Walter Banholzer was one of the Hindenburg's engine mechanics. Born on born on June 18th, 1908 in the town of Rottweil, Banholzer apprenticed as a machinist. He sought work as an engineer candidate at various shipping companies before finding work with Daimler-Benz. On August 2nd, 1935, Banholzer was hired by Luftschiffbau Zeppelin, where he worked as a technician in the testing department as the Hindenburg entered the final stages of construction. As of January 1st, 1936, Banholzer was hired by the Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei as an engine mechanic, and he subsequently flew on the Hindenburg beginning with her first test flight on March 4th, 1936, and served aboard her throughout the 1936 flight season.
Walter Banholzer and an unidentified friend at Lakehurst, NJ in 1936.
Walter Banholzer (arrow) with the Schachverein Rottweil (Rottweil Chess Society) in 1937.
In between flights, Banholzer still found time to be active in the Rottweil Chess Society, and as of early 1937 he was engaged to a young lady from Rottweil, whom he planned to marry later that year.
On the Hindenburg's first North American flight of 1937, Banholzer was assigned to engine gondola #1, starboard aft, along with fellow mechanics Josef Schreibmüller and Rudi Bialas. He was off-watch when the ship came into Lakehurst to land at the end of the flight on May 6th, and was sitting in the crew's mess with several other shipmates. When an order came through from the control car for six men to go forward to help trim the tail-heavy ship, Banholzer and five others (fellow engine mechanic Alfred Stöckle, electrician Josef Leibrecht, cooks Alfred Grözinger and Richard Müller, and assistant cook Fritz Flackus) made their way toward the bow. Banholzer took a spot somewhere along the stairway leading up the keel to the mooring shelf.
(Hindenburg structural diagram courtesy of David Fowler)
When the Hindenburg caught fire a few minutes later, the fire blasted forward through the center of the ship and poured out of the bow. All but two of the men stationed there (Grözinger and Bauer, who were further aft and standing above large air vents) were engulfed in flame, and most of them leaped to the ground while the ship was still relatively high in the air.
It is unknown whether Banholzer jumped, or whether he somehow managed to hold on and ride the ship to the ground. Either way, he survived the initial crash and slowly made his way out of the wreckage.
U.S. Navy ground crewman Max Coleman saw Banholzer trying to free himself from the wreckage, and ran to help. Almost 70 years later, he would recall the experience for a British television program on the disaster.
"When it got on the ground we turned around and went back toward the ship. The place that I got my man out, I wouldn't have gone in there at all! I mean, he come walking out of a wall of flame! It's so remarkable that he could live just enough to get away from the ship. And he was having trouble getting over this girder that was about knee-high, and I just took ahold of his hand, and I said "Step up," and he stepped up and over the girder."
"And I took him away from the ship. I just stopped and took his clothes off of him, see, flicking the fire off of him. Well, I put my fingers in that belt, it just fell apart, just like it was ashes. And my hands smelled for a month. Smelled just like that burning flesh."
(Excerpt from Max Coleman's interview from the docu-drama "Hindenburg: Titanic of the Skies", Pioneer Productions, 2007.)
As Coleman and the DZR official lead Banholzer to safety, a dazed Captain Ernst Lehmann can be seen in the background.
With his smoldering clothing stripped completely off of him, Walter Banholzer was taken to the Lakehurst Naval Air Station's infirmary for first aid. Though severely burned over most of the upper half of his body, he was still lucid enough to have somebody send a telegram home to his family to let them know that he was alive. Banholzer was then taken to nearby Paul Kimball Hospital in Lakewood, where watch officer Walter Ziegler stayed by his side throughout the night.
Unfortunately, Banholzer had spent several minutes or more trapped in the burning wreckage of the Hindenburg before he was able to free himself, and was too badly injured to survive. He died at 3:20 in the morning on Friday, May 7th, 1937. Captain Ziegler was with him when he died, and closed the young mechanic's eyes after he passed. His body was returned to Germany via steamship the following week for burial.
With the money she received from the German government upon her son's death, Walter Banholzer's mother built a house, which the people of Rottweil referred to as "Hindenburgbau."
Special thanks to Herr Jens Buengel for providing personal information about Walter Banholzer.
Special thanks also to Michael Pavlovic for providing the portrait photo of Walter Banholzer, but moreover for helping me to positively identify Banholzer in the photos taken of him after the fire, and to finally correct an error that has persisted since 1937.
The U.S. Commerce Department's Board of Inquiry into the Hindenburg disaster assembled a diagram (similar to the diagram shown above) showing the approximate locations of each of the crew members at the time of the fire. Walter Banholzer was erroneously shown on this diagram as having been stationed in the aft starboard engine gondola, and as such every subsequent mention of him in connection with the Hindenburg disaster has placed him in the wrong part of the ship. Michael Pavlovic provided me with some key pieces of information that helped me to work out Banholzer's actual landing station, and so Walter Banholzer's story is told here with some degree of accuracy for the first time.
Thanks also to Herr Manfred Sauter of the Freundeskreis zur Förderung des Zeppelin Museums e.V., whose memorial article on the Hindenburg crew members who lost their lives at Lakehurst (Zeppelin Brief, No. 59, June 2011) provided additional details on Banholzer's career, and to Dr. Cheryl Ganz for providing me with a copy of the article.