Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Eduard Boëtius

Crew Member

Age: 27

Hometown: Föhr, Germany

Occupation: Navigator (third officer)

Location at time of fire: Elevator wheel, control car


Eduard Boëtius (pronounced "Boh-ey-tee-us") was a navigator on the Hindenburg's final flight, along with Max Zabel, Franz Herzog, and Christian Nielsen. Born on the North Frisian island of Föhr in 1910, Boëtius went to sea at age 19, signing onboard the Laeisz Transport Company's four-masted, square-rigged barque Peking. He spent two years serving on the Peking, rated first as an ordinary seaman and eventually as an able seaman. When the Peking was sold in 1932, Boëtius transferred to the Laeisz steamship Poseidon. During his four years as a merchant seaman, Eduard Boëtius made the perilous journey around Cape Horn six times. Having occasionally been allowed to stand at the helm during his time onboard the Peking, and more often when serving on the Poseidon, Boëtius had shown himself to have considerable talent at the wheel of a ship, particularly in difficult waters such as the Straits of Magellan.

In 1934, therefore, Boëtius began studying at the navigation school in Hamburg. After two years of study, he passed his examinations and became licensed as a ship's officer and also as a radio operator. A classmate named Gerd von Mensenkampff, who was employed with the Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei and training to be an airship navigator, convinced Boëtius to look to the future and consider a career as an airshipman. The Zeppelin Company was in the process of establishing an international airship service, and was planning to build a fleet of passenger airships – for which they would obviously need a growing number of trained navigators and watch officers.

Eduard Boëtius was hired by the DZR in May of 1936. His first flight was a short transfer flight on May 22nd, 1936 from Frankfurt to Friedrichshafen aboard the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin, though he had not yet been assigned duties. Once in Friedrichshafen, he began undergoing training in preparation for a position on the DZR's new ship, the LZ-129 Hindenburg. He would begin as a rigger under Chief Rigger Ludwig Knorr, and move up through the various command crew stations (helmsman, elevatorman, navigator, watch officer) and eventually perhaps even be given a command of his own.

His first flight as a member of the Hindenburg's crew was on June 16th, 1936. The ship had been chartered by the Krupp Company, one of Germany's leading armament manufacturers, for a company outing for various company executives as well as several Krupp family members. During this flight, which was primarily over Switzerland, Boëtius served as a rigger. He progressed quickly, however, and by August of that year he was already standing watch at the rudder wheel in the control car. Shortly thereafter, he shifted over to the elevator wheel, where his natural talents as a helmsman on a seagoing vessel took on a new dimension as he guided the Hindenburg through the vertical plane, using feel and instinct as much as instruments to maintain the ship's pitch.

Eduard Boëtius at the elevator wheel of the Hindenburg.

By the time of the Hindenburg's first North American flight of the 1937 season during the first week of May, Eduard Boëtius had been promoted to navigator. Along with fellow navigators Franz Herzog, Max Zabel, and Christian Nielsen, Boëtius determined the ship's course, drift, position, and speed using the very latest in long-range navigational techniques and weather forecasting methods.

As the Hindenburg came in on its final landing approach to the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, NJ on the evening of May 6th, Boëtius was in the navigation room in the center of the control car along with Nielsen and Zabel. He sounded the signal for landing stations shortly after 7:00 PM. The still somewhat unfavorable weather conditions over Lakehurst prompted the watch officer on duty, Captain Albert Sammt, to order Boëtius, more experienced and steady-handed as an elevatorman, to take over the elevator wheel in place of Ludwig Felber, who had only recently begun to stand watch as an elevatorman. Felber turned the wheel over to Boëtius with the ship about 3-4 degrees light in the bow and slightly tail-heavy, and then proceeded forward to take a landing station in the bow.

Eduard Boëtius' location in the control car at the time of the fire.

As the Hindenburg floated over the landing field and the ground crew was taking up the landing lines, Boëtius felt the ship jerk suddenly. He looked out a window and saw a reddish glow in the air, but was not immediately aware that the ship had caught fire. As the stern dropped and the bow pointed up at a 45-degree angle, Boëtius clung to his elevator wheel as the rest of the command crew lost their footing. Amazingly, however, Boëtius noticed a complete lack of panic in the control car. He looked out the front windows of the car and saw crew members falling from the bow of the ship, some from a fairly great height. As Boëtius later learned, the fire shot out the bow in a great pillar, killing most of the men who had been stationed there, including Ludwig Felber, whom Boëtius had replaced at the elevator at the last moment.

