Hometown: Untertürkheim, Germany
Location at time of fire: Keel crosswalk to engine car #3
Died, either in wreck or in infirmary
Willi Scheef was born in Untertürkheim, Germany, on November 3rd, 1911. He eventually took an apprenticeship at Untertürkheim's Daimler-Benz motor works. When the factory got the contract to build the engines for the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin's new airship, then under construction and known only by its project number, LZ-129, Scheef was put on the team that built and tested the engines. When the engines were delivered to the Zeppelin factory in Friedrichshafen in 1935, Scheef was one of a group of Daimler-Benz mechanics who were asked to go along to assist in the installation process.
Between the connections he made while at the Zeppelin works, and the glowing recommendations of his supervisors, Scheef was hired on as one of the new airship's in-flight engine mechanics. He was aboard for the airship's maiden flight on March 4th, 1936, by which time it had finally been announced that the new ship was to be named the Hindenburg. Subsequently, Scheef was present for every flight the Hindenburg made throughout 1936 and early 1937.
The Hindenburg carried at least 12 engine mechanics, often with one or two additional trainees, with three men assigned to each of the Hindenburg's four outboard engine gondolas. Willi Scheef, like his fellow mechanics, would stand a two-hour watch every six hours, with two hours off-watch during which he would catch as much sleep as he could. He would then have two hours on standby-watch, during which he would be assigned as needed (to assist in repairs, to pump fuel from the tanks along the ship's keel to the engines, etc.) or, more often than not, would sit in the crew's mess drinking coffee and talking with other crewmen who were also on standby.
During his watch, Scheef would oversee the operation of his engine, listen for any problems, and change the speed of the engine if so ordered by the command crew. If the engine in his charge began running roughly, he would repair it – on his own if possible, and with the help of one or more of the other mechanics and/or the ship's flight engineers if major repairs were necessary.
After the conclusion of the 1936 season, Willi Scheef served an obligatory military stint with a Luftwaffe unit, from December to February, as did a number of his fellow Hindenburg crewmen. He was back with the Hindenburg again when it resumed flights in March, 1937, but after the ship's first South American flight of the year Scheef returned home on leave, since the Hindenburg would not be making another flight until late April.
Scheef arrived home in time for Easter Sunday, and while back in Untertürkheim he proposed to his sweetheart, Berta Gassmann. He then headed back to Frankfurt to rejoin the Hindenburg crew in time for a pair of short sightseeing flights over the Rhineland, and then the first North American flight of 1937.
During the flight to the United States, which began on the evening of May 3rd, Scheef stood watch in engine gondola 3, starboard forward, rotating watches with fellow mechanic Jonny Dörflein and chief mechanic German Zettel. Mechanic trainee Wilhelm Steeb also spent some time observing operations in engine car 3 during the flight. As the ship came in to land at the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, NJ on the evening of May 6th, Scheef, though officially off-watch, was on the lateral crosswalk between the main keel walkway and engine car 3, forward on the starboard side of the ship. It's possible that he was perhaps pumping fuel to the ready-use tanks on the stub keel above the engine gondola.
The approximate reported location of Willi Scheef at the time of the Hindenburg fire, along the lateral catwalk between the main keel walkway and engine gondola #3, starboard forward. Note stairs in background leading up ship's hull to engine gondola. Mechanic in photo is actually Robert Moser, and not Scheef. (photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)
When the Hindenburg caught fire a short time later, Scheef was trapped in the cramped little walkway with no immediate escape route, no nearby windows or hatches through which he could leap.
Willi Scheef either died in the fire, or in the air station's infirmary shortly thereafter. His body was returned home via steamship and he was buried in Untertürkheim on the afternoon of Sunday, May 23rd, 1937.
Many thanks to Herr Eberhard Hahn, president of the Bürgerverein Untertürkheim, for his invaluable help in providing me with photos and biographical information on Willi Scheef, and also to Herr Klaus Enslin for facilitating contact between us.