Monday, October 20, 2008

Captain Heinrich Bauer

Crew Member

Age: 35

Hometown: Frankfurt

Occupation: Watch Officer

Location at time of fire: Control car - ballast board


Born in 1902, Captain Heinrich Bauer had been flying with Zeppelin crews since 1929. He had been hired by Luftschiffbau Zeppelin in 1927, and was initially employed in the firm's design office before being asked to join the crew of the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin in 1929 as a helmsman.

Heinrich Bauer (facing left) at the elevator wheel of the LZ-127
Graf Zeppelin. Dr. Hugo Eckener observes at far left.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

Heinrich Bauer (background, leaning over chart table)
in the navigation room of LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin.

(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

Bauer gradually worked his way up through the various positions, from helmsman to elevatorman, elevatorman to navigator, and finally in early 1936 from navigator to watch officer. He transferred to the LZ-129 Hindenburg when the new ship went into service in March of 1936, and flew on all but one or two subsequent flights.

Captain Heinrich Bauer (right) looks on as another man (possibly
Chief Engineer Rudolf Sauter) looks out of forward windows of
the Hindenburg's control car using binoculars. Judging from the
fact that everyone is in shirtsleeves, this photo was most likely
taken over the South Atlantic on a flight to Rio de Janiero.

(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

Captain Heinrich Bauer (center, seated) makes a calculation
while one of the Hindenburg's navigators looks on.
The ship's helmsman stands at the rudder wheel at left.

(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

By the time of the Hindenburg's
first North American flight of 1937, Heinrich Bauer had had eight years experience flying Zeppelins. He'd served aboard the Graf Zeppelin during her flight around the globe and to the Arctic, he had flown to South America numerous times aboard both the Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg, and as a watch officer he had made ten round-trip Hindenburg flights to Lakehurst the previous year through the far more volatile weather of the North Atlantic. On the Hindenburg's first flight to Lakehurst of the 1937 season the ship was beset by strong headwinds most of the way across the North Atlantic. Other than that, however, Captain Bauer didn't subsequently recall anything at all out of the ordinary about the flight. His last watch of the flight was on the morning of May 6th, and as the ship left New York to make its way down to the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst in mid-afternoon, Bauer returned to the control car. He was unconcerned by the storm front the ship had to fly along en route to Lakehurst, though he knew this may well end up further delaying the flight.

As the Hindenburg came in to land at Lakehurst once the storm front had moved out of the area, Captain Bauer was in the forward part of the control car, standing near the ballast board where he was in charge of dropping water ballast on orders from Captain Albert Sammt, the Hindenburg's first officer who was on watch during the landing. Bauer was also charged with supervising the elevatorman. As the ship approached the mooring circle, Bauer was ordered to drop ballast on three separate occasions, since the Hindenburg was noticably tail-heavy. Once the ship was finally brought into trim, "level as a board" by Bauer's estimation, Bauer then looked out the gondola windows and watched the landing ropes drop from the nose of the ship. He saw the ground crew below connect the portside rope to a winch inside the mooring circle, and then begin to connect up the starboard rope.

Captain Heinrich Bauer's location at the time of the fire.

As he continued to watch the ground handling operations through the portside windows, Bauer suddenly noticed the air station's giant Zeppelin hangar light up brightly. A moment later, he felt an explosion far aft and braced himself against the side of the elevator wheel as the ship began to tilt down by the stern. Still looking out the portside window, Bauer saw flames billowing out of the aft portion of the ship, and watched the portside elevator fin crash to earth. He lost his footing and fell as the ship's inclination became steeper. There was comparatively little panic in the control car. Bauer later recalled, "In the gondola there was an oppressive calm; some crewmen were groaning, others fell to the floor and everyone attempted to hold onto something as the pitch became steeper." For the rest of his life, however, Bauer would be unable to forget the horrible moaning sound that helmsman Kurt Schönherr made as he clung to his rudder wheel while the ship fell.

Bauer soon climbed back to his feet and, instinctively, went to pull the ballast release knobs. He intended to soften the ship's eventual impact with the ground, but got no response from the control cables. Bauer then turned his attention to the nearby windows and prepared to jump as the ship neared the ground. He stood behind navigator Eduard Boetius, who had been manning the elevator wheel, as Boetius clung to the window just aft of the elevator wheel. Bauer urged Boetius to jump, but Boetius called back that the ship was still too high off the ground. As the ship touched down on its forward landing wheel and rebounded several meters back into the air, Bauer called more insistantly to Boetius to jump. Boetius finally leaped from a height of about 10-12 feet, and Bauer immediately followed him, jumping a split second before navigator Max Zabel, who was in the navigation room just aft. Bauer landed heavily on the sandy soil below, then picked himself up and ran as the Hindenburg's hull crashed to the ground just behind him.

Captain Heinrich Bauer (arrow, just to the right of the landing wheel under the control car) drops to the ground after jumping from a window on the control car's port side.

For the moment, however, Bauer didn't even notice his injuries. After he made his way out of the wreckage and took a moment to catch his breath, he turned and ran back toward the passenger decks, intending to help as many passengers away from the ship as he could. He arrived just in time to see steward Eugen Nunnenmacher catch a female passenger as she leapt, clothes and hair aflame, from the portside observation windows. It was Irene Doehner, a 16 year-old girl who had been traveling with her family. As Nunnenmacher struggled to put out the fire on Miss Doehner's burning clothes, Bauer ran up and helped him extinguish the flames, burning his hands in the process. The wreckage, which was currently lying on the ground in such a way as to suspend the portside observation deck about 10-15 feet above the ground, was beginning to settle and a man nearby called out a warning to rescuers standing beneath it. Bauer and Nunnenmacher picked the girl up and carried her away from the wreckage and to a nearby ambulance.