When the ship's bow began to drop, Boëtius climbed up onto a window just aft of his elevator wheel. He hesitated, not wanting to leap too soon and perhaps break a leg and not be able to run clear of the wreck. Captain Heinrich Bauer, standing behind Boëtius and wanting to use the same window for his own escape, called out "Jump, Eddi!" However, Boëtius knew that the ship was still too high in the air yet. He waited until the landing wheel under the control car touched the ground, and then jumped from a height of 10 to 12 feet. He landed on his feet and ran to portside with all his might to get out from under the descending wreckage.

Eduard Boëtius crouches in a control car window (arrow) preparing to jump. Navigator Christian Nielsen is doing the same in the window just aft of Boëtius.

Boëtius (arrow) lands on the ground after jumping from the control car. Nielsen drops to the ground just behind him, having jumped from the navigation room window a split second after Boëtius.

Boëtius made it clear of the wreck, which collapsed to earth just behind him, and he then ran back toward the ship where he found engineer Raphael Schädler lying unconscious on the ground a short distance from the #4 engine car. Boëtius hauled him over to some sailors who were showing survivors to trucks and ambulances. He then headed for the passenger decks along with Captain Walter Ziegler, steward Fritz Deeg, and fellow navigator Christian Nielsen in an attempt to rescue as many of those trapped in the wreckage as possible. They returned to the wreck several times until the structure had completely collapsed and there was no hope of rescuing anyone else. Boëtius then headed around the bow to the starboard side. There, he found elevatorman Kurt Bauer lying dazed on the ground some distance from the wreck. Bauer got up, and the two of them walked back around the bow to the port side, and saw rescuers carrying a body from the ruins of the ship's nose section.

The next day, Boëtius returned to the wreckage and searched around the general vicinity of his crew quarters, looking for any of his possessions which might have survived the fire, particularly a set of cufflinks that his father had given to him. Normally, Boëtius wore them with his uniform, but since it had been such a warm day as they flew into Lakehurst, Boëtius had opted to wear a short-sleeved shirt under his uniform jacket, and had left his cufflinks in his quarters. Amazingly, he managed to find one of them amid the charred wreckage. He carried it with him for the rest of his life as a memento.

Eduard Boëtius testified before the US Commerce Department's Board of Inquiry into the Hindenburg fire on May 19th, and slightly more than two weeks after the disaster he, along with a number of his fellow crew survivors, sailed home to Germany onboard the steamship Bremen, arriving in Bremerhaven a week later on May 28th. On his return to Germany, Eduard Boëtius was, along with several other crew members, awarded a medal for his efforts in rescuing passengers.

Boëtius continued to work with the DZR, serving aboard the LZ-130 during its short operational life beginning the following year. Not long after this, he was drafted into the German navy, and was made captain of a U-boat supply ship (a converted whaler) in the sea near Norway. The ship was struck by a Russian torpedo while fleeing pursuers, and sank within minutes. After seeing his entire crew into lifeboats, Boëtius leapt into the icy water, and was lucky enough to be picked up before he drowned. It was the second time that Eduard Boëtius had narrowly avoided death.

Eduard Boëtius circa 1984

In an interview with the German magazine "Der Spiegel" in 2000, Boëtius was asked whether he thought it pure chance that he had escaped death twice. He replied, "I think about that to this day. What is chance, what is fate? I can't find an answer, and perhaps that's just as well." When asked if his experiences have affected the way he views death, Boëtius answered, "When the time comes, I'm ready. It's been a long, but never dull life. When I look back, I was always a man who had to do with the end of an era. I experienced the ending of the great sail ships, and then the demise of airships, the end of whaling, and then after the war, the end of traditional parcel service giving way to containerized shipping." When the interviewer remarked that Boëtius sounded resigned to having always come in on the losing end of these things, Boëtius asked him, "Do you know any 90 year-old who isn't resigned?" and continued, "As far as my professional life is concerned, it shows me how rather short-lived so-called progress is."

