Hometown: Friedrichshafen, Germany
Occupation: Chief Electrician
Location at time of fire: Electrical center, amidships
Philipp Lenz was born in the town of Klein Linden (now a district of Gießen) on May 26, 1891, the son of Johannes and Marie Elisabeth Lenz. In 1906, both of Lenz's parents died of tuberculosis within four months of one another, leaving the 15 year-old Philipp to look after the rest of his six brothers and sisters until various relatives could take them in. Lenz took work as a lathe operator, and then at age 21 he left Klein Linden and moved to Schwenningen, 200 miles away. Here he found work at the municipal electric company where he worked for a few years before taking a job with the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin in Friedrichshafen in 1915. Lenz worked in the factory's maintenance department until he was called to serve in the military during the first World War.
After the war, Lenz studied electrical engineering at a technical school in Köln, and later got his Master's certificate. He then returned to the Luftschiffbau where he helped to install the electrical systems in a pair of small passenger airships then being built – LZ-120 Bodensee and LZ-121 Nordstern. After these ships were taken over by the Allies as war reparations, Lenz worked on electrical installations for the LZ-126, a Zeppelin being built for the United States Navy, and later for the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin, which made its first trial flights in 1928.
Lenz also married, and though he and his wife Josefine had no children of their own, they raised Josefine's two children from her first marriage, Elsa and Walter.
The electrical systems on the Zeppelins and their maintenance requirements had become increasingly complex, and therefore Lenz was asked to serve as a member of the Graf Zeppelin's flight crew. He flew regularly with the Graf Zeppelin thereafter as Chief Electrician, and participated in high-profile flights such as the round-the-world flight in August of 1929, the Arctic flight in 1931, and the 1933 "Triangle Flight" from Germany to Rio de Janeiro to North America and back to Germany. Lenz's nephew, Hanfried Lenz, would recall many years later how in the mid 1930s, when Hanfried was a small boy, one of the Zeppelins flew very low over Klein Linden and one of the crew leaned out a window waving a towel. "That was my uncle, Philipp Lenz."
Between Graf Zeppelin flights, Philipp Lenz helped to install the electrical systems in Luftschiffbau Zeppelin's new ship, the LZ-129 Hindenburg. He transferred to the Hindenburg when she was put into service in March of 1936, serving once again as the ship's Chief Electrician.
The Hindenburg's first North American flight of 1937 was relatively uneventful for Lenz and his two assistants, electricians Ernst Schlapp and Josef Leibrecht. No fuses had blown during the flight, and other than the fact that Chief Engineer Rudolf Sauter had had to replace a fuel pump on the diesel generator, there were no real problems with the ship's electrical system at all.
As the ship came in to land at Lakehurst, Lenz and Schlapp were at their landing station in the switch room, just forward of the generator room amidships. As the two of them watched the landing through the windows in the floor of the switch room, Lenz suddenly felt a light shock run through the ship and heard a dull explosion or a crashing sound, though he couldn't be sure it was an explosion, because the noise from the generator engine was such that it drowned out a lot of external sound. Initially, Lenz thought it might be a landing rope breaking, but when he heard the accompanying sound of breaking metal and saw a reddish reflection on the ground outside the window he knew the ship was on fire.
He called out to his assistant, "The ship is burning!"and Schlapp immediately ran out the air-lock to the keel walkway. A moment later the ship settled heavily by the stern, twisting the doorway and trapping Lenz in the switch room. He thought to himself that at least Schlapp had managed to save himself. It occurred to Lenz that he ought to shut down the generators and throw out the electrical switches, but there simply wasn't time. As the tail of the ship crashed to the ground, the portion of the hull around the generator room telescoped into the ground, collapsing in upon itself. Lenz was trapped in the switch room, but was fortunate that, to prevent stray hydrogen from coming in contact with the electrical equipment, the entire power station was pressurized and insulated from the rest of the ship by layers of sheet metal. At first, the room held tight against the fire, likely buying Lenz some time.
Electrical center switch room where Philipp Lenz was at the time of the fire. View looking aft, with generator room visible through door. Note bullet-shaped gyrocompass hood at left, which Lenz used to shield his head during the fire. (photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)
Finally, flames began licking through the ceiling of the switch room, and the air became incredibly hot and was growing even hotter. Lenz grabbed the large metal hood for the ship's gyrocompass and stuck his head inside it to shield his face. The air around him grew hotter still, to the point where he could barely breathe, and he thought to himself, "This is the end,"
Lenz would later recall:
"Since the electrical center was built of aluminum, I survived the impact without injury. But then the fire from the burning fuel oil began to burn through the ceiling of my dungeon, threatening to bake me like a clay pipe. Apparently I had just enough time to keep the flames away from my head using the cover from the gyrocompass, but my clothes were already burning and as the fire consumed the oxygen I was in danger of suffocating. Only a miracle was going to save me now."
That miracle, fortunately, was not long in coming. Lenz suddenly turned around and saw a familiar face peering into the ship from the outside, just past the mass of wreckage that lay beyond what was left of the switch room's window. It was Emil Hoff, a representative from Esso Oil who had been onhand to deliver the ship's supply of lubricating oil for the return flight.
"With my last energy, I climbed through the window of my prison, then looked for and found a path through the ever growing sea of fire. Halfway out, I was caught in a tangle of wires and girders, but I was able to free myself again and burst outside into the arms of my friend."
Hoff grabbed hold of Lenz and, aided by Harry Thomas, a naval electrician who was part of the ground crew, pulled the injured German electrician to safety.
Philipp Lenz survived the Hindenburg disaster, whereas his assistant, Ernst Schlapp, was trapped in the falling wreckage and never made it out alive. Lenz suffered a broken leg and serious burns, and spent the next six weeks in hospital at Fitkin Memorial in Asbury Park, NJ. He eventually returned to Germany, where he resumed his duties as Chief Electrician onboard the Hindenburg’s sister ship, the LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin, when it made its first flight in September of 1938.
After the war, Lenz continued on as an electrician with Luftschiffbau-Zeppelin into the 1970s, long after the manufacturing firm had stopped building airships and retooled to build other industrial items.
Philipp Lenz passed away in 1975 at the age of 84.