had 41 (I have also seen 43 cited) in her complement at the New Jersey initiation of the voyage.
I have never seen pictures of the tail section which included the ship name similar to these; while I’m sure the photographer probably regretted the low shutter speed I quite like it. I also really like the wear and tear on the prints you scanned: thank you for not cleaning them up.
Finally, while I’m sure you know this, I thought I’d expound a bit. The longer-frame shot that’s quite blurry with at least 13 people visible is a longitudinal view down the spine of the tail section from the rear on the starboard side of the ship. The three horizontal bands are the colors of the starboard elevator, the large flap used to set the pitch or climb/descent angle of the ship in the air.
The structure that appears to rest on the elevator, connected by three vertical lines in the image, the largest of which is directly above a man in a white longsleeved shirt with his hand in his pocket, is the starboard trim-tab, a smaller elevator used to make finer adjustments to the ship’s angle of attack.
Gregg responded with a brief note.
The story from J .Cole does seem to match the injuries shown in the photo. If it is not him, it most certainly must be one of the other survivors. I am wondering if the fellow next to him isn’t also a survivor. He isn’t dressed like the other townpeople shown, and he looks a little grimy and shell-shocked. Since the ship didn’t go down until 5:30 AM, these pictures must have been taken at first light. It is amazing the craft was able to survive almost 2 hours in such bad conditions.
Thanks for the article. I never realized the crash site was so close to Caldwell, (great-Aunt Maude lived on the outskirts of town), where the uninjured survivors were taken. What a strange coincidence that one of the survivors was from Logan, and took the opportunity to take a few days leave to go home.
I will never cease to be amazed at the way that the internet has provided an opportunity for people to come together and share information like this. I’m deeply honored to simply fulfill my role as catalyst and cataloger for this stuff. I hope you find it as fascinating as I do.
UPDATE: In reviewing links and so forth, I came across the terrific USS Shenandoah’s Last Flight, by Wilbur Cross, which was originally published in 2006. It’s better researched and edited than my contributions; based on the details of crew interactions presented in the piece, I would venture to guess that Mr. Cross worked directly from the proceedings of the naval inquest board that reviewed the events of the ship’s loss. Sadly, he doesn’t help us ID the man with the bandaged hand.