Ask Rufus: The USS Shenandoah and the Crawford panic

August 27, 2011 11:59:00 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


At 9 o''clock on the morning of Oct. 8, 1924, an almost 2 1/2-city-block long, silver airship passed over Columbus. Traveling at 55 miles per hour and at an altitude of about 2,000 feet, she angled slightly southwest then west toward Greenville. After a few minutes, she passed low over Crawford. It was the USS Shenandoah on the first transcontinental flight by an airship. It was a brief passage that has been lost to local history. 


It is always interesting to view a historic event from two different perspectives. That is especially true when those events had a local element and a slice of comedy. So it is with , the USS Shenandoah. 


The story of the USS Shenandoah itself is a fascinating story of the beginnings of air travel. Built by the U.S. Navy on the pattern of the great German Zeppelins of World War I, she was 682 feet long with a width of 78 feet, 9 inches and a height of 93 feet, 2 inches. As the Navy''s first rigid airship, she was christened and commissioned on August 20, 1923. 


However, her life was short. On Sept. 2, 1925 the Shenandoah was scheduled to leave Lakehurst Naval Station on a training flight to Dearborn, Mich. Her commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. Zachary Lansdowne, requested permission to delay the flight because of bad weather. His request was denied and she departed as scheduled. The next morning she passed through a severe thunderstorm over Ohio and broke apart in turbulence. Of her 43 officers and crew, 14 including LCDR Lansdowne were lost when she crashed near Marietta, Ohio.  


Army Col. Billy Mitchell''s public criticism of the Navy''s handling of the Shenandoah and LCDR Lansdown''s weather concerns helped lead to Mitchell''s 1925 court martial for insubordination. That court-martial ended the career of Mitchell, who is considered the "Father of the U.S. Air Force." 


Our story, though, is the story of her historic flight across North America. It is a story that made national headlines. Although not mentioning its nearby passing, the West Point Leader newspaper had a lengthy article detailing the flight with the headline "Continent Spanned by the Shenandoah." The Columbus papers for that week are missing from both The Dispatch and Columbus library archives, so the Columbus coverage is not known. 


The January 1925 issue of The National Geographic contained a 47-page account of the flight. Included was a map showing the key cities that the Shenandoah passed over. The route across the deep south took her over Spartanburg, S C; Atlanta and Carrollton, Ga.; Birmingham, Ala.; Columbus and Greenville, Miss.; Bastrop and Shreveport, La.; and then to Dallas and Fort Worth. 


Included in the National Geographic article were descriptions of the cities and countryside seen during the flight. The Shenandoah left from the Naval station at Lakehurst New Jersey on Oct. 7, 1924, at 10 a.m. At 7:15 a.m. on Oct. 8, she approached Birmingham, and there, "the mantle of smoke from her steel mills was visible." Between Birmingham and Columbus "the forest seemed without a break." She passed over Columbus at 9 a.m. and Greenville at 11:47. 


As the Shenandoah passed Columbus and crossed over "the land of cotton," the scene below was one of white fields of cotton and square white bales stacked at railroad depots. Through trees and in clearings were seen dirt roads leading to "weather-beaten houses." The airship seemed to terrify chickens and livestock and children looked up "in awe." Some of the children were seen waving in greeting and one man was observed running into his house and coming back out waving a white tablecloth. The observer felt he was waving a greeting to the Shenandoah. A story from Crawford causes one to wonder if it was a symbol of greetings or actually an improvised white flag of surrender. 


I had not heard the story of the Shenandoah passing over Lowndes County until it was mentioned to me by Tommy Gentry. Tommy said that his father "loved aviation and used to tell me stories of the time that a dirigible flew over Crawford when he was a lad. The dirigible was flying at about 200 feet in altitude in a south-westerly direction. He told me that he, my uncle William Albert Gentry, Jr.(Dub) and Neil (Cornelius) Ervin were standing on the steps of the old Crawford Post Office on that day. He indicated that the direction in which "she" was traveling would have put it passing over the Saunders Carson Plantation. I asked if he heard the sounds of the engines and he said that he did not. He said the townspeople in Crawford "thought the world was coming to an end." 


Tom Hardy''s father, Harris, knew of the Shenandoah''s coming and had Tom, then a small child, out in their front yard to watch the great airship''s passing. Tom remembers watching it with fascination and recalled that when it passed to the south of his house at about 1,000 feet high, "it looked like it was a quarter-mile long." 


As is often the case, when one views a historic event, whether it incites terror or inspires curiosity usually comes down to perspective. 


Rufus Ward is a local historian. Email your questions about local history to him at [email protected] 


Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]