Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Hans Freund

Crew Member

Age: 31

Hometown: Rothenburg, Germany

Occupation: Rigger

Location at time of fire: Keel walkway, stern of ship, at top of ladder leading down into lower tail fin.


Hans Freund was one of three riggers onboard the last flight of the Hindenburg, the others being Erich Spehl and Chief Rigger Ludwig Knorr. Freund had been flying on Zeppelins since 1930, having made a number of shorter trips on the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin between 1930 and 1932, and then made 16 transatlantic flights on the Graf Zeppelin as a rigger between 1932 and 1935. After the Hindenburg was commissioned in 1936, Freund transferred to the new ship and thereafter made every trip, save one.

As the Hindenburg came in to land at Lakehurst on May 6, 1937, Freund was on standby watch and stationed on the keel walkway aft, near the top of the ladder leading down into the lower tail fin. It was his job to lower the stern landing lines through hatches a meter or so to either side of the walkway. Shortly after he reached his landing station, he lowered several meters of the starboard spider line at Ring 62, just beneath the access ladder leading up the gas vent trunk between gas cells number 4 and 5. He then proceeded to Ring 47, and was in the process of lowering the portside steel landing cable, which during flight was stored down in the lower fin, when the manila rope used to haul the line up from the fin snagged between two bracing wires. He called to helmsman Helmut Lau, who was manning the variometer at the auxiliary control stand in the lower fin, to clear it. Lau climbed partway up the ladder out of the fin and worked the rope loose for Freund, who went back to lowering the steel cable out the belly hatch at Ring 47. He got perhaps a meter or two of the cable lowered.

Hans Freund's location at the time of the fire.

Suddenly, Freund heard "a muffled detonation, a whoom!", and was almost immediately "surrounded by fire... a living Hell." He instinctively leaped down into the lower fin, away from the flames, though later he would not remember anything between the time the fire broke out and the moment he climbed out of the lower fin. As the ship's tail hit the ground, Freund fell on top of Lau as the lower fin collapsed onto its left side. Chief Engineer Rudolf Sauter, who had been supervising the aft landing procedures, yelled at them to climb out the hatch on what had been the starboard side of the fin. Mechanic Richard Kollmer, who had been manning the landing wheel in the lower fin, climbed out first, and Freund followed right behind him, turning to give Lau a hand as he emerged. Freund stumbled clear of the wreckage, and was soon followed by Lau and Chief Sauter. The wind was blowing all the flames and smoke towards the starboard side, and they couldn't see anything. Together, they ran around the stern of the ship to the port side, and were preparing to go into the wreckage to rescue comrades who were trapped in there, screaming. They were restrained by sailors, who were afraid that more fuel tanks would rupture and explode before they could get back out of the wreck.

Hans Freund in the hospital after his escape from the Hindenburg fire.

Amazingly enough, given his proximity to the origin of the fire, Freund escaped with burns on his cheek, his neck, and the back of his head. He was hospitalized for a couple weeks at Royal Pines Hospital in Pinewald, NJ, but was released long enough to give two separate testimonies to the Board of Inquiry convened by the US Department of Commerce. The first, on May 15, 1937, primarily dealt with his landing duties before the fire, the arrangement of the aft landing lines, etc. The second, on May 17, 1937, included his statements on the disaster itself.

Willy von Meister (l.) translating for Hans Freund (r.) at the first of Freund's two appearances before the Board of Inquiry, on Saturday, May 15, 1937.

Hans Freund explaining the locations of the Hindenburg's various landing lines, using a diagram of the ship as a reference, as Willy von Meister (center) and Commander F. W. Knox (left) look on. From Freund's first appearance before the Board, May 15, 1937.

Freund returned to Germany approximately two weeks after the disaster, onboard the steamship Bremen along with a number of other crew survivors, arriving in Bremerhaven on May 28th. He resumed his duties as rigger in September of 1938 when the Hindenburg’s sister ship, the LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin, made its maiden flight.

Hans Freund survived the war, and opened a pub, Der Cafe und Weinstube, in the small, walled city of Rothenburg.


Frank Lin said...

Did Hans Freund really see a flashbulb-like explosion in the central walkway or did he have his back turned from where the fire started?

Patrick Russell said...

Hi Frank,

Freund was facing away from the source of the fire. He was in the process of hauling up the landing line that Lau had helped him to disentangle from the tail fin structure, and the first inkling that he had that anything was wrong was when he heard a "muffled detonation - a whoom!" and suddenly found himself "surrounded by fire."

He never saw a thing before the fire had spread to his location. It was Lau and Sauter down in the lower tail fin who happened to be looking up and forward at the time the fire broke out.

Had Freund not had the lower tail fin right there for him to jump down into, I suspect that he'd have met the same fate as Reisacher and Holderried, the mechanics on trim watch a bit further forward along the keel.

jdkg1129 said...

While traveling in Germany in the summer of 1974 (I think), my boyfriend and I spent a day in Rothenburg, stopping for lunch at a cafe where my boyfriend struck up a conversation in German with the owner. I didn't remember the man's name later, but I always remembered that he had been a rigger on the Hindenberg. It was an amazing connection with someone who miraculously escaped alive, though injured, from a catastrophic explosion. I wish I had taken pictures!

Patrick Russell said...

I'm so glad you found the article here, and were finally able to put a name to your memory. That's so cool that you found yourself at Freund's cafe, and that your boyfriend was able to chat with him in German. (How was the food?) 😁

Herr Freund was incredibly lucky - he was the closest person to the source of that fire, and got out with relatively minor injuries. I'm glad he was able to live a long life running what sounds like a good little business.

jdkg1129 said...

This got me interested in looking through the travel notebook that I kept, and my notes confirm that the year was 1974. In fact, we spent two days in Rothenburg, and the food must have been good since we ate lunch there both days.

July 20: 'rumpsteak lunch in cellar w/Hindenburg model [I remember that it was hanging from the ceiling.] July 21: 'lunch at same place as Sat, talked with Hans Freund, former rigger on the Hindenburg' So I did write his name, but forgot about it over the years.

Price for lunch: rumpsteak, fries, salad 17DM = $6.80 I don't know what I ordered the next day, but the price was 12 DM = $4.80

It was fun to remember a terrific trip with a wonderful boyfriend---not the one that I married, but he was wonderful, too.