Occupation: Chief Radio Officer
Location at time of fire: Control car, aft observation room
Died in hospital
Willy Speck was the Hindenburg's Chief Radio Officer. Born July 1, 1892 in Köln, He had been a part of the Zeppelin family since 1912, flying on a couple of the early DELAG airships, and then heading up the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin's ground-based radio unit until he entered military service in 1916. During the First World War, Speck was assigned to a field communications group attached to a cavalry unit. After the war, Speck rejoined the LZ and DELAG, again as a radio operator, and flew on the LZ-120 Bodensee. Speck first flew across the Atlantic under the command of Dr. Eckener when the Germans delivered the "reparations airship", the LZ-126, to Lakehurst in October of 1924. He also flew on the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin many times, including the round-the-world flight in 1929, before transferring to the Hindenburg as its radio chief in 1936.
Willy Speck (center) Knut Eckener (l.) and Captain Hans von Schiller (r.) with chow puppy at Lakehurst, NJ in 1929. (photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)
Willy Speck in the Hindenburg's radio room, circa 1936
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)
As an "old timer" among the Zeppelin family, Willy Speck was well-regarded by the Zeppelin crew members, and the younger men viewed him as something of a good-natured older brother/father figure. He was aboard the Hindenburg during her first North American flight of the 1937 season. It was just another routine flight, and as the Hindenburg approached Lakehurst at the end of the flight, Speck ordered radio operators Herbert Dowe and Egon Schweikard to shut down the transmitter and reel in the antennae, and then Speck climbed down to the control car to watch the landing.
He was in the observation room at the rear of the control car, watching the ground crew below, when the fire broke out. Speck was hit in the back of the head by wreckage at some point as the ship crashed to the ground, and he lay trapped in or near the control car. Captain Max Pruss, who had initially escaped the wreck with comparatively minor burns, ran back into the flames to rescue his old friend, and in doing so was burned far more seriously.
Speck was dragged alive from the wreckage, and taken to nearby Paul Kimball Hospital. He was critically injured, with a double fracture at the base of his skull, and the next day was moved (along with Captains Max Pruss and Albert Sammt) to the Harkness Pavilion at Presbyterian Hospital in New York City in an attempt to save him.
Willy Speck died early on Saturday morning, May 8, 1937. His body was returned to Germany, where he was buried at the Frankfurter Hauptfriedhof cemetery in a common grave along with six other Frankfurt-area crew members who were killed at Lakehurst. His name, along with those of the others, is inscribed on a monument over the grave site.