Saturday, December 6, 2008

Captain Max Pruss

Crew Member

Age: 46

Hometown: Frankfurt, Germany

Occupation: Ship's Commander

Location at time of fire: Control car


Max Pruss was born on September 29th, 1891 in Sgonn, county of Sensburg, in East Prussia. He joined the German Navy in 1906. His first flight was as an enlisted trainee/observer aboard Navy Zeppelin L3 in 1914. Subsequent to this, he flew as a petty officer on the non-rigid Parseval ship, the PL-6 (formerly an advertising airship for Stollwerck, a chocolate company based in Köln), on which he served in the Baltic for approximately three months. He then trained as a member of Leutnant (later Überleutnant and Kapitänleutnant) Horst von Buttlar-Brandenfels' crew and served as an elevatorman on the World War I Zeppelin L6. Pruss remained part of that same crew aboard L11, L30, L25, and L54.

The crew of L54 under command of Captain Horst von Buttlar-Brandenfels (seated, second from left). Max Pruss is third row, fourth from left. Hans von Schiller is seated, third from left.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

Von Buttlar's crew had originally been slated to transfer from L25 to the L57, but when the L57 was chosen for a long-distance flight to Africa in the fall of 1917, a decision was made by Führer der Luftschiffe Peter Strasser to assign the ship to Kapitänleutnant Ludwig Bockholt and his crew, keeping the more seasoned von Buttlar crew in Germany where, assigned to the L54, they could continue their role in the aerial bombardment campaign against England. Von Buttlar's crew was later designated to take over L72, however the war ended before the transfer could be made.

During the "crisis period" immediately following the war, Pruss and a number of his crewmates were then brought along by Hans von Schiller, von Buttlar's first officer, to form an elite unit. The crew was assigned the demilitarized L61, which was reportedly used for minesweeping duties and was also even flown for some motion picture footage. The ship was ultimately, however, turned over to the Italians in 1920 as war reparations under the Treaty of Versailles.

Beginning in late 1921, Luftschiffbau Zeppelin built the so-called "reparations airship" for the US Navy, the LZ-126, later known by the U.S. Navy as the ZR-3 and christened Los Angeles. Upon its completion in 1924, Pruss again served as an elevatorman under Dr. Hugo Eckener when the ship was flown across the Atlantic for delivery to the United States at Lakehurst, NJ. Pruss then stayed in the States for four months with others from the crew under contract to train Americal personnel to operate the ship. During this time Pruss took part in a number of additional flights within the States, including one over Washington, DC.

Max Pruss and most of the command crew from the LZ-126's delivery flight in 1924. From left: Albert Sammt, Leo Freund, Max Pruss, Hans von Schiller, Dr. Hugo Eckener, Anton Wittemann, Hans-Curt Flemming, Walter Scherz, Willy Speck, Hans Ladewig, Ludwig Marx.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

Pruss and several of his comrades during their stay in the United States to train American airshipmen to fly the LZ-126. From left: Hans-Curt Flemming, Albert Sammt, Max Pruss, Anton Wittemann.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

After his return to Germany, Pruss was a member of a nucleus of trained individuals working under Dr. Eckener, Captain Hans-Curt Flemming, Captain Ernst Lehmann, and Captain Hans von Schiller to raise money to build a new Zeppelin for Germany. For two years, under Eckener's direction, Pruss and the others made countless speaking appearances before schools, local and national government officials, and groups of potential private investors until at last enough funds were raised to begin work on the LZ-127, which was later to be christened Graf Zeppelin upon its completion in 1928. Pruss flew on virtually every flight of the Graf Zeppelin between 1928 and 1936, including the famous round-the-world flight in 1929. He initially flew as an elevatorman, but in 1932 was promoted to watch officer, and by 1934 he was given command of the Graf Zeppelin on a number of flights across the Atlantic to South America.

Captain Hans von Schiller and Max Pruss set their watches during a Graf Zeppelin flight circa 1933.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

Pruss (leaning through window) confers with one of the Graf Zeppelin's navigators during a flight to South America in 1933.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

In 1936, by now with over 20 years of airship experience, Max Pruss was transferred to the new ship, the LZ-129 Hindenburg. He flew as first officer under Captain Ernst Lehmann, but was given command of the Hindenburg's South American route beginning with the third flight to Rio on July 20, 1936, and overall command of the ship as of late October, 1936 with Captain Albert Sammt assuming the role of first officer.

