Sunday, December 14, 2008

Eugen Bentele

Crew Member

Age: 28

Hometown: Friedrichshafen, Germany

Occupation: Chief mechanic, engine gondola #4

Location at time of fire: Engine gondola #4, forward portside.


Eugen Bentele was one of 20 engine mechanics onboard the Hindenburg for its final flight. Born in Friedrichshafen on October 18, 1909, Bentele took on an apprenticeship with Maybach-Motorenbau when he was 14. He spent the next four years working 52 hour weeks, learning the theory and practice of building and maintaining engines. In the four years following his apprenticeship, from 1927 through 1930, Bentele worked in various departments throughout the Maybach company, and in his last year there he worked on VL-2 airship engines, both assembling them, and testing them on a test rig. He was among the Maybach fitters who, in May of 1929, worked through the night to assemble three new VL-2's for emergency shipment to the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin, which was stranded in France, four of its five engines broken down.

In April of 1930, Bentele received a call from August Grözinger, Flight Engineer for the LZ-127. "Bentele," Grözinger said, "you know your way around a VL-2 engine. Do you fancy working on an airship?" It was an easy decision for Bentele, and in May of 1930 he officially joined Luftschiffbau-Zeppelin, at first in the Propulsion System Testing and Wind Tunnel Department. He was also supposed to act as a replacement onboard mechanic, should one of the LZ-127's usual mechanics fall ill or otherwise be unable to make a flight. Bentele waited an entire year for his chance to take part in a flight, and finally on May 12, 1931 he made his first flight as an engine mechanic.

Eugen Bentele (l.) and another mechanic, probably Wilhelm Fischer, in the starboard aft engine gondola of the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin, in the early 1930s. (photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

After this three-day touring flight over Germany, Eugen Bentele was aboard the Graf Zeppelin for numerous flights between 1931 and 1935, both over Germany and on longer trips to South America. In 1936, Bentele took part in the first test flight of the LZ-129 Hindenburg, and was onboard for the majority of the 63 flights the Hindenburg made between March 4, 1936 and May 6, 1937. During the 1936-37 winter break, Bentele did two months of compulsory military service. As he later wrote: "After strenuous flight duties on the Hindenburg from March to mid-December 1936, those of us crew members who had not performed military service were "voluntarily" called up into the armed forces. I was mustered out after eight weeks of infantry training with the Luftwaffe, and the medical corporal could not fail to notice that I had put on weight after eight weeks infantry service - a whole kilogram. This could only have been due to getting regular sleep."

Eugen Bentele, along with German Zettel and Josef Schreibmüller, served as a chief mechanic onboard the Hindenburg for its first North American flight of the 1937 season, having just been promoted to the position earlier that year. His primary duty involved overseeing engine #4, portside forward, and by the end of the flight he had experienced no difficulties or problems whatsoever with his engine. As the Hindenburg approached the mooring area at Lakehurst at the end of the flight on May 6th, Eugen Bentele was on duty in engine gondola #4, along with flight engineer Raphael Schädler and mechanic trainee Theodor Ritter, who was manning the telegraph to the control car. Bentele watched the landing lines drop and saw the ground crew attach one of the lines to an engine driven capstan winch and begin to pull the ship down.

Eugen Bentele's location at the time of the fire.

It was shortly after this, as Bentele had his attention on his engine and was waiting for another order to come through from the control car, that he felt a powerful shock run through the ship. He heard nothing but "a sort of a crackling crash" over the sound of the engine running, since he had cotton in his ears as he usually did while he was on duty in the engine gondola, and his initial thought was that one of the landing lines had broken. When he turned and looked out the rear of the engine car, however, he suddenly saw that the ship was already on fire from the stern almost as far forward as his engine gondola. He realized that it would be suicide to try and jump at that point, as the ship was still almost 200 feet above the landing field. So he and his comrades held on and waited for the ship to drop closer to the ground, hoping that the ship's aluminum framework wouldn't melt and drop the entire engine gondola to the ground.

