Born: May 14, 1905, in Connellsville, Pennsylvania
Died: January 11, 1989, in Morgantown, West Virginia
Buried in Scottdale, Pennsylvania
Vocations : Reporter, Staff Announcer, News Director, Soldier
Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Connellsville, Fayette County;
Scottsdale, Westmoreland County; Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
Keywords: NBC News, Hindenburg, West Virginia University
Radio man Herbert Morrison was born in 1905 in Pennsylvania.
He married Mary Jane Kelly and had no children. He grew up in Pennsylvania and
later moved to West Virginia. He worked in news and television broadcasting for
many years, becoming best known for his news broadcast of the Hindenburg
tragedy that is still recalled to this day. Morrison died in 1989.
A century ago, when communication
devices like the radio, phonographs, and the telephone were still in their
infancy, Herbert Morrison was born and raised in a rather typical western
Pennsylvania working family. Living in an area famous for coal production, he
might have looked forward one day to working in one of the nearby coalmines or
coke factories. He could not have known then that his life choices, and a
chance series of events nearly thirty years later, would make his name, and
especially his voice, synonymous with one of the great tragedies of the
Morrison was born on May 14th, 1905
in the small town of Connellsville, Pennsylvania, about 50 miles southeast of
Pittsburgh near Scottdale. He was the son of Walter Lindsay and Bertha Oglevee
Morrison. By the time Morrison was five years old, the family was living on
Market Street in nearby Scottdale Borough, three miles north of Connellsville.
The family did not include his father, who passed away when Morrison was just a
toddler. According to the 1910 U.S. census, the household included his widowed
mother, his grandmother, an older brother, and an adult cousin, Nettie Herbert,
who worked as a stenographer at a local “sheet mill.” In addition to the
several members of his family, two boarders paid to live with the Morrisons and
served to provide an extra source of income. Morrison’s brother, Walter, was
four years his elder and sometimes went by his middle name, Franklin.
Herbert Morrison’s mother supported
their family by holding several jobs over the ensuing years while continuing to
welcome extended family and boarders. When Morrison was fourteen years old, his
mother was employed as a saleslady in a jewelry store. Ten years later, in
1930, she worked as a radiotrician in Scottdale. Little did she know that her
position in communications foreshadowed Morrison’s future vocation. It’s surely
possible that her job influenced Morrison who was now 24, still living at home,
and working a dead end job as a salesman in a shoe store. Seven years later, he
would be working in a new profession that would change the course of his life.
At some point after 1930, Morrison
was employed as a news reporter for WLS, a large AM radio station affiliated
with NBC News, in Chicago, Illinois. Because radio technology was relatively
primitive in the 1930s, radio broadcasts were either aired live or not at all.
WLS reluctantly allowed Morrison to go to New Jersey to experiment with new
recording technology that allowed audio reports to be aired at a later date. On
Thursday, May 6, 1937, Morrison and his partner Charles Nehlsen, a recording
engineer, were in Lakehurst, New Jersey to report on the arrival of the German
zeppelin, the Hindenburg, on her maiden voyage.
Running several hours behind
schedule, the Hindenburg appeared over Lakehurst around 7:30 p.m. Many years
later in an interview with Julia Martinez, a reporter for the Los Angeles
Times, Morrison recalled, “It was getting dark and a little drizzle of rain had
started. The landing crew was spread out around the landing strip. We could see
the Hindenburg coming in and down and down and down. About ten minutes out, I
started talking into the microphone.” At the time everything seemed to be going
as planned. “I was talking about what it meant to the United States to have
this connection with Germany and how it showed the success of air travel. I
hardly had the words out of my mouth when-wow-I heard an explosion.” Morrison
recalled the event, saying, “People around me gasped. They started crying and
screaming. We could see things falling out of the Hindenburg… Some of the
things were people.”
During the forty-two minute
broadcast, Morrison’s demeanor quickly changed from one of awe and inspiration
to one of horror. He began poetically, “Toward us, like a great feather…It is
practically standing still now…the back motors are holding to just enough to
keep it…” And then, horrified, he exclaims “…it’s bursting into flame! This is
terrible! One of the worst catastrophes in the world! The flames are 500 feet
into the sky!” Morrison continued, “Oh, the humanity . . . all the
passengers . . . I don’t believe . . . I can’t even talk to people whose
friends are on there. . . . It’s a, it’s a . . . I can’t talk, ladies and
gentlemen. Honest, it just lays there, a mass of smoking wreckage.” This is
most significant because Morrison was the only broadcast reporter on the scene
to cover the arrival of the zeppelin. Additionally, Morrison was relying solely
on instinct at the time, as there had been no precedents or standards for
unscripted news broadcasts. According to a later account, Morrison was
broadcasting in New Jersey at the invitation of American Airlines as a
publicity stunt. Whether this is true or not, he was definitely in the right
place at the right time. He became famous for his broadcast that day.
