Thursday, January 22, 2009

Alfred Bernhardt


Crew Member

Age: 31

Hometown: Charlottenburg

Occupation: Helmsman

Location at time of fire: Bow, mooring shelf

Died in hospital


Alfred Bernhardt was born on October 28, 1905 in Charlottenburg. He was a career officer in the Merchant Marine, having gone to sea in 1924 at the age of 18. By 1929 he was a 4th officer with the HAPAG shipping line, and in 1931 he received his patent papers as Kapitän auf großer Fahrt, which meant that he was certified to captain commercial seagoing vessels anywhere in the world.

Bernhardt was also a pilot, and in January of 1934 he became a navigation instructor at the flight school in Braunschweig. Three years later, on January 1st, 1937, Alfred Bernhardt was hired by the Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei as an officer candidate. He was assigned to the LZ 129 Hindenburg as a helmsman, but as was the case with many of the recent hires from the Merchant Marine, the idea was to train him for eventual assignment as part of the command crew of one of the new airships that the DZR intended to put into service over the next few years. Before long, Alfred Bernhardt would have, in all likelihood, been given an airship command of his own.

Bernhardt was aboard the Hindenburg's first North American flight of 1937, standing watch at the ship's rudder wheel along with fellow helmsmen Kurt Schönherr and Helmut Lau. As the ship approached the mooring mast at Lakehurst at the end of the flight on the evening of May 6th, Alfred Bernhardt was on standby watch. As such, his landing station was in the extreme bow of the ship on the mooring shelf. Along with rigger Erich Spehl, elevatorman Ludwig Felber, and senior elevatorman Ernst Huchel, Bernhardt was assisting with the lowering of the ship's landing ropes as well as the steel mooring cable that would be used to winch the ship down to its mooring mast.

Alfred Bernhardt's approximate location at the time of the fire.
(Hindenburg structural diagram courtesy of David Fowler)
Bernhardt and the others had just begun to let the mooring cable down when the Hindenburg caught fire. As the ship's stern dropped, leaving the forward section pointed high into the air, the fire burst straight out through the bow, engulfing Bernhardt and the others.
By some stroke of fate, however, Bernhardt was pulled alive from the Hindenburg's wreckage. Harry J. King, who operated the baggage service for the DZR at Lakehurst, drove Bernhardt and other survivors to the air station infirmary in the back of his truck. Bernhardt was then taken to Fitkin Memorial Hospital in Neptune, NJ where he appears to have never regained consciousness. He was badly burned enough that nobody was able to recognize him, and doctors cut two rings from his fingers and had a news photographer take a picture of them in an effort to find somebody who could identify him. He died in the early morning hours of Friday, May 7, 1937, and his body was not identified until six hours after his death.
Several days after the disaster, Harry Kane found a wedding ring in the back of his truck. Assuming that it belonged either to one of the survivors whom he'd driven to the infirmary or else to one of the crash victims whose bodies he had transported away from the wreck in his truck, Kane returned the ring to the proper authorities. It turned out to have belonged to Alfred Bernhardt. Kane later received the following letter from Zeppelin Company officials:
"The wedding ring is apparently the property of Alfred Bernhardt, a crew member who died in the disaster. I'm sure that his wife will greatly appreciate the ring, particularly inasmuch as she is expecting a child very soon.
Alfred Bernhardt was buried at the Frankfurter Hauptfriedhof cemetery in Frankfurt, in a common grave alongside six other Hindenburg crew members who lost their lives in the fire. His name, along with those of the others, is inscribed on a monument over the grave site.
Alfred Bernhardt's name inscribed on crew memorial in Frankfurter Hauptfriedhof cemetery.

Thanks 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 Bernhardt's career, and to Dr. Cheryl Ganz for providing me with a copy of the article.
Special thanks also to Doug and Lena King for the information about Doug's father, Harry J. King.

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