The stern of the ship began to drop, after the relative eternity of a few seconds, and Bentele realized that his planned escape route through the side window of the gondola was blocked by Ritter and Schädler. He therefore held on tightly to the girders across the roof of the gondola, waiting for his chance to jump. As the tail of the ship hit the ground, with the bow pointing up at roughly a 45-degree angle, the section of hull between the foward and aft engine cars began to telescope in upon itself, effectively slowing the descent of the forward engine cars. Bentele was never sure what happened next, as the next thing he recalled was lying on the ground next to the propeller, at the edge of the burning wreckage. He assumed that he'd either jumped without thinking about it, or that with the engine car tilted at such an extreme angle as it was, he had been thrown over the engine and out the back of the gondola when it struck the ground.

Eugen Bentele (arrow) begins to pick himself up off of the ground behind engine gondola #4.

Bentele runs clear of the fire as the Hindenburg settles to the ground.

Bentele immediately began to run from the ship, and when he'd gotten about 150 feet from the wreckage, he felt his back and his neck getting very hot, and put his hands over the back of his neck to protect it, and immediately felt the back of his hands begin to burn. Thinking he was on fire, Bentele threw himself down on his back, only then realizing that the heat was coming not from his coverall, which wasn't burning at all, but rather from the radiant heat from the flames devouring the ship behind him. He quickly picked himself up and ran another 500 feet or so, until he was well away from the fire, then turned around to look for any of his fellow crewmates who might have also escaped. At first, he didn't see anyone. Then gradually others began to emerge from the smoke and vapors surrounding the now-grounded ship.

Bentele then checked himself over, and realized that other than the burns on his hands and on the back of his neck, he was almost completely unhurt. He went off to find the air station's infirmary, as the few burns he had were beginning to hurt quite a bit. When he arrived, he saw how many of the surviving passengers and crew (including Captains Ernst Lehmann and Albert Sammt) were already there waiting, many of them with burns and injuries far more severe than his. Bentele walked over and sat down on a car, trying to gather his thoughts. He realized that his wife (whom he had married two months earlier) would be incredibly worried when she heard of the disaster, so he went to the base radio facility and the officer on duty gladly sent a telegram for him. His wife received the telegram in Walldorf hours later at 6:45 AM Central European Time. At first, she wasn't sure what the message, "Am unhurt", was in reference to, though she obviously recognized the signature "Moggele" as being her husband's nickname. It was only later, when news of the disaster was broadcast on the radio, that she realized the full import of the message.

Eugen Bentele's telegram to his wife, May 6th, 1937. "Bin unverletzt – Moggele."

As word of the disaster spread throughout the Lakehurst area, ambulances from nearby towns began to converge on the air station, picking up survivors and taking them to area hospitals. Bentele ended up sharing a ride with his fellow mechanic Richard Kollmer, and they were taken to Fitkin Memorial Hospital in Asbury Park. After a full examination and X-rays, it was determined that, in addition to the second-degree burns, Bentele had four broken ribs. He could count himself lucky, however, as other friends of his from among the Hindenburg's crew, such as radio operator Herbert Dowe and Chief Electrician Philipp Lenz, were in much worse shape than he was, and others, he knew, never made it out of the ship at all.

Bentele spent three weeks in Fitkin Hospital, during which time he was treated very well by the staff, as were all of the Hindenburg survivors. Bentele later wrote: "After a fortnight I was already in such good health that my nurse invited me for a drive round the surrounding area. Whilst we were driving along and talking, she asked me to take the steering wheel whilst she looked up a word in her dictionary (my English was very poor). So I steered through the countryside and small towns without her knowing that I'd never driven a car before. In America, where everyone drives, I could hardly say, "I might be able to fly an airship, but I can't drive a car..."

Three weeks after the disaster Bentele, along with eleven other surviving crew members who were well enough to travel, sailed back to Germany onboard the steamship Bremen. Bentele immediately noticed the difference between flying over the ocean on a Zeppelin and sailing across the ocean on a ship, as onboard the Bremen even mild ocean swells would almost make him seasick, whereas this was never an issue onboard the Zeppelins.

