Residence: Schwäbisch Hall, Germany
Occupation: First Lieutenant, German Luftwaffe
Location at time of fire: Passenger decks, starboard lounge
Claus Hinkelbein was born December 28th, 1909 in Ludwigsburg, Germany. Hinkelbein was a First Lieutenant in the German Luftwaffe as of May of 1937 when he and two other Luftwaffe officers, Colonel Fritz Erdmann and Major Hans-Hugo Witt, were assigned to fly as military observers aboard the Hindenburg's first North American flight of the 1937 season. The three men were primarily aboard to observe the techniques developed by the Hindenburg's command crew for long-range navigation and weather-forecasting.
There has long been a baseless story circulating in which it is claimed that Lt. Hinkelbein, Col. Erdmann, and Maj. Witt were actually ordered to make the flight as security officers charged with the task of uncovering and stopping a potential sabotage attempt. No credible evidence of this has ever been discovered, and it appears that the sole source for this story was Michael M. Mooney's heavily-fictionalized book "The Hindenburg," published in 1972. Mooney offered no proof whatsoever to support his claims such as this one, and no corroborating evidence has ever surfaced. The Hindenburg, in fact, carried military observers (German, American, and often both) on virtually every flight it made in 1936, and there is no reason whatsoever to assume that there was anything different about the trio of military observers aboard the ship's final flight.
Lt. Claus Hinkelbein (right, facing camera) aboard the Hindenburg during its last flight. Fellow passengers Ernst Rudolf Anders (lower center, with binoculars) and Moritz Feibusch (left, silhouetted against upright post) are sightseeing through the ship's observation windows. (Image taken from home movies shot during the Hindenburg's last flight by fellow passenger Joseph Spah.)
Hinkelbein, along with Erdmann and Witt, was given free access throughout the ship during the flight, and the three of them went forward to the control car several times a day in order to observe the navigators in their duties.
As the Hindenburg approached its mooring mast at Lakehurst, NJ at the end of the flight, on the evening of May 6th, 1937, Lt. Hinkelbein was in the starboard passenger lounge watching the ground crew out of one of the observation windows along with Major Witt, Colonel Erdmann, and fellow passenger George Hirschfeld. Hinkelbein watched felt the ship come to a standstill and saw the bow lines drop.
A few minutes later, he felt a sudden jerk run through the ship and, looking out of the window, saw the reflection of fire aft. Almost immediately he felt the bow begin to rise and held on to keep his footing. As the ship came down again, Hinkelbein ran forward to the nearest open window and jumped through it.
Once on the ground, Hinkelbein was able to thread his way through the wreckage without serious injury. He went back to the wreckage and found Major Witt caught in a burning wire, which had tangled around Witt's neck. Together with another rescuer, Hinkelbein freed Witt and helped him to safety.
Lt. Claus Hinkelbein gave testimony to the US Commerce Department's Board of Inquiry on May 15th, 1937, nine days after the disaster. He sailed back to Germany on the steamship Europa the following day.
Hinkelbein remained in the Luftwaffe throughout World War II, taking part in the invasions of Poland, France, and the Soviet Union. Hinkelbein was placed in command of the Sturzkampfgeschwader 2 "Immelmann" (a JU-87 Stuka group) as a Major from September 10, 1939 through October 29, 1939. This was followed by command of Kampfgeschwader 30 "Adler" (a JU-88 group) from December of 1939 through June of 1940. It was during his command of KG 30 that Hinkelbein was awarded the Knight's Cross, on June 19th, 1940. Following this, Hinkelbein commanded Ergänzungskampfgruppe 5 from September 20th, 1940 through October 8th, 1940. After this, he seems to have been promoted to Lt. Colonel and made Chief of General Staff for Feldluftgaukommandos XIV, where he remained through the remainder of the war.
Following the war, Hinkelbein served with the West German air force, and was commander of the air force base at Aurich from 1966-1967.
Major General Claus Hinkelbein passed away in Bad Salzuflen on April 28th, 1967, at age 57.
Special thanks to Herr Gerhard Bronisch at the Stadtarchiv Ludwigsburg for kindly providing the photo of Claus Hinkelbein used in this article. The photo is the property of Stadtarchiv Ludwigsburg.