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 Leroy 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 since shortly after his graduation in 1923. Initially, Osbun took a position in the advertising department when the company was still known as the Oliver Chilled Plow Works, based in South Bend, Indiana.

By 1926 Osbun had moved over to the export sales division, where he could make better use of his genial, outgoing nature. In late June of hat same year, Osbun married Irene Miller, an artist in Oliver’s ad department. Their first daughter, Jean, was born two years later.
When Oliver Chilled Plow Works merged with three other farm equipment companies to form the Oliver Farm Equipment Company in 1929, Clifford Osbun remained with the newly expanded organization. He moved his family to Chicago, where he worked out of the new Oliver sales office at 400 W. Madison St. From 1933 onward, Osbun served as the company’s Export Sales Manager.

Clifford Osbun’s work frequently took him out of the country, particularly to South America and the Caribbean islands. Throughout the early-mid 1930s, Osbun often traveled via Pan American Airways’ growing network of Central- and South American routes, which provided much speedier service to the region than the steamship lines. However, the new fleet of flying boats that Pan Am used for their Latin America line was not without its teething troubles. In 1936, Osbun was on his way to Buenos Aires when the seaplane in which he was flying had to make a forced landing in the ocean near Puerto Rico. Osbun survived the crash unscathed, and was rescued along with the airplane’s other occupants by a small launch - not long after which the boat’s engine exploded. Despite two other passengers being seriously burned in the boat fire, Osbun himself was uninjured.

At the beginning of May, 1937, Clifford Osbun was on his way home from a three-month business trip that had taken him to South America, England, and Germany. He opted to book passage on the Hindenburg, which left on its first North American flight of 1937 on the evening of May 3rd. Osbun was one of four Chicagoans aboard the voyage, the others being Burtis J. Dolan, Nelson Morris, and Herbert J. O'Laughlin.

Like his fellow Chicagoan, Bert Dolan, Osbun had not told his wife that he was flying home aboard the Hindenburg. All they knew was that he was due home on Sunday, May 9th – Mother’s Day. He had, however sent his sister, Hattie Mae Austin, a postcard from Copenhagen the previous week in which he mentioned his plans to return to the United States via zeppelin. 

Osbun on HindenburgClifford Osbun (right, facing camera) aboard the Hindenburg during its last flight. Fellow passengers Ernst Rudolf Anders (lower center, with binoculars) and Moritz Feibusch (left, silhouetted against upright post) are sightseeing through the ship's observation windows. (Image taken from home movies shot during the Hindenburg's last flight by fellow passenger Joseph Spah.)

As the Hindenburg came in to land at Lakehurst at the end of the flight on May 6th, 1937, Osbun was apparently standing with Philip Mangone and several other passengers at the windows of the starboard observation deck alongside the lounge and the reading and writing room, talking about their voyage and watching the landing maneuver.

When the ship caught fire shortly afterwards, Osbun was able to get to a window, but he didn't remember exactly 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." Osbun most likely waited until the ship was on the ground, and then picked his way through the web of duralumin beams and steel wires in his path. When he came to his senses, Osbun found himself standing about 30 feet away from the wreckage, alongside of fellow passenger Philip Mangone,who had just finished digging his way out of the glowing mass of girders. The two men stared numbly at the twisted remains of the Hindenburg, later relating to a reporter,  "and as we looked at it, it was burning to cinders."

When rescuers found Osbun, he was bleeding "as though he'd been punched in the mouth" and was burned on his hands, but other than that he seemed to be uninjured. Along with Mangone and Joseph Spah, another passenger, 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. This was compounded when some early news reports mistakenly listed Osbun as either missing or dead, while others included him among the reported survivors. At their home in Park Ridge, IL, Osbun’s wife stayed up late into the night with their three daughters, (Jean, 10, Suzanne, 5, and Sally, 3), anxiously awaiting word as to whether or not he was alive. Finally, the family received a wire from Osbun himself. Having learned of the conflicting news reports, he wryly telegraphed his wife, “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

Irene Osbun took a train out to New Jersey the very next day to meet her husband 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’s injuries initially seemed superficial, primarily bruises and burns to his hands and face, and he expected to be released from the hospital and on his way home to Chicago within a few days. However, his condition began to worsen over the weekend. In addition to the burns and bruises, he was also suffering from smoke inhalation. As he crawled to safety through collapsed girders and wires, Osbun had evidently breathed in a large amount of the thick, greasy smoke that billowed from the ship’s burning fuel oil tanks, damaging his lungs. Complications quickly developed, likely from septic shock, which affected his heart and his kidneys. His skin beginning to yellow from jaundice, Osbun was given blood transfusions and placed into an oxygen tent in an attempt to improve his heart function.

Osbun was strong enough to speak with reporters on Monday, May 10th, telling them with characteristic cheerfulness, “I am recovering rapidly and hope to go home soon.” In fact, it was nearly a month before he was healthy enough to return to his Vine Avenue home in Park Ridge, IL. He had narrowly escaped death for the second time in a year, but this time it took a physical toll on him. Osbun’s lungs were slow to heal from the smoke damage, and talkative and gregarious as he was, he sometimes found himself having to slow down and catch his breath when his conversation grew too animated. His burned hands also continued to pain him, and he wore light gloves in public for some time following the disaster.

Once he had sufficiently recovered from his injuries, Clifford Osbun resumed his travels on behalf of the Oliver Farm Equipment Company. In January of 1941, just after the new year, Osbun left for an extended business trip to Central and South America, which included visits to Argentina (where Osbun was considering moving his family) and Cuba. While in Cuba, just before he planned to return home, Osbun took ill and was admitted to the Anglo-American Hospital in Havana. His condition was serious enough that the hospital contacted his wife, Irene, who left immediately for Cuba. Mechanical problems on two different airplanes delayed her arrival, however, and she was unable to reach Havana in time.

In the early morning hours of April 14, 1941, Clifford Osbun passed away at the age of 43 from complications related to chronic nephritis, a kidney ailment. Newspaper obituaries made a point of mentioning that Osbun had been in poor health since the Hindenburg crash, but it is unclear whether or not this contributed to his death.


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,

Unknown 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,

Unknown 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,

youtube channel said...

Wow, this post is fastidious, my younger sister is analyzing these things, thus I am going to inform her.


community act said...

This is one awesome article post. Really looking forward to read more. Keep writing.


maps google said...

Really appreciate you sharing this article. Much thanks again. I definitely enjoying every little bit of it.