Monday, December 1, 2008

Heinrich Kubis

Crew Member

Age: 49

Hometown: Unknown

Occupation: Chief Steward

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


Chief Steward Heinrich Kubis held the distinction of being the world's first air steward, having served Zeppelin passengers in-flight since March of 1912, when he began contract catering on the DELAG airship Schwaben. Kubis was born on June 16th, 1888, and had worked in some of the most fashionable hotels in Europe, such as the Carlton in London and the Ritz in Paris, before plying his trade on Zeppelins.He was aboard the Schwaben when it was destroyed by fire in Dusseldorf on June 28th, 1912, and escaped without serious injury. Subsequently, he acted as chief steward on all passenger Zeppelins that followed, including the LZ-120 Bodensee after WWI, and eventually the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin, on which he was fortunate enough to make the round-the-world flight in 1929.

Heinrich Kubis (center) serves passengers aboard the DELAG airship, the LZ-120 Bodensee, during the summer of 1919. (photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

Kubis (center) watches a passenger perform a card trick onboard the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin during a flight to South America during the early 1930s. Hugo Eckener (seated, to left) and Captain Ernst Lehmann (far right, holding accordion) look on. (photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

When the Hindenburg was commissioned in March of 1936, Kubis transferred over from the Graf Zeppelin. He flew on the Hindenburg's first test flight, and on every flight thereafter. He was in charge of the passenger accomodations, overseeing a crew of approximately half a dozen stewards as well as a kitchen staff of about four (though the cooks were primarily the responsibility of the head chef, Xaver Maier.) He had an office down on the lower level of the passenger decks, next to the ship's bar and smoking room, but he spent most of his time seeing to his passengers,

Heinrich Kubis inspects provisions before they are loaded aboard the Hindenburg prior to a flight. (photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

Kubis in his purser's office next to the smoking room on the Hindenburg's B-deck.

Kubis almost missed the Hindenburg's first North American flight of 1937 due to illness. Steward Rudolf Staberoh had been contacted and was ready to stand in for Kubis as Chief Steward for the flight, but Kubis recovered in time to make the trip on May 3rd, and Staberoh flew on the Graf Zeppelin's flight to Rio that same week instead.

The Hindenburg's flight across the Atlantic was fairly unremarkable. Just about the only unusual concern for Kubis was the fact that one of the passengers, a vaudeville comic acrobat named Joseph Späh, was shipping a dog in the aft freight room of the ship and insisted on feeding the dog himself, rather than allowing Ernst Huchel (the elevatorman in charge of freight) or one of the stewards to do it for him. At first, Späh waited for a steward to accompany him back to his dog, but by the second or third day of the flight he began taking it upon himself to go back to the freight room unaccompanied, which was very much a violation of ship's policy. Späh didn't seem overly concerned with ship's policy in this case, however, and had to be returned to Kubis' office and warned more than once to not go back to feed his dog unaccompanied.

Beyond the issue with Späh and his dog, however, the flight passed more or less without incident. As the Hindenburg approached the landing field at Lakehurst on May 6th, 1937, Kubis had just come upstairs from B-deck, having checked to make sure there weren't still any passengers down there. Once on A-deck, he briefly looked in on the passengers in the starboard lounge, then walked across to the dining salon on the port side, and looked out the windows to see that the landing lines had been dropped. He then proceeded to set up a table for the U.S. Customs officials who would be coming aboard to process everyone after the ship had landed.

Heinrich Kubis' location at the time of the fire.

Suddenly, Kubis noticed the ship taking a strong downward angle aft and heard a muffled detonation, and he immediately ran to the center observation window and threw it open, calling to those at the other windows to do the same. Steward Eugen Nunnenmacher, standing behind Kubis, urged him to jump, but Kubis cautioned everyone to wait, as the ship was still too high off the ground at that point. He saw the first person, a passenger who had climbed onto the windowsill next to him, leap from the ship when it was about 15 or 20 feet above the ground, and then yelled to everyone to start jumping. Kubis sat on the window sill until the ship settled to earth. He then dropped about 10-15 feet to the ground, picked himself up, and ran until he was 50 meters or so from the ship. Once clear of the fire, he turned around and went back to the wreck to see if he could help.

