Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Eugen Nunnenmacher

Crew Member

Age: Unknown

Hometown: Walldorf, Germany

Occupation: Dining room steward

Location at time of fire: Passenger decks, portside dining salon


Eugen Nunnenmacher was one of the Hindenburg's stewards. He was hired by the Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei in early 1936, and had flown aboard the Hindenburg since her earliest flights.

Nunnenmacher was aboard the Hindenburg on her first North American flight of the 1937 season. On the last evening of the flight, May 6th, while the ship was cruising around over the New Jersey coast, riding out the thunderstorms that were then over the Lakehurst airbase, Chief Steward Kubis had Nunnenmacher bring out a silver tray full of sandwiches for the passengers. Since the landing had been delayed and a full dinner was not scheduled for that evening, the passengers were starting to get hungry. Nunnemacher placed the tray in the starboard lounge, and then set about helping Kubis prepare a table in the portside dining room for U.S Customs officials who would board the ship shortly after landing.

Nunnenmacher and Kubis both noticed one of the passengers, Joseph Späh, nervously pacing the passenger decks, clearly anxious to land. Nunnenmacher tried to placate him, telling him that for safety's sake they had to wait for weather conditions to improve before they attempted a landing. Not long after this, as Chief Steward Kubis was sending Nunnenmacher to collect the empty sandwich tray, Späh became even more distraught, telling them that he'd taken his watch off and accidentally knocked it out one of the open observation windows, and asking if he might be able to find it again when the ship landed. Both Kubis and Nunnenmacher thought Späh's behavior to be particularly odd.

Eugen Nunnenmacher's location at the time of the fire.

Shortly after this incident, as the ship hovered over the landing field and the passengers lined the observation windows, watching the ground crew take up the landing ropes and attach them to the mooring tackle near the mast, Nunnenmacher stood at the middle window on the portside observation deck. Suddenly, he felt the ship shake violently, and lost his footing as the dining room floor tilted aft. He landed between the legs of one of the female passengers, and pulled himself up on the window railing. He saw one of the passengers already sitting up on the windowsill, preparing to jump. Chief Kubis stood at the same window, and Nunnenmacher called to him, "Mr. Kubis! Jump out!" Kubis replied that he couldn't yet jump, as the ship was still too high over the ground.

When the ship neared the ground, the passenger at the center window finally jumped, and Kubis followed several seconds later. Nunnenmacher was right behind Kubis, and finally dropped through the window as the ship's hull collapsed to the ground, falling perhaps 15-20 feet into the sand. Nunnenmacher ran from the ship and as he was running he took off his white steward's jacket and threw it to the ground. He then turned around and ran back to the ship, along with Chief Kubis, joining stewards Fritz Deeg and Max Henneberg under the portside observation windows. Deeg caught the two young Doehner boys as their mother threw them out a window, and Nunnenmacher watched as Kubis helped Mrs. Doehner away once she had followed her boys out the window.

Then Nunnenmacher saw Mrs. Doehner's teenage daughter Irene at one of the windows. He called to her, and she jumped into his arms and the two of them fell to the ground together. She was on fire, and Nunnenmacher tried to douse the flames on her back and in her hair, burning his own hands in the process. Captain Bauer came running up and assisted him, and as they extinguished the flames on the girl's body, somebody nearby called out a warning that the wreckage was beginning to sink down closer to the ground. As Nunnenmacher and Bauer carried the badly burned away from the fire, Nunnenmacher saw Dr. Rüdiger, the ship's physician, crawling away from the fire on all fours and called to him to come and help them. Dr. Rüdiger didn't appear to hear him, and Nunnenmacher didn't realize until later that Rüdiger had broken his leg.

They got the girl into an ambulance, and then Nunnenmacher returned again to the ship just in time to assist members of the landing crew as they led a dazed Otto and Elsa Ernst, two of the older passengers, out of the ship through one of the windows on B-deck. Mr. Ernst was about to collapse, and Nunnenmacher took him by the arm, and along with one of the landing crew he helped the elderly couple away from the wreck.

