Hometown: Göschweiler, Germany
Crew designation: Rigger
Location at time of fire: Mooring shelf in bow
Died in naval station's infirmary
Erich Spehl was born on December 5th, 1910 on a small family farm in the Black Forest village of Göschweiler. His mother died when he was young, his father later remarried, and eventually Spehl was part of a family of nine children. When he was 18 he left the farm and took an apprenticeship with a saddler and upholsterer named Karl Gratwohl in the village of Markdorf, near Friedrichshafen. Spehl spent the next three years learning the saddler's trade. By the time Spehl was ready to go out on his own, however, the Great Depression had hit Germany and like millions of other Germans, he could not find steady employment. He spent the next couple of years as an itinerant laborer, and finally enlisted for a one-year stint in the new Nazi government's labor corps.
After his government service had ended, in 1934, Spehl managed to find a job with the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin in Friedrichshafen. This was likely due in part to the fact that his father had been a member of the Nazi party since the 1920s, and had the connections that such a long-time association would tend to bring. But since Spehl quickly moved from a job in the airship construction facility to a position as a rigger with the crew of the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin, his success at the Zeppelin Company was almost certainly based primarily on his own merits and abilities. And in fact, a note from his employment record from shortly after Spehl joined the Graf Zeppelin's crew states, "He dedicates himself to his new job with great care and enthusiasm."
Erich Spehl first flew as a rigger on the Graf Zeppelin on a flight to South America in November of 1934. He learned the rigger's trade under the tutelage of Chief Rigger Ludwig Knorr, a Zeppelin Company "old-timer" who had been an airship rigger since before the first World War. The skills Spehl had learned during his saddler's apprenticeship, particularly those involving needle and thread, served him well as a rigger and he learned to maintain and repair the Graf Zeppelin's outer cover, its ballast bags and control cables, and its huge gas cells.
Erich Spehl looking out porthole on starboard side of the Hindenburg's lower tail fin, near emergency control stand.
When the Zeppelin Company completed the LZ-129 Hindenburg in 1936, Spehl was transferred to the new ship where he continued to serve under Chief Knorr. He was aboard the Hindenburg's maiden flight on March 4th, 1936 and flew on most, if not all, of the ship's flights for the remainder of the year, including seven round-trip flights to South America and ten round-trip flights to the United States.
Erich Spehl (l.) and unidentified crewman on mooring shelf of the Hindenburg during a landing at Lakehurst, NJ, 1936.
Erich Spehl (r.) and Chief Engineer Rudolf Sauter (l.) pose atop the mooring mast at Lakehurst, 1936.
Spehl, whose father passed away in 1936, would still visit his family in Göschweiler when he had free time in between flights. A shy young man, Spehl would speak occasionally with his family and closest friends of his experiences on the Zeppelins and of his journeys across the sea to Rio and New York. He was, however, very proud to be a member of a Zeppelin crew.
During the winter of 1936-1937, the Hindenburg made no flights and was instead laid up in its hangar for a winter overhaul. Erich Spehl, along with a number of his fellow crewmates, served out eight weeks of compulsory military service during this time. Because of their position as members of a Zeppelin crew, and since the Zeppelin Company fell under the purview of the Reich Air Ministry, Spehl and his comrades were allowed to do their time at boot camp with a Luftwaffe unit. They were all back aboard the Hindenburg, however, when flights commenced in March of 1937.
Erich Spehl was aboard the Hindenburg for its first North American flight of 1937, which began in Frankfurt on the evening of May 3rd. As usual, Spehl's chief was Ludwig Knorr, and the two of them rotated watches with fellow rigger Hans Freund. The flight proceeded smoothy, without incident. On the evening of May 6th, Spehl finished his last two-hour watch of the flight at 6:00 PM and went to the crew's mess for dinner. The Hindenburg approached the landing field at Lakehurst, NJ about an hour later, and when the signal for landing stations was sounded shortly after 7:00 PM, Spehl went forward to the mooring shelf at the tip of the ship's bow. Here, he would man the telephone extension to the control car and relay orders to the other three men (helmsman Alfred Bernhardt, elevatorman Kurt Bauer, and senior elevatorman Ernst Huchel) who were tasked with dropping the landing ropes and winching down the thick steel mooring cable.