Kubis (arrow) sits on the windowsill of the portside observation windows,
waiting for the Hindenburg to descend low enough for him to jump.

After all the passengers who could be rescued had been brought from the ship, and the fire had subsided somewhat, Kubis picked his way through the wreckage and located the ship's strongbox in the ruins of his office. He brought it to the DZR office in one of the air station's the airplane hangars, where crew survivors were gathering, and opened it in the presence of DZR officials. Amazingly, the key still turned in the lock. However, all of the cash that had been inside the strongbox had been reduced to ashes by the heat of the fire.

As newspaper reporters crowded around them in the hangar, asking for quotes from crew members, Kubis, ever the staunch public advocate of lighter-than-air travel, reportedly made the following prepared statement on behalf of the crew:

"My friends and I want to let the world know that we are ready to start all over again. Count Zeppelin himself suffered numerous defeats, but he kept on. We as loyal Germans will do the same. We naturally feel sorry for those friends of ours who have passed on, but we are not going to let that deter us. We are ready to start anew and build a bigger and greater Zeppelin."

Heinrich Kubis was unhurt in the fire, and stayed in the United States for about a week and a half after the disaster. He testified before the Board of Inquiry on May 14th, and then returned to Germany several days later with the rest of the surviving stewards and kitchen staff aboard the steamship Europa.

Kubis lived the rest of his life in Germany, and as the years passed he, like a number of other crew survivors, became more and more convinced that the Hindenburg had been sabotaged. Kubis' prime suspect was Joseph Späh, the passenger who had repeatedly walked unaccompanied to the stern of the ship to feed his dog during the voyage. Kubis reasoned that since the fire broke out in the stern of the ship, Späh was the only passenger who had had unfettered access. Furthermore, Späh was a professional acrobat, which to Kubis' mind made it that much more likely that he could have climbed up a ladder and hidden an incendiary device under the axial gangway near cell #4, roughly where Helmut Lau had testified to having seen the initial flash of fire.

Kubis later claimed, in addition, to have encountered Chief Rigger Ludwig Knorr about half an hour before the fire. Knorr, Kubis said, was on his way forward and mentioned having discovered some sort of damage to gas cell #4, which is where witnesses later saw the fire begin. To Kubis, this added weight to his notion that Joseph Späh had been behind the Hindenburg fire. But, of course, this theory was never proven, and the FBI's investigation of Späh turned up absolutely nothing out of the ordinary.

Heinrich Kubis in 1947, attending a wreath-laying ceremony with
his former shipmates on the 10th anniversary of the Hindenburg fire.

Heinrich Kubis retired in Augsburg, where he lived with his son and daughter-in-law. He lived to a ripe old age, and passed away in the 1970s.

(Thanks to Dr. Cheryl Ganz for the information concerning Rudolf Staberoh almost having had to substitute for Heinrich Kubis on the Hindenburg's final flight.)


Stephen Davies said...

Hello, I am new to this site, and it is utterly fascinating. I have had a fixation with airships for a good while, I work in aviation myself, for a German company (I am from the UK) and to look back at events from this long ago and see the sheer amount of detail is amazing. Congratulations to the people who have done it.

I have chosen to comment on this particular person, as I wonder if anybody else finds him; as I do, somewhat unpleasant. His immediate post-tragedy comments and actions were self-serving and disrespectful to the dead, and his urging of a traumatised 14 year old child to get back into the wreckage strike me as the actions of a, well, a word I won't use on here. Different times, I know, but even allowing for that, mmm.. not enamoured of this chap. Not at all.

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