Captain Max Pruss as first officer of the Hindenburg, 1936.
Note the gas board at right.

Captain Max Pruss, commander of the LZ-129 Hindenburg circa 1937.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

On the Hindenburg's first North American flight of 1937 Captain Max Pruss was in command, again with Albert Sammt as first officer and with Captains Heinrich Bauer and Walter Ziegler as his watch officers. Captain Ernst Lehmann, Director of Flight Operations for the DZR and the previous commander of the Hindenburg, was along in an advisory capacity, and Captain Anton Wittemann of the Graf Zeppelin was there as an observer. The flight encountered strong headwinds almost as soon as it got out over the North Atlantic, and it shortly became apparent that the Hindenburg would not be making good time this trip. Passengers later recalled Pruss as being cordial but preoccupied when he sat at dinner, eating lightly of his food and drinking nothing stronger than mineral water before returning to the control car.

As the Hindenburg finally approached the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, NJ to land on the afternoon of May 6th, Pruss took a look at the deteriorating weather conditions and decided that the ship should fly along the Jersey coast until the weather cleared. Radio messages from Lakehurst confirmed Pruss' weather concerns. When the ship finally received word from Lakehurst that the weather had cleared, shortly before 7:00 PM, she headed for the landing field with Captain Sammt on watch, but with Pruss in overall command. As the ship approached the landing field, the two captains shared command duties as was standard practice for the Germans. Sammt was in charge of issuing orders relating to the altitude of the ship, including elevator, ballast, and gas-valving commands, while Pruss was in charge of issuing orders relating to the ship's lateral movement, including engine and rudder commands. Approaching the mooring circle from the southwest, Pruss noted the position of the ground crew to the west of the mast, and ordered the ship to make a wide turn to the north and then to the west so as to give Sammt a chance to release hydrogen and trim the ship, and also to bring the ship around and approach the ground crew from the west.

A map of the Hindenburg's landing approach on its last flight, annotated to show the timing of various actions like gas and ballast releases, changes in engine speeds, etc.

The Hindenburg finished her circle and approached the air station once more, flying almost due east. Captain Pruss noticed that the ground crew had shifted once again and were lined up almost directly north of the mooring mast. With the ship more than 12 hours late and expecting to sail for Germany that very evening with a full load of 72 passengers (many of whom were on their way to the Coronation in London the following week) Pruss opted to not waste time making yet another circuit around the airfield to bring the ship in from the north. Instead, he had the helmsman make an S-curve, first to port, then sharply to starboard, to bring the ship in above the ground crew in their new position. Once the ship had neared the mooring circle and been brought to almost a dead stop in the air, Pruss passed the order forward to drop the ship's bow ropes. Over the next several minutes, Pruss and his command crew watched as the ground crew took up the two manila yaw lines and connected the starboard rope up to the mooring equipment, and then struggled somewhat with the port line as a sudden gust hit the Hindenburg across her port beam, causing the ship to drift up and to starboard.

Captain Max Pruss' location in the control car at the time of the fire.

Suddenly, Pruss felt a sharp jolt run through the ship. Captain Wittemann, standing behind Pruss in the center of the bridge, asked, "Is a rope broken?" Pruss looked out the window and replied that no, the ropes were both fine. Then he heard his Chief Radio Operator, Willy Speck, shouting from the rear of the control car that the ship was on fire. Pruss and everyone else in the control car were forced to hold onto whatever they could as the tail of the ship dropped and the bow stood up at approximately a 45-degree angle. Pruss waited for the ship to come closer to the ground, finally making his way to a starboard window and leaping as Captain Lehmann called "Everybody out!"

Captains Pruss, Lehmann and Sammt (arrow) stumble away from the front of the control car as the Hindenburg's framework collapses over them.

