Monday, December 15, 2008

John and Emma Pannes


Ages: John Pannes - 60
Emma Pannes - 56

Residence: Plandome, Long Island, New York

Mr. Pannes' occupation: New York manager of Hamburg-America Line

Location at time of fire: B-deck passenger cabins

Died in wreck

John Pannes was the New York manager for the Hamburg-America Steamship Line, which also handled arrangements for the Hindenburg's flights to Lakehurst. He and his wife Emma were born on the same day, four years apart – John in New York on September 14th, 1876, and Emma (born Emma Romeiser) in Belleville, IL on September 14th, 1880 – and had been married since sometime around approximately 1910. They had two children: Natalie, 22, and Hilgard, 19, and lived in Plandome on Long Island, New York where they had maintained a home for many years.

John Pannes (arrow) at a meeting between officials of the Hamburg-America Line and the Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei in summer of 1936. The tall gentleman to the left of Mr. Pannes is Willy von Meister, the United States representative for the DZR. In the front row, fourth from left, is Dr. Hugo Eckener, chairman of the DZR's Supervisory Board and former commander of the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin.

John and Emma Pannes had sailed to Germany in April onboard the Hamburg-America Line steamer Bremen, intending to fly back on the Hindenburg's first North American trip of the 1937 season. In his capacity as a manager with the Hamburg-America Line, Mr. Pannes had flown to Europe on the Hindenburg the previous May.

During the Hindenburg's flight across the ocean, John and Emma Pannes befriended a number of their fellow passengers including Margaret Mather, who subsequently included the couple in an article she wrote about the Hindenburg's last flight for the November 1937 issue of Harper's Magazine (though she omitted their names for publication.) Miss Mather spoke of having after-dinner coffee with them and passing the time with Mrs. Pannes in the ship's reading lounge.

The afternoon of May 6th, the Pannes' son Hilgard drove from Plandome down to Lakehurst to meet his parents, although he was somewhat concerned about the fact that he had to leave his grandmother Hilda Pannes, 87 years old and ailing, alone at their Long Island home.

John Pannes and his son Hilgard

Meanwhile, as the Hindenburg cruised over New York that same afternoon, Emma Pannes tried to see their house in order to point it out to Margaret Mather. Unable to spot it, Mrs. Pannes was at least able to show Miss Mather the bay where their hometown of Plandome was located. As the afternoon progressed and the Hindenburg passed over the airbase at Lakehurst and flew out to the Jersey coast to wait for the stormy weather to clear, Emma Pannes and Miss Mather kept an eye on Lakehurst's massive Zeppelin hangar, visible for miles around from the air. Occasionally the storm clouds would obscure the hangar, and Miss Mather would playfully chide Mrs. Pannes for having not kept a close enough eye on it. They watched deer scatter from beneath the ship as they flew over the Jersey pine barrens. One of the stewards brought them sandwiches at about 6:30 that evening, informing them that it might be another hour or two before they landed.

As the Hindenburg approached the mooring mast at Lakehurst shortly after 7:00 PM, Mr. and Mrs. Pannes were standing by the observation windows in the dining salon on the portside of the ship along with other passengers, Margaret Mather among them. With the ship apparently just minutes away from landing, Mrs. Pannes decided to go downstairs to their cabin to get her coat. Contrary to the way the story has been told in various airship history books, with Mr. Pannes remaining at the dining room window while his wife went downstairs, it seems that Mr. Pannes in fact went with her.

Once downstairs, Mr. Pannes apparently remained in the main hallway on the starboard side, probably watching the landing through the windows set into the B-deck floor while his wife went to their cabin. The Pannes' cabin was in the new passenger cabin area that had recently been built just aft of the main B-deck hallway. As Mr. Pannes waited, fellow passenger Karl Otto Clemens came downstairs to get his suitcase, pausing next to the windows to take photographs of the landing crew on the ground below.

The approximate locations of John and Emma Pannes on B deck at the time of the fire.

When the ship caught fire moments later, Clemens called to Mr. Pannes to jump through one of the windows. John Pannes turned instead towards the door to the new passenger cabin area, saying that he first had to find Emma, and rushed off. It was the last time either of the Pannes' were seen alive.


David72 said...

I guess I shouldn't find it surprising that there are no comments for John and Emma Pannes, considering their ages at the time of the disaster. Their son Hilgard looks like he was nearing adulthood in the 1930s. I wonder if he has any descendants who might not know the story of their grandparents. I've always thought of the Pannes as the "Ida and Isador Strauss" of the "Hindenburg" story, and although there's not the same drama and pathos of the Strauss' vow to die together as they lived, it's telling that John passed up the opportunity to escape in order to find his wife.

Helene Rippey said...

My mother, Ethelwyn Boericke (of Philadelphia and who died in 1984,) spoke often of her friend Hilgard and gave the impression she had accompanied him to meet his parents at the landing. Perhaps her horror was just imagining, or speaking with Hilgard about it later.

Patrick Russell said...

Well, it's certainly possible that your mother may have accompanied Hilgard to Lakehurst that afternoon. It was a bit of a drive and I'm sure he'd have appreciated the company. Did your mother live in or near Plandome at the time?

Anonymous said...

My dissertation was on Captain Henry Bockelman who was port captain of pier 84/86. He was an eye witness to the crash and had gone there to greet Mr. Pannes. The memorial for the passengers who died in the crash was held at pier 84/86

Patrick Russell said...

Hi there. Now there's a cool, unusual dissertation topic! I'd love to hear more about Captain Bockelman and his connection to Mr. Pannes. Please feel free to drop me an email at

Take care