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
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
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
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,
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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