Bentele made one last Zeppelin flight, on the third flight of the LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin, September 22, 1938. After this, he worked as a fitter in the test department of Luftschiffbau-Zeppelin, which had begin to switch over to the construction of various equipment for the German military, such as the Tiger tank and parts for the V2 rocket. One project that Bentele took part in was a series of trials to convert diesel engines for use underwater in submarines. After the war, Luftshiffbau-Zeppelin was made to repair vehicles for the French military, and Bentele was foreman of the division which dealt with transmissions, axles, and steering systems. By 1957, Bentele was once more working as a designer, as Luftschiffbau-Zeppelin was once again able to produce industrial components. He stayed with the company until 1980, when he retired from Luftschiffbau-Zeppelin after 50 years. Bentele then spent his time traveling with his wife and indulging in his passion for mountain climbing - which he continued to do regularly until he was well into his 80s, at which point he finally decided that he had to cut back on his mountaineering (and on his skiing as well) due to his age.

In the early 1990s, Eugen Bentele wrote a short, but fascinating, autobiography called "The Story of a Zeppelin Mechanic". In it, he traced his career from his apprenticeship with Maybach, through his years as an engine mechanic on the Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg, touched upon his impressions of the Hindenburg disaster itself, and then wrapped up with a brief summation of his post-Zeppelin life. It is highly recommended reading for anyone interested in the day to day operations of the old passenger Zeppelins, and was of great help to me in fleshing out this biographic profile.

("The Story of a Zeppelin Mechanic" is available HERE at the Zeppelin Museum's online store. They sell an excellent English translation of the book, though the original German edition is currently unavailable.)

On December 12, 2003, Eugen Bentele passed away in Friedrichshafen at 94 years of age. He was one of the last of the old-time Zeppelin crewmen and, along with former cabin boy Werner Franz was, at the time of his death, one of only two remaining Hindenburg crew survivors.

Eugen Bentele, circa 1992


Paul Stout said...

I met Eugen Bentele and his wonderful wife in 1978, while serving as an LDS Missionary in Friedrichshafen, Germany. Not only was his Hindenburg story fascinating, but he was a very enthusiatic and generous man.

Patrick Russell said...

I've heard exactly the same sort of thing about Herr Bentele from just about everyone I've spoken or corresponded with who knew him. I really wish I'd gotten the chance to meet him myself, not just because of his Hindenburg story, but also because he seems like the kind of fellow who I'd have just enjoyed talking with in general.

abrahao barbosa emilio jr said...

Eu tenho, com muito orgulho, um autografo do Eugen Bentele, datado de 02 de julho de 2000, no lançamento do zeppelin NT. Me emocionei muito ao vê lo. ele foi muito simpatico me contandfo de suas viagens ao brazil a bordo do Lz 127 und Lz 129. descance em paz .

Patrick Russell said...

That's great that you got to meet Herr Bentele and get his autograph. He must have been fascinating to talk with.

I imagine that he was also thrilled to see a Zeppelin take to the skies once again after all those years!

Anonymous said...

Hi, just found this site when I was looking for this gentlemans name.
I took his portrait in 1998.
have a look:

kind regards,
Gregor Servais

Patrick Russell said...

Hi Gregor,

That's an excellent photo! Thanks for sharing that with me. Did you shoot that photo down by the shores of the Bodensee, by chance?


Gregor Servais said...

Hi Patrick,
Indeed it was made at the Bodensee.

kind regards,
Gregor Servais

Anonymous said...

Hi, there's a minor mistake: For his entire Life, the Hometown of my Grandfather was Friedrichshafen.

Best Regards

Jochen Holzer

Patrick Russell said...

Hello, Jochen,

Thank you! I should have caught that earlier and changed it, so I appreciate you pointing it out.

Many of my crew biographies still have hometown information based on the addresses they gave to the US Commerce Department's Board of Inquiry, as that was some of my earlier reference material for these articles. Most of the crew lived near the Frankfurt airport when they served on the Hindenburg, but it was not their permanent home. When investigation officials asked, however, most gave their Frankfurt-area addresses.

Anyway, I've made the change to your Grandfather's article. Thanks again for pointing that out.

Best regards,

Jean-Didier Kappler said...

I want to inform you,that
Mr. Eugen Bentele was my uncle
living in Friedrichshafen Germany.

His daughter is still living in

I'm a french citizen and imigrated from Germany to France 45 years ago

Unknown said...

Mr. Bentele's book "The Story of a Zeppelin Mechanic" is available from Amazon. It's filled with photos, diagrams and information. I found that Eugen Benbtele's wonderful personality comes through the book nicely and leaves one with the desire to learn even more about him and his Zeppelin Adventures!