Once rescue operations had gone about as far as they were likely to go, Bauer made his way over to the air station's infirmary to check on survivors, and then over to the DZR office in the airplane hangar next to the giant airship hangar where the less gravely injured crew survivors were beginning to gather. As one of the ship's captains, Bauer began to compile lists of the survivors, as well as those still missing in the smouldering wreckage. While they were still fresh in his mind, he also began to jot down notes on the ship's final approach to the mooring circle, the radio messages sent to and from the ship during the late afternoon, and so forth.

Between his leap from the control car and his having returned to the burning wreck in order to rescue passengers, Captain Bauer had sustained burns to his hands and forearms, as well as a cracked sternum. His injuries grew more painful as the hours passed, and eventually a doctor dressed his burns and wrapped bandages around his chest. Bauer worked through the night, later recalling that "There would be no sleep for me in 'this night of misfortune.'"

Indeed, as dawn crept over the air station the next day, Bauer was still awake. He walked out across the sandy field to the wreckage. Smoke still curled up from a few sections of the ship as Bauer walked the length of the wreck. As he picked his way through the perimeter of the pile of twisted, blackened duralumin, he spotted a flat oval piece of metal. He stooped down to pick it up, and realized that it was a silver serving tray from the ship's dining room, now scorched and heat-warped, but still showing the DZR insignia on its underside. He kept it as a souvenir.

Heinrich Bauer (right) confers with Dr. Hugo Eckener (left) and South Trimble of the US Department of Commerce during Bauer's testimony to the Board of Inquiry on May 19th, 1937. Bauer is consulting a map of the Hindenburg's landing approach path.

Captain Heinrich Bauer stayed in the United States long enough to testify twice before the U.S. Commerce Department's Board of Inquiry into the disaster, on May 19th, and then again on May 25th. Bauer then returned to Germany where he later served as First Officer
aboard the LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin during her short operational life.

In September of 1939, Heinrich Bauer was inducted into the German military for wartime service, where he remained until nearly the end of the war in April of 1945. Bauer served variously as a navigator with the Luftwaffe and as a captain in a field company, fighting first on the Western front, and then later the Russian front. With Allied military forces sweeping across Germany in April of 1945, Bauer was gravely wounded near Hannover. He was subsequently taken prisoner by US forces and spent his internment in a military hospital where he received treatment for his wounds. Meanwhile, his house in Zeppelinheim, along with those of many other former Zeppelin comrades, was confiscated by Allied occupation forces. After Bauer was released by the Americans, his brother-in-law, himself a doctor, brought him to their family home in Immenstaad, on the northern shore of Lake Constance, where Bauer spent the next five years recovering from his wounds. He and his wife Theresia eventually bought a house of their own in Immenstaad, and Bauer found work as an engineer at the Zahnradfabrik gear works in nearby Friedrichshafen.

During the investigation into the Hindenburg fire, and in the years that followed, Captain Bauer developed a theory that the Hindenburg had in fact been sabotaged by an incendiary bullet which had been fired by a gunman hiding in the pine barrens near the Lakehurst air base. He based this theory largely on the fact that a puff of bluish smoke had been seen atop the ship by numerous witnesses and this, Bauer theorized, was caused by the incendiary bullet bursting through the fabric atop the ship after having entered the hull from further down below. As with all other theories concerning the mystery of the Hindenburg fire, however, no firm evidence to support it was ever discovered.

Heinrich Bauer passed away in 1979.

(An excellent piece on Captain Bauer's philatelic collection, particularly the pieces of his own mail that he salvaged from the Hindenburg wreck can be found HERE. It's written by Bauer's son Manfred,
in German of course, and it was of great help to me in providing something of Captain Bauer's wartime and post-war experiences.)


John Robert Bauer said...

"Oh, the humanity! Oh, the humanity!"

Patrick, your research effort is a tour-de-force. Well done.

I share a surname with 2 crew members, Captain Heinrich Bauer (from Frankfurt) and Elevatorman Kurt Bauer (from Buchschlag).

Another Heinrich Bauer (1841-1918) was my ancestor who migrated (from Darmstadt, Hesse) to Illinois with his family in 1847.

I've always wondered whether either Bauer, both survivors, were cousins. Probably not, given that it's a common German surname.

Patrick Russell said...

Hi John,

Well, Heinrich Bauer and Kurt Bauer weren't even related to one another. Since Bauer translates to English as "farmer", that would probably go a little way toward explaining why it's such a common surname over there.

But one never knows. Maybe some genealogical digging will eventually turn up some distant familial connection to one of them.

One thing to bear in mind is, Frankfurt and Buchschlag were their places of residence at the time of the disaster. Since they were flying out of Frankfurt, the Zeppelin crews tended to relocate near the airport. Buchschlag, for instance, is just down the road.

Of course Darmstadt, your ancestor migrated from, is also just down the road a piece from the airfield. Probably a coincidence, but who knows?

Keep checking the articles on Heinrich and Kurt Bauer from time to time. If and when I get more detailed information about where they were born, I'll be sure to post it.

Glad you're enjoying the site. It's a work in progress, and I hope there's a lot more yet to come.


I'm hoping to eventually turn up their original hometowns

Philipp said...

Great blog!
You can find a video of a north-west-german version of "Whats my Line?" from 1961 where Heinrich Bauer is a guest and talks about his experience on the Hindenburg (all in german though):

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Philipp! I watched the first few minutes of the program and have it bookmarked for this evening when I should have a little more free time to give it a good watch. I know just enough German to follow along.