Thursday, January 22, 2009

Edward Douglas


Age: 38

Hometown: Newark, NJ

Occupation: Director of European Operations for McCann/Erickson Corp., Frankfurt division

Location at time of fire: Passenger decks, probably starboard lounge

Died in wreck

Edward H. Douglas was born on October 28, 1898 in Newark, NJ. He had been a US Navy petty officer during World War I, and after the war he returned to Europe and went into advertising, first with General Motors, and then later with the H. K. McCann Company, a European division of McCann/Erickson, through which he continued to work with General Motors. He spent several years in Paris, and then in the early 1930s was transferred to Frankfurt, where he developed a wide range of international contacts. By 1937 he was McCann's Director of European Operations.

According to author A. A. Hoehling (and due to a number of dubious efforts to invent drama and intrigue in his 1962 book, "Who Destroyed The Hindenburg?" his claims about Douglas should not be taken at face value and are included here merely for the sake of completion), Edward Douglas was divorced while in Frankfurt, and his wife Martha and daughter Dorothy moved to Switzerland. About this time, the story goes, Douglas hired a young Jewish secretary. This did not go unnoticed by the local authorities, as Douglas’ office at 56 Neue Mainzer Strasse was in the same building as the Frankfurt branch office of Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda. Douglas was allegedly asked by the authorities to fire his secretary, and when he refused the Gestapo and the S.D. began following the two of them around Frankfurt, tapped his phones, and on at least one occasion broke into his office at night and went through his files. He then transferred to the company's London office, perhaps having had enough of the Gestapo.

Regardless of whether or not any of the story told by Hoehling is true, the fact is that as of the first week of May, 1937, Edward Douglas was traveling to America to spend some time visiting family, since he hadn't been home since 1930. He had informed his mother in California (where she lived in Altadena with two of her sons: George, retired advertising manager formerly with General Motors Corporation in Japan; and Paul, a student at Pasadena Junior college) of his plans to fly on the Hindenburg, as well as his younger brother Halsey, a member of the editorial staff of the Newark Evening News who lived in Belleville, NJ. On May 6th, Halsey Douglas was at his home uneasily eyeing the afternoon thunderstorms and, once again according to Hoehling, even having an instinctive feeling that he’d not see his brother alive again.

As for the events of the last flight of the Hindenburg, little is actually known about Douglas’ experiences on the trip. One thing is certain, however: whereas several books (and even the 1975 movie with George C. Scott) have Douglas receiving a mysterious coded telegram onboard the ship, this simply did not happen. Author Michael M. Mooney, in writing his 1972 book "The Hindenburg," (succumbing, to an even greater extent than Hoehling, to a need to invent drama for his book) concocted that story from events that allegedly took place involving Mooney’s father, James D. Mooney. James Mooney had been President of Overseas Operations for General Motors during the 1930s and was allegedly (according to his son) the GM executive to whom Edward Douglas reported in Frankfurt. Apparently, James Mooney received a telegram much like the one eventually attributed to Douglas, and years later his son Michael simply added it to his fictionalized account of Douglas' last days, admitting as much in the acknowledgement section of his book.

Edward Douglas' possible location in the starboard passenger lounge at the time of the fire.

What is known for certain is that Edward Douglas was in the passenger area on the Hindenburg as it came in to land at Lakehurst, NJ on the evening of May 6th, 1937, and was probably in the starboard lounge when the fire broke out. He never made it out of the ship, and his brother Halsey, who had been at the air station to greet him, identified his body either later that night or early the next day. Halsey Douglas told reporters afterward that he suspected that Edward might have been suffocated to death before he was burned, saying that when he saw the body, "Ed's hand was still held up in front of his face as though to keep the fumes away."

After Edward Douglas' death, his wife Martha and daughter Dorothy moved back to the United States. Many years later, after retiring, Dorothy Douglas moved to Menomonie, WI to look after her uncle Halsey, who had retired there some years before. Halsey Douglas passed away on September 27th, 1999 at the age of 91. Dorothy Douglas passed away a couple of years later, on June 26th, 2001 at the age of 76.

Please note: I must stress again that much of what has previously been written about Edward Douglas over the years, the bulk of which comes from the books of A. A. Hoehling and Michael Mooney, is either absolutely false (in the case of the infamous in-flight telegram) or else is highly suspect in light of the source material (namely, the bit of intrigue involving Douglas' Jewish secretary and the Gestapo in Frankfurt) and is as yet unconfirmed by a second, reputable source.

The biggest problem with Hoehling's book is that, while it was the original source of a libelous accusation of sabotage leveled at a Hindenburg crew member and much of the book is wasted on useless narrative tangents intended to create an air of mystery, research using alternate sources (official eyewitness testimony, newspaper articles, later interviews with survivors) indicates that the straight reportage that Hoehling did for his book did tend to be more or less accurate. The information about Edward Douglas that Hoehling included in his book falls therefore, in my opinion, into an uncomfortable grey area. It could conceivably be true, as is the case with much of the non-sabotage oriented material in Hoehling's book. However, I also know that the source of much of Hoehling's information on Edward Douglas also seems to have been the same person who helped him to concoct his baseless sabotage theory. Hence, my quandary over the matter.

For this reason, as I briefly mention in the article, I have included the questionable material about Douglas' experiences with the Gestapo in Frankfurt with the parenthetical warning about the dubious nature of the source. It is my hope that I will eventually find a source to either confirm or debunk the information in question. For now, I reluctantly let it stand, with the caveat "Could have happened, but probably not."


Carol Henderson said...

Edward Douglas is my uncle. I am the youngest daughter of Paul Douglas, Edward's youngest brother. I have often wondered about The Hindenburg accident and my uncle Edward--whom my father adored and looked up to. My grandmother and grandfather separated when my father was three years old. From then on my father looked to Edward as a father figure. And now that my father is quite old--he'll be 92 later in February 2010--he often weeps about losing his brother so long ago and about how different his own path would have been had Edward lived.

Patrick Russell said...

Hi Ms. Henderson,

I'm so sorry to hear that your Uncle Edward's death still so deeply affects your father after all these years. It must have been awful for your father to suddenly lose his brother like that, especially since they were so close and since Edward was, as you say, like a father figure to him.

So many lives were turned completely upside down by the Hindenburg crash. It isn't always easy for me to hear some of the stories connected to the incident, even as a third party, because they're still so deeply painful to a lot of folks. But I think it's important to make sure that your Uncle Edward and everyone else who was aboard the Hindenburg that night are remembered.

Please feel free to e-mail me ( if you ever have anything that you'd like to add to what I've written about your Uncle Edward, or if you see anything there that you think I ought to correct.

My best to you and your father,


Unknown said...

Carol, I believe we must be related somehow as my Father was Bruce Douglas. I recall visiting Halsey as a child. I have memories of Paul Douglas as well. My Father grew up in Plainfield NJ. My Grandfather was Richard Douglas. My Father died a few years back while living in Bridgewater NJ.

Felicia said...

Our grandfather was a friend of Edward Douglas. We have a postcard that is slightly burned that Mr .Douglas sent to my grandfather from the Hindenburg. Only about 100 pieces of mail survived. If you are interested we can post a copy of the postcard.

Carol Henderson said...

I am just seeing this now. I would love a copy of the postcard. If you see this will you email me?