Monday, November 10, 2008

Clifford L. Osbun


Age: 39

Residence: Park Ridge, IL

Occupation: Sales Manager - Oliver Farm Equipment Co.

Location at time of fire: Passenger decks - portside dining salon


Clifford Le Roy Osbun was born in Nevada, OH on September 3rd, 1897. An alumnus of Purdue University in Lafayette, IN, where he had been a member of the Alpha Gamma Rho agricultural fraternity, Osbun had worked for the Oliver Farm Equipment Company of South Bend, IN, since shortly after his graduation in 1923. He had served as Oliver's export sales manager since 1929.

Osbun worked out of the Oliver sales office at 400 W. Madison St. in Chicago. However, his work periodically took him out of the country. In 1936, he had been on his way to Buenos Aires when the seaplane in which he was flying made a forced landing in the ocean near Puerto Rico. Osbun survived the crash, and was rescued by a motor boat with the airplane's other occupants, not long after which the motor boat exploded. Despite two other passengers being seriously burned in the boat fire, Osbun was uninjured.

Clifford Osbun was one of four Chicagoans onboard the Hindenburg's first North American flight of the 1937 season, the others being Burtis J. Dolan, Nelson Morris, and Herbert J. O'Laughlin. He was on his way home from a three-month business trip that had taken him to South America, England, and Germany. As the Hindenburg came in to land at Lakehurst at the end of the flight on May 6th, 1937, Osbun was with other passengers at the windows of the portside observation deck alongside the dining salon, talking about their voyage and watching the landing maneuver.

Clifford Osbun's approximate location in the portside dining room at the time of the fire.

When the ship caught fire shortly afterwards, Osbun was able to get to a window, but he didn't really remember clearly how he escaped. He later said, "I didn't jump. I know I didn't jump. I didn't know what happened. I can't describe it. I seemed to be dead and alive at the same time." As near as he could recall, the window sill buckled underneath him as he prepared to jump, and he was dumped to the ground where he found himself and another passenger looking numbly at the ship, "and as we looked at it, it was burning to cinders."

A passenger, possibly Clifford Osbun, falls out of the center window of the portside observation deck.

Rescuers found Osbun standing 30 or 40 feet from the wreckage bleeding "as though he'd been punched in the mouth" and with a burned right hand, but other than that he seemed to be uninjured. Along with fellow passengers Joseph Spah and Philip Mangone, Osbun was part of a very short list of survivors that went out across the wire services in the first hour following the disaster. He was taken to Paul Kimball Hospital in nearby Lakewood.

Osbun's family, of course, initially feared the worst when they heard of the disaster. His sister, Mrs. F. S. Fullerton of Cuyahoga Falls, OH stayed up late into the night waiting for word of her brother. Osbun's wife Irene and their three daughters (Jean, 10, Suzanne, 5, and Sally, 3) also waited for news from Lakehurst. Finally word came that Osbun had been saved, and Irene took a train out to New Jersey the very next day to meet him at the hospital in Lakewood. Interviewed by reporters as she boarded the train in Chicago, Mrs. Osbun said "I'm so happy, so terribly happy that he was saved. At first we believed that he wasn't."

Irene Osbun on the train to Lakewood, NJ
to see her husband following the disaster.

Osbun, having narrowly escaped death for the second time in a year, was at his Vine St. home in Park Ridge, IL several days after the disaster. His luck, however, didn't hold out. He continued to work and travel for the Oliver Farm Equipment company, and was likely on one of these business trips when he took ill several years later and was admitted to a hospital in Havana, Cuba. Clifford Osbun died of a chronic kidney problem in the early morning hours of April 14th, 1941. Newspaper obituaries made a point of mentioning that he had been in poor health since the Hindenburg crash, but it is not known whether this contributed to his death. He was 43 years old.


Anonymous said...

The OSBUN family of Indiana finds this information interesting.

Patrick Russell said...

I'm glad you found and enjoyed the article on Clifford. He certainly seemed to have a rather impressive string of luck in 1936-37, surviving not only the Hindenburg crash but also the plane crash and motorboat fire near Puerto Rico the year before.

Please feel free to email me at, if you'd like. I don't have a lot of further information on Clifford beyond what I've included here, but I do have a xerox of the State Department's "Report on the Death of an American Citizen Abroad" report that was filed following his passing in Cuba. I'd be glad to pass along a copy of this, especially if you have a family historian who gathers such things. (In our family, that's my mother, so I know just how valuable documents like that can be.)

Be well,

Christine Peacock said...

Clifford Osbun is my grandfather, and I plan to create a tribute for him in the future. I would love to have the additional information that you have on him. I'll be creating a website at when I am able to set aside the time. This article is wonderful! Thank you.

Patrick Russell said...

Hello Christine,

I'm very happy to be able to help you with your tribute to your grandfather. Please email me at and I will make sure that you have copies of everything about him that I have in my files.

Take care,

Christine Peacock said...

Unfortunately I had gotten swept away with life events and had abandoned the project I had planned but am considering it again. Are you still around Patrick Russel?

Patrick Russell said...

I certainly am! Drop me a note and I'll help in any way I can.

Take care,