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Wed, Dec 07, 2005

Gone West: John Iannaccone

Naval Airship Veteran, Was On Hindenburg Ground Crew

Aero-News was saddened to learn from one of our readers that John Antonio Iannaccone, 94, died Friday, December 2. He was a retired Chief Petty Officer, United States Navy and a veteran of the Navy's World War II blimp program, as well as one of the last remaining "Sky Sailors" from the Navy's rigid airship era of the 1920's-1930's. Iannaccone was also the last known living US Navy ground crewmember from the Hindenburg disaster. 
 
Iannaccone had an extensive and varied carrier in Naval aviation. He was born in 1911, and enlisted in the Navy upon graduation from High School. He became an Aviation Mechanic in the Navy's Lighter Than Air program at the Naval Air Station, Lakehurst NJ. In 1931, he received the prestigious assignment as an crew member on the Navy's giant dirigible USS Los Angeles (ZR-3), and was part of the crew that flew the airship on her famous 27-day deployment to the 1931 Panama Fleet Maneuvers.
 
Following transfer to the ground force at the Naval Air Station, Lakehurst John went to sea in support of fighter Squadrons on the aircraft carriers USS Lexington (CV-2) and USS Ranger (CV-4.) During his tour, Iannaccone served under future Fleet Admirals Ernest J. King and William F. Halsey.
 
John returned to duty at NAS Lakehurst in late 1934. The Navy's rigid airship program had suffered a devastating blow when the USS Akron (ZRS-4) had crashed off Barnegat the year before, sister ship USS Macon (file photo, center) was based on the West Coast. The Los Angeles was out of service but still used for mooring experiments on the Lakehurst field and there were a few small patrol and training blimps, which John flew aboard regularly as the on-board "Mech."

In 1936, Iannaccone was one of the Navy ground crew that regularly handled the arrivals and departures of the new German Zeppelin Hindenburg on her ten round trips to Lakehurst that year. He was standing underneath the Hindenburg ready to grab a mooring line when she erupted in flame while landing at Lakehurst on May 6, 1937. Along with his fellow sailors, officers and bystanders, he helped rescue stunned and injured passengers from the burning wreckage. Nearly seventy years later, John could still vividly relate the events of that night and was the interview subject for many books, articles and TV documentaries in the ensuing decades.

Iannaccone never believed the stories about sabotage or latter-day "crackpot science" theories that flammable paint or "dope" on the fabric’s outer skin of the Hindenburg was responsible for the disaster.

"We used non-flammable helium gas in our Navy airships, but our training balloons and the station kite balloons still used hydrogen. We used to handle it and we knew how dangerous it was. The Hindenburg was inflated with hydrogen, she was tail heavy from a gas leak and they flew in under a thunderstorm. That hydrogen was an accident waiting to happen. It's that simple!" Iannaccone told a National Geographic documentary producer last July.

Going back to sea in the summer of 1937, he was assigned to the new aircraft carrier Yorktown (CV-5) and became an Aviation Chief Machinist's Mate and Plane Captain on the aircraft carrier Enterprise (CV-6). He had just shifted over to the new aircraft carrier WASP (CV-7) at Norfolk Naval Base when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
 
Expecting to be sent to fight in the Pacific, John suddenly found that the Navy had other plans for him. The Navy was expanding its blimp fleet for anti-submarine and air-sea rescue patrols and all men with Lighter Than Air experience were ordered back to Airship Squadron 12 (ZP-12) at Naval Air Station, Lakehurst. 

"A lot of guys in Lighter Than Air had more time than me, but because I spent more time at sea I became a Chief Petty Officer before most of them," said Iannaccone. We were all back at Lakehurst, tripping over each other. We were supposed to be Aviation Mechanics but they didn't have any tools for us to use. I once had to perform a 120-hour check on a blimp engine with nothing but a pair of pliers and a screwdriver! Finally, one of the Division Officers got frustrated with all the red tape and they went over to a hardware store in Lakewood and bought every tool kit they had!"
 
John also logged hundreds of hours in the air on the Navy's wartime K-type patrol blimps. He flew on the first wartime patrol out of the new Naval Air Station at South Weymouth, Massachusetts in a blimp borrowed from Lakehurst. The long patrol flights were exhausting, uncomfortable and always dangerous as they kept an eye out for German U-Boats. John's longest wartime flight was 28 hours in duration.

Having come through the war in one piece -- without ever having to leave the Continental United States -- John witnessed his second major fire when all three of the giant wooden blimp hangars at Richmond collapsed and burned in a 130 mile-per-hour hurricane in September 1945. Two dozen blimps, hundreds of Navy and commercial airplanes and hundreds of military and private vehicles had been parked in the big hangars for safety during the hurricane and all of them were destroyed, including John's 1939 Oldsmobile.

"Cars were scarce and I had a hell of a time getting a new car! "he would bitterly relate.
 
Transferred back to Lakehurst, John ended up being sent to San Francisco in 1948 and was on his way to an assignment in Hawaii... where there was no family housing available for his wife, Catherine. It was at this point John retired from active duty with the Navy.
 
He was able to get a civilian position at Naval Air Station, Lakehurst. He worked in the Overhaul & Repair Department until it closed in 1962. He then transferred to the Supply Department until retirement ten years later. It was a very happy, comfortable second career.

Iannaccone and his wife traveled extensively, and enjoyed their retirement years in the post-war "dream house" they built for themselves in Lakewood. They were active supporters of their church, St. Mary of the Lake in Lakewood, where they had attended since 1934.

John was an active supporter of the Lakehurst Borough Historical Society and Honorary Life Member of the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society, where his generosity made possible the finishing of "The John and Catherine Iannaccone Exhibit Room" at the Navy Lakehurst Information Center in Historic Hangar #1. John was regularly on hand to answer questions from serious scholars and young aviation enthusiasts alike. The preservation of the period of Naval Aviation History that he served in was intensely important to John.

In 2002, the entry street to the NAES Lakehurst's Commercial Gate was renamed "Iannaccone Way." At the time, John remarked, "I'm the only one lucky enough to have a street named after him while still alive."
 
Iannaccone is survived by a sister, several nieces and nephews, and his "adopted family" of close friends at the Naval Air Engineering Station, Lakehurst and the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society.

(Aero-News salutes Capt. Bret Gordon, CO, Naval Air Engineering Station, Lakehurst, NJ, for his very moving tribute.)

FMI: www.navy.mil, www.naval-airships.org

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