The ship had just rebounded back into the air slightly on the landing wheel beneath the control car, and as Pruss jumped the ship was settling to the ground for the second and last time. Together with Captains Lehmann and Sammt, Pruss ran towards the starboard side of the ship just as the burning framework collapsed over them. Pruss emerged from the wreck, burned but alive. He immediately returned to the wreckage to try to assist others in escaping the fire. He found Willy Speck lying in the wreck, unconscious, badly burned, and bleeding profusely from a wound on his head. Pruss carried Speck out of the ship to safety, and returned to the wreck several times looking for other survivors before he was finally restrained by rescuers and led to the infirmary. By this time, Max Pruss had sustained grave burns over much of his body, particularly on his face, upper body and arms. He was taken to Paul Kimball Hospital in nearby Lakewood, where his chances of survival were judged slim enough that he was given last rites by Rev. George Walsh, a Catholic priest from the neighboring town of Toms River.

Max Pruss in ambulance en route to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, New York City, May 7th, 1937

Pruss' condition stabilized somewhat overnight, however, and the next day he, Sammt and Speck were transferred to to the burn center at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York. This was arranged by an old friend of theirs, a wealthy New Yorker named William Leeds who had flown as a passenger on many of the Graf Zeppelin's flights. Pruss was to remain at Columbia Presbyterian for the next four months, enduring numerous rounds of reconstructive surgery, particularly on his face. Despite the best surgical efforts available at the time, Pruss was badly scarred for the rest of his life, to the point where he had to be fitted with a prosthetic nose.

Max Pruss (right) with Anton Wittemann in the late 1940s or early 1950s.

Max Pruss never testified before the US Commerce Department's Board of Inquiry into the Hindenburg disaster, as he was far too seriously injured to be interviewed before the Board adjourned at the end of May. While Pruss was never directly blamed for the disaster by official investigators, Dr. Eckener never hid his opinion that the fire may very likely have been caused by the electrostatic conditions over Lakehurst having generated static discharge atop the Hindenburg, which in turn ignited loose hydrogen within the ship. Not only, therefore, was the Hindenburg brought in for landing before weather conditions had cleared enough to be considered truly favorable, but in Eckener's opinion the ship was badly out of trim during the landing approach and brought up to the mooring mast too quickly and with too sharp a turn to starboard. This sharp turn, according to Eckener, put enough strain on the stern of the ship for an internal shear wire to break and rupture a gas cell, thus releasing hydrogen which was then ignited by static electricity. Again, though Captain Pruss was never specifically accused by name of negligence in his handling of the Hindenburg during its landing approach, Dr. Eckener certainly laid a large portion of the blame at Pruss' feet nonetheless. It was perhaps all the more telling that Eckener never visited Pruss in the hospital when Eckener was in the United States for the Board of Inquiry hearings, although he paid his respects to Mrs. Pruss (who sailed to America immediately after the disaster to be at her husband's bedside) while Eckener and other investigators were at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital to interview Captain Sammt. Furthermore, back in Germany, Dr. Eckener reportedly didn't speak to Pruss until two weeks after Pruss had returned home from the United States.

Captain Pruss returned to Germany in autumn of 1937. He spent the next couple of years recovering from his injuries, and thus took no part in the flights of the new airship, the LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin. In January of 1940, Pruss was made commandant of the Rhein-Main airport in Frankfurt. In spring of that same year, when Air Minister Hermann Goering visited the Zeppelin hangars at Rhein-Main to make a final determination as to what to do with the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin, the new LZ-130, and the hangars, Pruss made an impassioned plea to Goering to support efforts to refit the LZ-130 so that it could be flown again. The conversation turned ugly and degenerated into an argument, with Goering refusing to listen to reason or to see the airships as anything more than a waste of materials that could be better used for building airplanes for the Luftwaffe. Pruss' efforts were in vain, and shortly thereafter, the last two Zeppelins were dismantled and the airport's two Zeppelin hangars were dynamited.