The tapes of the tragedy were items
of great value to other curious reporters as well as an even more concerned
group of Nazi agents in the United States. A future friend of Morrison’s would
have this to say:
I thought the most interesting thing he ever told me was that following the
Hindenburg crash, a number of ‘brown shirts’ from Nazi Germany followed him on
his train back to Chicago from New Jersey. They wanted to take the recording he
made so that it would not be broadcast and embarrass Germany. Somehow, he found
out about their pursuit and managed to evade them by staying with crowds of
people on the train all the way back to Chicago. The recording was broadcast
the day after the crash.
In the years following the explosion
of the Hindenburg, Morrison held several different jobs in assorted radio and
television stations in Pittsburgh. We can be sure that his work after the
disaster was never as interesting as the events that unfolded that fateful day,
but we do know that Morrison loved his work in broadcasting, and he continued
for many years. For the next few decades, he worked in Pittsburgh for radio
stations such as KQV, WJAS, WCAE and for WTAE-TV. In 1958, he was named the
television station WTAE’s first news director. “He talked about [the
Hindenburg] once in a while,” said Charles McGrath, 64, a cinematographer at
WTAE while Morrison served as a news director at the station. “What struck me
about him and that incident is he never got over it. He was beside himself on
that recording. I think it always stayed with him. It followed him all his
After moving to Morgantown, West
Virginia - his wife’s hometown - in 1970, he was often called upon to remember
his famous broadcast for news outlets, especially on significant anniversaries
of the event. He also involved himself with West Virginia University where he
lectured and helped develop a radio and television program for the University
Relations department at WVU. Charles Cremer, a journalism professor at West
Virginia University invited Morrison into his classroom many times is the
1970s. “I would play the recording of the Hindenburg radio program for my class
and then he would embellish it. He was modest and humble. He understood it
could have been anyone behind that microphone and thought he owed it to the
world to make his story known whenever he was asked. He never seemed to tire of
telling his story.”
Morrison died on January 11, 1989,
of pneumonia in Sundale Nursing Home in Morgantown where he spent his last
years. He lived to be 83 years old, certainly enough time to reflect on his
extraordinary life. His wife, Mary Jane survived him until, at 88 years old,
she passed away on July 23, 2000 in Scottdale Manor Rehabilitation.
Although he had no children to
extend his legacy, his expressions of shock have been remembered for many
years. Morrison’s phrase “Oh the humanity!” would be repeated countless times
in spin offs and other television programs. One Thanksgiving episode of
makes light of the Hindenburg tragedy as a news broadcaster
is on the scene of a “Turkey Drop.” At first the reporter notices objects
falling from a helicopter and gradually gets more concerned as he realizes they
are turkeys plummeting to the earth! He exclaims “Oh the humanity” just as
Morrison did in 1937. In more recent years it was used in an episode of The
Simpsons entitled “Lisa the Beauty Queen” and an episode of South Park entitled “The Simpsons Already Did It” to add dramatic irony to a minor
catastrophe. We can be sure without a doubt that Morrison and his timeless
broadcast will live in the minds of people forever.
Census Place: Scottdale Ward 3, Westmoreland, Pennsylvania; Roll T624_1432;
Page: 3B; Enumeration District: 193; Image: 75.
- Allison, Rhonda. Telephone Interview. 8 Feb. 2010.
- Atkins, Paul. Telephone Interview. 8 Feb. 2010.
- Cremer, Charles. Telephone Interview. 8 Feb. 2010.
- Dorsey, Steve. “Five Things: About the Hindenburg.”
McClatchy - Tribune Business News 4 May 2007 [Washington] . ProQuest. 1
Feb. 2010. <http://proquest.umi.com/>.
- Heise, Kenan. “Herbert Morrison: Gave Report on
Hindenburg.” Chicago Tribune 11 Jan. 1989, c edition ed.: 13.
- Hindenburg Disaster with Sound. Narrator: Herbert Morrison. WLS Radio, 1937. Video
- Martinez, Julia. “People Falling From The Sky: Radio
Reporter Recalls Tragedy That Seared Life.” Los Angeles Times 3 May
1987, bulldog ed.: 2.
- “Obituary: ‘Hindenburg Announcer’ H.O. Morrison.” Pittsburgh
Press 11 Jan. 1989: B6.
This biography was prepared by David
Tony, Spring 2010.