Eduard Boëtius passed away on November 7, 2002, in Schülp, Germany, where he had retired just down the coast from his home island of Föhr. He was 92.

(Special thanks to Siegfried Geist, whose obituary for Herr Boëtius helped me to fill in a lot of information about Boëtius' post-Zeppelin life. I also was able to glean a great deal about Boëtius' earlier life as a merchant marine and his eventual employment with the Zeppelin Company from the book "Phoenix aus Asche" – titled simply "Phoenix" for its English-language release, by Eduard Boëtius' son Henning, who based his book in part on his father's life story.)


david helms said...

captain edward boetius sent me a picture of the flaming hindenburg
years ago. indeed , a tresured piece of history.

david helms

Patrick Russell said...

Hi David,

That must have been fascinating to talk/write with Captain Boetius. He certainly lived a long and interesting life aside from his experience aboard the Hindenburg.


Dagmara Lizlovs said...

After reading about Eduard Boëtius’ narrow escape from death after his ship was hit by Russian torpedo, I have several things I would like to share. It is about my own family’s narrow escape from a similar situation and its historical background.
My mother’s family was fleeing Latvia for Germany across the Baltic, being unable to get to neutral Sweden. A Russian submarine was following the ship they were on with the intention of sinking it. A bad storm came up and the Russian sub lost their ship. I remember my grandmother telling me about how nervous the captain was. If it were not for that storm, I would not be in existence to make this post.
Others were not so lucky. There is one disaster that surpasses both the Titanic, the Lusitania and the Hindenburg combined – the sinking of the Gustloff by a Russian sub during World War II. About 9300 people were lost. Most of them were refugees fleeing the advancing Soviet army. This is 6 times as many as were lost on the Titanic. If you combine the death tolls from the Titanic, Lusitania and Hindenburg, this is 3 times the loss of life. 5000 of these were children. The story of the Gustloff is told here:


Why would anyone sail in a dangerously overcrowded ship in submarine infested waters? It is only to get away from something more horrible – Soviet occupation that was coming through East Prussia and Poland. Here is a description from my family’s personal accounts of the Soviet occupation as it happened in Latvia from 1940-1941 which in Latvian is called “Baigais Gads” or “Year of Horror”. The Soviet Union after occupying the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, set about to rid them of “Anti-Soviet elements” with absolute terror. The Cheka (NKVD) was the Gestapo on steroids. You never knew if and when the Cheka will come for you or why. Sometimes it was over nothing. On the night of June 13th to 14th, 1941, thousands of people, men, women, children, elderly, infants were rounded up in a night of terror and shipped off to the Gulag. The first to die of harsh conditions of the train ride to Siberia and the Gulag were the infants and the elderly. The men were separated from their families and most of them died from overwork in the Siberian interior. Many persons remained in the Gulag for the rest of their lives after World War II, forgotten by the rest of the world. My maternal grandmother was a school teacher in Riga. Once some of her pupils used crayons to rework the portraits of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin. My grandmother went into a panic as she disposed of the pictures, replacing them with new ones, hoping the wrong person didn’t see them. When I tell this story to people, especially younger, people, they just cannot understand why an innocent prank like this could have deadly consequences. When the Germans pushed the Soviets out of the Baltic States, an NKVD torture chamber was opened up. Inside were drains for catching blood as victims had their ears or noses chopped off. Victims were mutilated by the NKVD in some gruesome way before they were executed. I remember the icy fear I felt seeing the sickening pictures of the mutilated face of the founder of the Latvian Scouting movement General Karlis Goppers in Latvian publications. Being atheists, the Soviets brutally crushed all religion. My father also told me about a Catholic priest that had been boiled alive by the Chekists. When the Eastern front collapsed and the Russians were pushing back into Latvia, a rumor circulated that when the Russians came back, everyone would be required to report someone to the NKVD. This sparked a mass exodus from Latvia, and people making desperate attempts to cross the Baltic.

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Anonymous said...

I requested a friend of his to get his autograph which I have a signed booklet. I received an email before I got the item. It said hang on to this autograph. It was the last thing he signed. He died later that day.