During the post-war years, Pruss maintained close ties to Friedrichshafen as well as warm ties to his former comrades from the German Naval Airship Division. Pruss and several others, including the Hindenburg's former chief engineer Rudolf Sauter, formed a crusade to try to persuade Luftschiffbau Zeppelin, by then renamed Metallwerk Friedrichshafen, to once again begin producing airships. Pruss' ideal "super-Hindenburg" would have been in the form of an 869-foot, helium-filled, diesel-driven ship to be designated the LZ-132. The oft-repeated slogan that Pruss used in his campaign was, "If you want to get there quickly, take an airplane. If you want to get there comfortably, take an airship."

Once again, however, this was to no avail. Max Pruss would spend the rest of his life hoping against hope that the new Zeppelin would be built and flown, but even moreso his heart lay in solving the mystery of what had caused the Hindenburg to burn. Pruss, perhaps as something of a psychological defense, had become an advocate of the theory that the ship had been sabotaged and, along with Charles Rosendahl, tended to suspect a passenger from the final flight named Joseph Spah. Spah, a vaudeville acrobat, had been shipping a dog on the Hindenburg and throughout the flight had made repeated, unsupervised trips to the aft freight room to feed his dog. However, an FBI investigation of Spah immediately following the disaster had in fact turned up nothing whatsoever to support accusations of sabotage.

In the last years of his life, Pruss corresponded with a number of scholarly authors, such as Dr. Douglas Robinson, who were interested in Pruss' input on their historical research into airships. A unique example of this, including an audio recording of Pruss being interviewed, can be found HERE. To these authors he gave invaluable information and assistance, as well as the perspective of one who had spent decades of his life flying and commanding airships, and who had been closely connected with the Zeppelin endeavor from its early years straight on through to the end.

However, Pruss was also contacted by an increasing number of journalists who, rather than being interested in preserving Zeppelin history as a whole, were focused specifically on the Hindenburg disaster itself. Perhaps the best known of these was an American author by the name of A. A. Hoehling, who was in the process of writing a book about the Hindenburg's last flight, about which Pruss and Hoehling exchanged a few letters in 1960. The book, eventually published in 1962 under the title "Who Destroyed The Hindenburg?", was based on a sabotage theory that centered around a young Hindenburg crewman named Erich Spehl who was killed in the fire, and whom Hoehling accused of having destroyed the airship at the behest of his anti-Nazi girlfriend. Although airship historians and surviving airshipmen roundly dismissed the theory as baseless and even libelous, the theory was resurrected a decade later as the basis of a big-budget Hollywood disaster movie as well as a tie-in book written by Michael Mooney, and it was many years before this particular sabotage theory was to fade away.

Whether or not Pruss, himself having long been of the opinion that the Hindenburg had been sabotaged, would have agreed with Hoehling that the fire had been caused by a member of his own crew is unknown. Max Pruss contracted pneumonia following a stomach operation and passed away on November 28, 1960. He was 69 years old.

Max Pruss' Hindenburg command flights:


3rd South American flight, July 20-24, 25-29, 1936
Olympic Flight, August 1, 1936
4th South American flight, August 27-30, September 4-8, 1936
Transfer Flight, Friedrichshafen to Frankfurt, September 16, 1936
9th North American flight, October 1-3, 1936 (return leg only)
5th South American flight, October 21-25, 29-30 (Rio-Recife), October 30-November 2, 1936
6th South American flight, November 5-9, 12-16, 1936
7th South American flight, November 25-29, Nov 30-December 1 (Rio-Rio),
Dec. 3-4 (Rio-Recife), Dec. 4-7, 1936


Test Flight (engines & radio), March 11, 1937
Udet flight, March 11, 1937
8th South American flight, March 16-20, 23-27, 1937
Rhineland flight, April 27, 1937
First North American flight of 1937 (final flight) May 3-6, 1937

(Thanks to Rick Zitarosa for helping to fill in various details about Max Pruss' life, particularly his wartime experience.)


Anonymous said...

I tried to click on the audio link for...

"unique example of this, including an audio recording of Pruss being interviewed"

and it comes up with "Access Forbidden"

Patrick Russell said...

It looks like the recording may no longer be available online, unfortunately. I will see if I can find an alternate source and fix the link.

czarnajama said...

Interesting article by Pruss' great-grandaughter, now a Canadian journalist:

"Dreams in flames: The airship Hindenburg and its captain, my great-grandfather"

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