Friday, January 16, 2009

Herbert Dowe

Crew Member

Age: 31

Hometown: Arnswalde, Germany

Occupation: Radio Operator

Location at time of fire: Radio room above control car


Herbert Dowe was one of four radio operators aboard the Hindenburg on her final flight, the others being Franz Eichelmann, Egon Schweikard, and Chief Radio Officer Willy Speck. Born on July 6, 1905, Dowe had been a radio operator since 1925, serving on Hamburg-America Line steamships before being hired by the Zeppelin Company sometime in 1935 or very early 1936. He then served as the Chief Radio Officer on the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin throughout 1936.

Herbert Dowe (left) and Walter Dumke (right) in the radio room of the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin, circa 1936. (photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

Dowe's first flight aboard the Hindenburg was the ship's first North American flight of 1937. Since the Graf Zeppelin was due to be retired from passenger service later that year, to be replaced by the soon-to-be-completed LZ-130, Graf Zeppelin crew members like Dowe were gradually being given flight time aboard the Hindenburg so as to become familiar with the newer class of Zeppelins. Dowe's duties were fairly standard for a radio officer aboard one of the transatlantic Zeppelins, involving the monitoring of weather services, nearby ships and airplanes, and the various German and English press services, transmitting and receiving messages for passengers, maintaining the ship's radio log, and so forth. Dowe found the Hindenburg's radio equipment to be very modern, and in perfect working order throughout the flight. He noticed some static in his headphones during the last afternoon of the flight, but this improved as they made their way to the air station at Lakehurst, despite the thunderstorms in the vicinity.

As the Hindenburg came in to land at Lakehurst, Dowe was in the radio room up in the keel above the control car, having been on watch since 4:00 that afternoon. He had sent one last message at approximately 6:00 to one of the American stations for relay to Radio Quickborn, Hamburg. The message read simply: "READY FOR LANDING BAD WEATHER". When the signal for landing stations was sounded shortly after 7:00 PM, fellow radio operator Egon Schweikard joined Dowe in the radio room. Before shutting down the transmitter and generators and reeling in the antennae on orders from Chief Speck, Dowe transmitted one final signal of acknowledgment to Lakehurst in response to the naval air station's last message from a few minutes earlier advising the Hindenburg's commander to make "the earliest possible landing." Dowe and Schweikard then stayed in the radio room listening on a battery-powered receiver for any incoming messages from Lakehurst as Chief Speck descended the ladder into the rear of the control car to watch the landing.

Herbert Dowe's location at the time of the fire.

Suddenly, Dowe heard a metallic tearing sound from somewhere within the ship and felt a heavy shake. Puzzled, he glanced out of the tiny radio room window at the ground below and saw "a flame as if somebody made a photographic exposure with a flashlight." It quickly became obvious that the ship was on fire, and as the ship tilted down by the stern, Dowe tore off his headphones and shouted "Raus!" to Schweikard, who then made his way to the hatch outside of the radio room and climbed down to the control car just ahead of Dowe. A water tank in the hull above the control car had burst, and as Dowe descended the ladder to the control car, water poured down from above, soaking his back.

In the time that it took Dowe and Schweikard to climb down the ladder into the control car so that they could jump out one of the windows, the forward section of the ship had almost reached the ground. As he made his way to a window, Dowe noticed that the floor of the control car was covered with maps and books which had spilled out of the drawers in the navigation room. He finally managed to leap out one of the rear windows of the control car just as the ship was settling to earth for the last time. He was able to run only a few yards before the ship's frame collapsed over him.

Trapped for the moment by not only the ship's framework, but also by a large portion of the outer cover above the control car, which had settled around the gondola like a blanket, Dowe threw himself to the ground. The heat was intolerable, and despite being protected somewhat by his wet clothing, Dowe began to burn on his head, face, and hands. He attempted to bury his head, feet and hands in the wet sand in order to shield them from the flames. As it was, Dowe was badly burned in the time that it took for the outer cover to burn away so that he could escape. But in the end he did escape, running to safety through a tangle of glowing girders and wires. He stumbled over pieces of framework a few feet before he got completely outside the wreckage, and two members of the ground crew took hold of him and pulled him clear. They led him to a nearby car which drove him to the air station's dispensary.

Herbert Dowe survived the fire and was taken to Fitkin Memorial Hospital in Neptune, NJ, where he spent six weeks recovering from his burns, testifying from a wheelchair in the hospital to members of the Board of Inquiry on May 26th. When he was well enough to travel, Dowe returned to Germany, where he survived the war and became a businessman in Kirchrode, a suburb of Hannover, where he lived with his wife and three stepsons. He retired at the age of 70 and passed away on March 26th, 1985 at the age of 79.

Herbert Dowe at age 76, circa 1982.

Special thanks to Hans-Henning Konerding, Herbert Dowe's stepson, who provided the two portrait photos of Dowe, as well as some factual corrections.

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