Residence: Bonn, Germany
Location at time of fire: B-deck, starboard hallway
Karl Otto Clemens was a young press photographer from Bonn, where he ran a camera shop and photographer's studio on the Münsterplatz. He was traveling to the United States to visit his second cousin, Mrs. Hilda Neandross, in the town of Ridgefield, NJ. A rather frail man who, as a child, had suffered from rheumatic fever, Clemens was also making the trip for rest and relaxation. He made arrangements with the Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei to take in-flight photographs of the Hindenburg for their publicity department in exchange for a reduced, half-price fare.
On Monday, May 3rd, 1937, Clemens assembled at the Frankfurter Hof with other passengers awaiting the bus ride out to Frankfurt's Rhein-Main airfield. DZR officials had made it clear that due to safety and security issues, he was not to bring flashbulbs or photographic processing chemicals onboard the Hindenburg. His photographic equipment, therefore, consisted of four cameras (including a Leica and a Contax) and several cartons of film (some of which was color.) Nonetheless, customs inspectors thoroughly searched his luggage until they were satisfied that it contained no proscribed items.
The man at the far right edge of this photo (indicated by arrow) may be Karl Otto Clemens. Fellow passenger Lt. Claus Hinkelbein is at left, watching icebergs through one of the Hindenburg's observation windows. Image is from home movies shot during the flight by passenger Joseph Späh.
He roamed the ship often during the flight, taking photographs. Dr. Kurt Rüdiger, the ship's physician, accompanied him around the ship, primarily to double-check that Clemens wasn't using flash bulbs. Clemens shot pictures of the interior of the ship, including the auxiliary control stand in the lower fin. He also took shots of the ground below from the unusual vantage point of the ship's engine gondolas, and at noon on the last day of the flight, managed to catch the engine mechanics during a watch change and took several photographs of them clambering to and from the forward starboard engine gondola along its narrow access catwalk.
An engine mechanic crosses over to engine car #3. This may possibly be one of the photos that Clemens took during a watch change on May 6th, 1937.
As the Hindenburg came in to land at Lakehurst on the evening of May 6th, Clemens was in the portside dining room. The story that is usually told of Clemens' subsequent escape - that he was snapping photos through the dining room window when the fire started, that he then turned to fellow passenger John Pannes and told him to jump but Pannes wouldn't leave without his wife, and that Clemens then jumped from the portside dining room window - is actually not exactly what happened. Recent translation of a brief radio interview that Clemens did after his escape has shown that the details were somewhat different than what has been commonly written over the years. The facts seem to be these:
When the ship began its final approach to the mooring mast, Clemens decided to go downstairs to his cabin (one of the new deluxe cabins that had just been installed for the 1937 season) to get his suitcase. As he reached the bottom of the stairs, he encountered John Pannes, who was waiting for his wife Emma to get her coat out of their cabin which, like Clemens', was just aft of where they were standing. It's not known whether the two men had time to chat or to look out of the windows lining the floor of the B-deck hallway in which they were standing. Clemens may have taken a couple of photos of the ground crew through these windows (as has also been attributed to him). Or it's equally possible that Clemens merely had time to reach the bottom of the stairs. Suddenly, he saw a flash outside the windows and felt the entire ship shudder and shake.
The starboard B-deck hallway where Karl Otto Clemens was standing when the fire broke out. The view is facing toward the bow of the airship, and Clemens jumped through one of the windows at right. (photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)
On the ground, over near the air station's giant Zeppelin hangar, two of Clemens' cousins, Hilda Neandross and Walter McColl, were onhand to meet Clemens. Mrs. Neandross watched with horror as the airship carrying her cousin suddenly "lit up all inside."
Up inside the ship, Clemens hung on as the floor suddenly tilted sharply beneath him. He turned to John Pannes and called to him to jump through one of the windows. But Pannes turned back towards the doorway to the passenger cabins a few feet behind them, saying that he first needed to go find his wife. That was the last that Clemens saw of Mr. Pannes.
As the ship neared the ground, Clemens vaulted over the railing separating the hallway from the row of windows, and dropped through one of the thin celluloid windowpanes. He landed on the ground, then got up and ran before the wreck could fall on him. Of all of the cameras that he had brought with him, Clemens had a single Leica camera around his neck, with which he continued to take photos of the scene before heading off to find his relatives. He was miraculously unhurt.
Meanwhile, Hilda Neandross and Walter McColl had walked over to one of the small airplane hangars, where both U.S. Customs agents and the Zeppelin Company had their offices. They saw that survivors were being brought in, and they waited near the customs area, hoping to hear that Clemens had survived. They began asking anyone they could find if there was any word on their cousin, but in all the confusion, nobody knew anything yet.
