Monday, December 22, 2008

Dr. Kurt Rüdiger

Age: 27

Hometown: Bremen, Germany

Occupation: Ship's doctor

Location at time of fire: Passenger decks - portside dining salon


Dr. Kurt Rüdiger was the ship's doctor on the Hindenburg. He was a member of the same Flensburg sailing club as Captain Ernst Lehmann, Director of Flight Operations for the Zeppelin Company and former commander of the Hindenburg. In January of 1937, Lehmann received a report from Willy von Meister, the Zeppelin Company's representative in the United States and vice president of the newly formed American Zeppelin Transport Company. In his report, von Meister made specific mention of the need for the Zeppelins to begin carrying a doctor. This was of particular concern since the Hindenburg's passenger decks had recently been expanded to accommodate 72 passengers, and future ships might carry as many as 110. Sooner or later, a passenger or crew member was bound to suffer an injury or illness that would require more than the basic first aid in which several crew members were trained. Von Meister suggested that the Zeppelin Company find a doctor without a private practice who might wish to take on the position of ship's physician.

Shortly after this, the subject came up in conversation between Lehmann and his young friend from the sailing club, Dr. Rüdiger. Rüdiger, not long out of medical school, was very much what Lehmann and von Meister were looking for, and he was hired as the first physician to ever be carried aboard a commercial aircraft as a regular member of the crew.

Dr. Kurt Rüdiger flew as the Hindenburg's doctor for the first time in March of 1937 on a short flight over Frankfurt, and then was aboard for the Hindenburg's first round-trip flight of the year to South America between March 16th and March 27th.

There had been some concern, expressed in von Meister's January, 1937 report to Lehmann, that with the increased passenger load Heinrich Kubis would not be able to carry out the wide range of duties that fell to him as Chief Steward. Therefore, Dr. Rüdiger would also serve as ship's purser, writing up invoices for passenger's bills for drinks and other incidentals and settling them at the end of the flight, et cetera.

In addition to tending to his medical and purser duties, Dr. Rüdiger also conducted tours of the ship for small groups of passengers. He would lead them through Chief Kubis' office near the smoking room on "B" deck, out onto the main gangway running along the keel of the ship. First they would walk aft, where Rüdiger would show the passengers the intricate interior structure of the ship, as well as the various storerooms and engineering stations located along the keel. He would often take them down into the ship's lower fin for a look at the auxiliary control stand, and sometimes he would even lead them along one of the lateral catwalks that led out toward the engine gondolas. He would then take them forward for a tour of the control car, and then finally back to the passenger area.

On Dr. Rüdiger's third flight – the Hindenburg's first North American trip of 1937, during the first week of May – his duties were fairly light. Aside from passenger Philip Mangone, who was suffering from a nasty cold, the only patient Rüdiger had to treat was cook Alfred Grözinger, who had scalded himself when he accidentally spilled soup on his foot. He led passenger tours as usual, but later stated that on this trip he never took any of the tour groups any further aft than the cargo rooms midway between the engine gondolas.

Dr. Rüdiger also personally accompanied photographer Karl Otto Clemens throughout the ship on several occasions (the last one being at roughly noon on the last day of the flight) as Clemens took photographs of the Hindenburg's interior. Rüdiger's main concern here was to make certain that Clemens didn't use any flash bulbs, which were forbidden aboard the ship because of the obvious fire hazard they posed.

As the Hindenburg approached the landing field at Lakehurst at the end of the flight, on May 6th, Dr. Rüdiger was looking out the observation windows in the lounge on the starboard side of the ship along with a group of passengers, and watched as the landing lines were dropped and taken up by the ground crew. Shortly after this, a gust of wind blew across the port beam and caused the ship to drift to starboard, obscuring Rüdiger's view of the ground crew. He walked over to the portside observation windows, and watched as the men on the ground fastened one of the mooring lines to a small rail car.

Dr. Rüdiger's location at the time of the fire.

It was then that the explosion occurred, and Rüdiger, along with a number of other people, was thrown towards the aft wall of the passenger deck as the Hindenburg's stern dropped. As he got to his feet and looked for a way out of the ship, he was aware of the brightness of the fire, but oddly enough not of the actual flames. Noticing that people were moving toward the windows, Rüdiger made his way to the nearest window and paused as Chief Steward Kubis warned that the ship was still too high off the ground. Rüdiger waited until he saw others jumping and followed them, dropping out of the ship from a height of about 6 or 7 meters. He landed heavily and broke his leg (and it's possible that he was the unidentified person who reportedly landed on passenger George Grant.) Rüdiger proceeded to crawl away from the wreckage, only then looking back and noticing that the entire ship was in flames.

After a preliminary stop at a nearby hospital, probably Paul Kimball Hospital in Lakewood, Dr. Rüdiger was taken to Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. He was interviewed for the Board of Inquiry in his hospital room on May 18th by Inspector Sommers, who was dispatched with a questionnaire to get Dr. Rüdiger's statement for the investigation so that Rüdiger could sail back to Germany on May 19th.

Dr. Kurt Rüdiger, on crutches due to his broken leg, shakes hands with nurse Alice Moore as he leaves Paul Kimball Hospital on or about May 7th, 1937, bound for Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.

After a couple of months recovering from his injuries, Rüdiger went to sea as ship's physician onboard the steamship Oakland, sailing the Pacific route from Vancouver down along the western coast of the United States. A conscientious objector, Dr. Rüdiger managed to avoid being conscripted into the German military, and remained a civilian physician throughout WWII.

After the war, Kurt Rüdiger maintained a practice at the health spa, Bad Schwartau, near Lübeck, northeast of Hamburg. He and his wife Oda had two daughters.

Special thanks to Barbara Waibel, head archivist for the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin archive at the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen. Barbara was kind enough to provide me with the relevant section of Willy von Meister's January 1937 report (Luftschiffbau Zeppelin archive, LZA 17/196, p. 7) in which the need for a ship's physician was discussed.


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