Shortly after the four men arrived at their landing station, elevatorman trainee Ludwig Felber was sent forward on orders from the watch officer, and he replaced Bauer, who climbed down from the mooring shelf and found a spot about a hundred feet aft along the lower keel where he watched the landing through a hatch. About five minutes later, several more crewmen were sent forward to help trim the ship for landing, and several took positions alongside the stairs leading to the mooring shelf, just below Spehl and the others.
Erich Spehl's approximate location at the time of the fire.
(Hindenburg structural diagram courtesy of David Fowler)
(Hindenburg structural diagram courtesy of David Fowler)
A few minutes later, the Hindenburg caught fire and almost immediately began to tilt steeply aft. Fire came shooting forward through the gas cells and along the axial catwalk, which ended just behind the mooring shelf. Spehl and the others were right in the path of this huge pillar of flame and were immediately engulfed by the fire. Most of the other men nearby leaped through the burning outer cover and fell to their immediate deaths. Spehl, along with Felber and Bernhardt, somehow managed to hold on and survive the initial crash, and the three men were pulled from the wreck by rescuers.
Erich Spehl, still alive but horribly burned, was taken to the air station's infirmary. As he lay in one of the beds, he managed to communicate to one of the attendants that he wished to send a telegram to his girlfriend back in Frankfurt. The attendant searched through the infirmary for somebody who spoke both German and English, so that the telegram could be written down and sent as soon as possible. Passenger Joseph Spah, slightly injured, returned with the attendant to Spehl's bedside, and copied down the address. Spehl then managed to dictate a two-word message: "Ich lebe." ("I live.") However, as Spah turned to go and send the message, Erich Spehl passed away.
His body was taken back to Germany and buried in Göschweiler.
Approximately 25 years after the Hindenburg disaster, a theory that the Hindenburg had been sabotaged was published in A.A. Hoehling's book "Who Destroyed The Hindenburg?", and Erich Spehl was named as the alleged saboteur. Ten years later, author Michael Mooney, writing a tie-in book for a planned Hollywood feature film about the Hindenburg disaster, repeated and expanded upon Hoehling's sabotage theory. In short, it was alleged that Erich Spehl had planted a time bomb next to one of the gas cells in the aft section of the ship, intending that it detonate after landing (and in front of American reporters) in order to gain international exposure for the German anti-Nazi resistance movement of which, it was further claimed, Spehl and his girlfriend were a part.
The accusation that Erich Spehl was a saboteur who destroyed the Hindenburg was and remains absolutely baseless and without merit. Hoehling based his theory on the thinnest of circumstantial evidence, half-truths, and cherry-picked fragments of eyewitness testimony, all designed to support a sabotage theory that, it was hoped, would sell books. Key figures interviewed by Hoehling subsequently disputed Hoehling's conclusions as well as his interpretation of some of their own statements. Hoehling himself was, in his own book, only able to offer Spehl as a potential saboteur, so shaky was the ground on which his theory had been constructed.
Mooney, despite presenting his book as a work of non-fiction, merely took Hoehling's work and added layer upon layer of fictionalization, effectively turning Erich Spehl into a character from a pulp novel. While Mooney implied that he had done extensive interviews in Germany, it turned out that he had spoken only briefly (and through a translator who spoke very little German) with a single relative of Erich Spehl - a sister-in-law who had married Spehl's older brother some time after the Hindenburg disaster. From this, Mooney concocted a fanciful back story for Spehl that seems to have existed primarily in Mooney's own imagination, and which was once again designed to sell books (and also, given Mooney's movie deal, to sell movie tickets.)
Unfortunately, these two books and the movie were enough to link Erich Spehl's name with the concept of a sabotage plot in a number of subsequent publications and documentaries - though few (if any) serious students of airship history have ever granted the theory the least bit of legitimacy. Research into the process by which the Erich Spehl sabotage story was originally constructed has shown that the theory was, to put it mildly, essentially an act of libel.
Special 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 Spehl's career, and to Dr. Cheryl Ganz for providing me with a copy of the article.