Then McColl heard two sailors talking about a survivor who was sitting in one of the customs office's rooms, and asked them who the man was. He was shown to the room where Clemens sat, unscathed but in shock. McColl and Mrs. Neandross found a customs agent, Louis P. Nolan, and asked that Otto be processed so that his family could take him home and, if necessary, find him medical help from there. Nolan jotted down Clemens' information and told him that he was free to go.
As Clemens' relatives were leading him through the crowded airplane hangar, looking for the exit, they were approached by Chicago radio announcer Herb Morrison. Morrison had recording equipment set up in that same hangar, had been making a description of the Hindenburg's landing approach when the fire occurred, and was now looking for survivors to interview. A noticeably stunned Clemens agreed to be interviewed, and briefly told (in German) of his escape. It was most likely Walter McColl who served as his translator.
Morrison: Well, Mr. Clemens, how did you manage to get out alive?
Translator: Wie hast du da rausgekommen?
Clemens: Ich bin, uh... was ist das? Radio?
Clemens: Ja? Ich bin an der Passagierkammer, also unterm Speiseraum, zu meinem Koffer gegangen, und im Moment kommt nun eine Flamme, und das Schiff fängt an zu schwanken, sinkt nach unten, und ich springe dann an der Luke heraus, die unten neben der äh... neben der Bar ist, unten, am unteren Gang wo jetzt die neuen Kabinen eingebaut sind, nicht?
Translator: He was on his way to his cabin when the flames...
Morrison: All right, you tell the folks, will you please?
Translator: He was on his way to his cabin when a flash came, and he jumped out.
Morrison: Jumped out of the cabin?
Translator: Jumped out.
Morrison: And how, uh… and, uh, he didn’t get hurt a bit I understand
Translator: No, he isn’t hurt a bit. He’s not hurt at all.
Morrison: Oh, I’m so thankful for you. I’m so thankful for you. And uh, you tell him in – in your language that we’re thankful that he got out alive.
Translator: Er sagt, er ist sehr dankbar...
The complete English translation for Clemens' statement to Morrison is as follows:
Translator: How did you get out of there?
Clemens: I was... what is this, radio?
Clemens: Yes? I was going to my cabin - that is, under the dining room - for my suitcase, and just then came a fire, and the ship started shaking, sank down, and so I jumped through the window that's down there near the bar, down in the lower hallway where the new cabins are now, you know?
Finally, Clemens and his cousins made it out of the airplane hangar and over to the nearby visitors' parking area. Bypassing the air station's overcrowded infirmary altogether, Walter McColl drove Clemens and Hilda Neandross back to her home in Ridgefield. Once they arrived, Mrs. Neandross sent a cablegram to Clemens' sister, Liesel Stuch, in Bonn. It read simply, "Otto safe." It was the first Frau Stuch knew of the disaster.
Clemens was by now too stunned to talk. He said no more about the disaster, but merely sat at the piano, endlessly playing classical pieces late into the night, chain-smoking cigarettes. His cousin was amazed at the extent of his repertoire, and he just kept on playing, never saying a word.
Otto Clemens had been intending to stay in the United States until June - with trips planned to Chicago and California - and to then fly back to Germany aboard the Hindenburg on a later flight. As it was, he sailed back to Germany aboard the steamship Europa ten days later on May 16th. Throughout the summer of 1937 kept in mail contact with the DZR, asking after his other three cameras, which he hadn't had with him when he jumped from the burning ship. Eventually, one of his plate cameras was salvaged from the wreckage and sent to him in Bonn. Unfortunately, it was irreparable.
Clemens never talked much about his experiences on the Hindenburg after that. He did, however, work out a deal with the DZR to photograph the Hindenburg's new sister ship, the LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin, the following year in 1938. His only stipulation was that he take all of his photographs from the ground.
He later took photographs for the Westdeutscher Beobachter, a state-run newspaper, and also served as a photographer with Organisation Todt, the Third Reich's civil and military engineering division, which was responsible for the construction of, among other things, Germany's Autobahn and the Siegfried Line fortifications along Germany's western border.
In late 1942, Karl Otto Clemens developed an infection following an ear operation. The infection proved fatal, and he passed away on January 3rd, 1943 at the age of 33.
Special thanks to Dr. Caroline Cornelius, who was kind enough to help me to transcribe and translate Karl Otto Clemens' interview with Herb Morrison, without which I would not likely have been able to piece together an accurate version of Clemens' escape story.
I would also like to thank Walter McColl, the grandson of Otto Clemens' cousin Walter McColl. Walt was kind enough to provide a number of factual corrections to this article, as well as some additional information on his grandfather, on Hilda Neandross, and on Otto Clemens.
Thanks also to Cem Akalin, A German journalist who provided me with information about Otto Clemens' later work with the German government, as well as the date of Clemens' death.