Eugen Nunnenmacher (right) and a civilian ground crew member (left) assist
passengers Otto and Elsa Ernst after their escape from the Hindenburg fire.

Nunnenmacher survived the Hindenburg disaster with only minor burns. He stayed in the States long enough to testify before the US Commerce Department's Board of Inquiry on May 13th, 1937, exactly a week after the disaster. During his testimony, which was through interpreters Karl Loerky and Benjamin Schnitzer, Nunnenmacher avoided mention of the odd behavior of passenger Joseph Späh, evidently preferring to stick with more basic information. He returned to Germany onboard the Europa two days later, along with the surviving members of the ship's steward and kitchen staff.

He did, however, later concur with many of his old shipmates who believed that the Hindenburg had been sabotaged, and like Chief Kubis, tended to point the finger at Joseph Späh, despite the fact that no evidence was ever uncovered to corroborate this theory.

Eugen Nunnenmacher continued to work as a restaurant host throughout the rest of his life. For a time following World War II, he operated the restaurant at the railroad station in Heidenheim, living with his wife in a converted signal tower beside the train tracks. Eventually, they built a café, with an upstairs apartment for themselves.


Scott Williamson said...

Patrick, there is a pretty famous photo of two rescuers escorting Captain Sammt and another survivor who appears to be a passenger (on the far left). I have always wondered who that passenger was. You don't have the photo posted here, but I wonder if you know the answer.

Patrick Russell said...

Hi Scott,

Y'know, I've been trying to figure that out for years now. I've got photos of most of the passengers and he doesn't match up with a single one of them. Those for whom I don't have photos, I've more or less eliminated all of them as matches too... which is obviously impossible. He's one of the passengers, so there's a match there somewhere.

Believe me, I've gone round and round on this one with a couple of my Zep historian buddies, and I'm at a complete loss. Usually I'm pretty good at doing identifications like this with only a couple photos to go on.

Do you have any gut-instinct guesses as to who it might be?

Scott Williamson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scott Williamson said...

Well, the photos you're posting are the first identified photos of passengers I've ever seen (other than the ones whose stories became famous, like Spah and Mather). Since we know Mangone's hair and eyebrows were burnt off, I wondered if it might be him. Doesn't match his other photos. But, burns + shock might have rendered him unrecognizable. Other than that, I couldn't venture a guess since it's difficult to discern the passenger's age from the photo.

Patrick Russell said...

I'd wondered at first about Philip Mangone too, but the guy in that photo doesn't seem anywhere near as badly burned as Mangone was. Seems to have a small cut, burn, or piece of something on his left cheek, maybe some heat cracking to his lips (but not too much) and a few scorch marks on his suit. But beyond that he just seems dazed (understandably so, of course.)

I actually have a second photo of the "mystery passenger" sitting in an ambulance next to the fellow you've seen in another fairly common photo with the two sailors leading him away. Now that guy I've pretty much figured out (for various reasons) is either Alfred Bernhardt or (more likely) Ludwig Felber.

Anyway, the two of them ended up in the same car together once they were led from the wreck, and I've got a news clipping of the picture. The photo is, unfortunately, pretty obviously retouched (as many news photos were back then by the time they hit the printed page) but the "mystery passenger" appears to have a rather prominent, somewhat bird-like nose. I'd also say he's probably middle-aged, looking at the two photos I have of him.

Which, of course, rules out a number of the male passengers, who were either younger or much older.

I almost wonder if it's Erich Knoecher, the fellow from Zeulenroda. I know he was in the hospital until the morning of May 8th, and perhaps he died of something other than burns. But I've never seen a photo of Mr. Knoecher so I have no idea if it might be him or not.

Scott Williamson said...

I'd love to see the other photos you refer to.

What about Leuchtenberg? He was early 60s and the gentleman in the photo does seem to have a little extra "age weight". Or, have you already ruled him out?

Patrick Russell said...

Drop me an e-mail and I'll gladly show you some of the photos I'm talking about.

It's definitely not Leuchtenberg, though. I have his Board of Inquiry testimony, and he was burned a lot worse than this fellow. Plus, I found a photo of him from the 1920s and he definitely doesn't look the same as the "mystery passenger."