Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Richard Kollmer

Crew Member

Age: 22

Hometown: Zeppelinheim, Germany

Occupation: Mechanic

Location at time of fire: Lower fin


Richard Kollmer was one of the Hindenburg's engine mechanics. He had been flying as a Zeppelin mechanic for a couple of years, having made a total of 24 trips with both the Hindenburg and her older sister ship the Graf Zeppelin.

Kollmer was aboard the Hindenburg's first North American flight of 1937. As the Hindenburg approached the landing field at Lakehurst at the end of the flight on May 6th, Kollmer was on standby watch in the crew's mess, talking with Theodor Ritter, a new mechanic trainee who was on his first transatlantic flight, and assigned to the same engine gondola as Kollmer. Throughout the flight, the two of them had stood their watches in engine car #3, portside forward, along with chief mechanic Eugen Bentele. Now, as the signal for landing stations sounded, Kollmer took his landing station in the lower fin, where he was in charge of the aft landing wheel just forward of Ring 33.5. His superior officer, Chief Engineer Rudolf Sauter, was at the telephone just ahead of him, relaying orders from the control car, and helmsman Helmut Lau was also there, moving between the windows and the variometer just forward of Kollmer's spot. Rigger Hans Freund was at the top of the ladder leading out of the fin, lowering the stern spider lines through hatches in the belly of the ship.

Richard Kollmer's location at the time of the fire.

Kollmer, sitting down over the landing wheel and looking aft, put the wheel into the "down" position in preparation for landing, turned the wheel in the general direction of the wind, and was watching the ground crew through the small open hatchway next to him in the side of the fin. Suddenly, Kollmer noticed a bright, reddish-pink reflection on the girders above him the thought "Fire!" immediately flashed through his mind. Kollmer then heard an explosion, which he subsequently likened in volume to "the firing of a gun, a small gun or rifle." He looked up and saw that the ship was indeed on fire. In the split second that it had taken him to react, the fire had spread from its origin point in or near cell #4, and by the time Kollmer looked up, the fire was already "overhead in the fabric". He held on as the tail of the ship dropped to the ground, and when the lower fin hit the ground, it collapsed over on its left side. Kollmer looked for a way out and found that the hatch leading out the starboard (now upper) side of the fin was clear. He climbed out and was immediately followed by Freund, Lau, and Sauter. Once outside, Kollmer picked himself up and ran, later joking that "I could have won an Olympic gold medal." Other than some minor burns and an injured leg, Kollmer was virtually unhurt, as were the other three occupants of the lower fin.

Kollmer, along with fellow mechanic Eugen Bentele, was put in an ambulance and taken to Fitkin Memorial Hospital in Asbury Park. He testified before the Board Of Inquiry on May 18th, and after slightly more than two weeks in America, Richard Kollmer returned to Germany onboard the steamship Bremen with a group of other surviving crew members. He flew as a mechanic on the LZ-130 when that ship was commissioned in 1938.

During the Second World War, Kollmer was drafted by the Luftwaffe and, because of his talents as an engine mechanic, he was stationed at Friedrichshafen at the aircraft motor factory. After the war, Kollmer bicycled north to his home in Zeppelinheim, only to find that it had been confiscated by Allied forces for use as a barracks. His wife had been given four hours notice that she had to move, and was forbidden from taking any furnishings – only small personal items.

Before he'd gone off to do his military service Kollmer, however, had hidden his car away in a shed nearby so that it wouldn't be confiscated by the Nazis in his absence. When he returned, he found that it was still there. During the war, an incendiary bomb had crashed through the roof of the shed and, fortunately, landed without exploding. The only damage to the car was that the contents of the bomb had leaked out across the shed floor and dissolved the tires. Richard Kollmer drove that car around Frankfurt as a taxi, and over the years it eventually developed a successful business – his last fleet of cabs were Mercedes.

The Kollmers weren't allowed back to their home until 1950, but by then their Allied "guests" hadn't left much anyway. Richard Kollmer built a new house by hand, in Zeppelinheim, just down the road from the town hall. He passed away in the late 1990s.

Richard Kollmer in his later years.

(Thanks to Hank Applegate for providing information about Richard Kollmer's post-war experiences.)

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