Thursday, December 11, 2008

Rudolf Sauter

Crew Member

Age: 36

Hometown: Frankfurt, Germany

Occupation: Chief Engineer

Location at time of fire: Lower fin


Rudolf Sauter was the Hindenburg's Chief Engineer. He trained at the Daimler motor works, worked for a time in the airplane industry, and was then hired by the Zeppelin company in 1929, where he initially worked in the design office. He was made an assembly engineer in 1930, and began making flights on the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin in 1931. Sauter made all flights of the Graf Zeppelin between 1934 and 1936, when he was transferred to the Hindenburg as her Chief Engineer. He had also worked on the construction of the Hindenburg throughout this time.

Sauter was in charge of the Hindenburg's staff of mechanics, and had as his assistants and direct subordinates Engineering Officers Eugen Schäuble, Raphael Schädler, and Wilhelm Dimmler. As Chief Engineer, Sauter reported directly to the ship's commander.

Rudolf Sauter (right) and Engineering Officer Eugen Schäuble (left) in the Hindenburg's engineering office amidships. (photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

According to Harold Dick, an American Goodyear employee who worked with Luftschiffbau Zeppelin in Friedrichshafen between 1934 and 1938, Sauter was also a staunch Nazi. A general in the Sturmabteilung, or "Brown Shirts", Sauter was a man to be reckoned with. It was said that if Dr. Eckener had trouble getting something he needed from Göring's Air Ministry, Sauter would go to Berlin and, with his S.A. connections, get it for him.

In Dick's estimation, however, Sauter was a dedicated airshipman first and foremost. His responsibilities covered not only the mechanics, but also maintenance and physical operation of the entire ship. This, of course, included the four Maybach VL-2 engines which powered the ship through the clouds. He not only oversaw the engine mechanics, but he was an excellent mechanic himself, and often worked on the motors alongside his crew.

Rudolf Sauter operates one of the engine telegraphs in his engineering office. (photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

Rudolf Sauter (right, in doorway) confers with Engineering Officer Raphael Schädler in engine gondola #4.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

On the Hindenburg's first North American flight of 1937, Chief Sauter was in charge of a group of almost 20 mechanics. Since the new DZR airship, the LZ-130, was scheduled to be commissioned later that fall, there were a number of apprentices onboard the Hindenburg, training for the positions they would be required to fill on the new ship. Other than this, however, the flight produced few issues for Sauter to deal with. He had made his customary stem-to-stern inspection of the ship at the beginning of the flight and found everything in order. Throughout the rest of the trip he had to replace a pump on an auxiliary diesel in the ship's generator room, and there were a few requests from the passenger decks for the heat to be adjusted, but in all the flight proved to be more or less uneventful.

Sauter was with one of the new trainees, Wilhelm Steeb, in engine gondola #3 when the signal for landing stations was given at around 7:00 PM on the evening of May 6th, 1937. As the ship flew towards the landing field at Lakehurst, Sauter climbed back up into the ship and headed for his landing station at the auxiliary control stand in the lower fin. Here, he would stand by the telephone and relay orders from the control car to the men stationed in the stern (rigger Hans Freund was lowering the aft landing lines, helmsman Helmut Lau was manning the variometer, and mechanic Richard Kollmer was in charge of the aft landing wheel), as well as reporting on any problems which might arise during the landing maneuvers. And, in fact, as the ship circled around the airfield to make its final approach, Sauter reported to the command crew that the Hindenburg was tail-heavy by about 1000 kilos. Beyond this, however, everything in the stern was, in Sauter's opinion, completely normal. Freund, up the ladder and just inside the keel at Ring 47, was having some trouble with one of the hauling-up lines he was using to bring one of the aft mooring cables up from its storage space in the lower fin. Sauter watched as Lau climbed partway up the ladder and cleared the line from where it had fouled, and noted that the line was now running smoothly again.

Rudolf Sauter's location at the time of the fire.

Suddenly, about 60 feet past Lau's head, Sauter saw a flash of bright white light up toward the front bulkhead of gas cell #4, at the point where the axial walkway tunneled through the cell and joined with the ventilation shaft leading up to the top of the ship. To Sauter, the flash looked to be approximately a meter in diameter, and it quickly became obvious to him that the ship was on fire. The fire spread almost instantaneously, and the stern of the ship lost buoyancy and dropped to the ground. Sauter took a fairly sharp knock to the head as the lower fin hit the ground, and Lau thought that Sauter may have passed out for a moment or two. But Sauter was right back up again and looking for a way for the men to get out of the fin. He noticed Kollmer climbing out the fin's access hatch and called to the other two men that they could get out of the fin that way. He waited for the others to climb out, and followed behind them, blood streaming down his face from the cut on his head.

Sauter and the others tried to get to some of those still trapped in the wreckage, but they had emerged on the starboard side of the ship and the wind was blowing the smoke and flames towards them. They ran around the stern to the port side of the ship, and Sauter immediately ran for the port aft engine car to try and help Adolf Fischer and August Deutschle, the two mechanics he knew were on watch there. He was restrained by sailors, however, who were afraid that the fuel tanks there might still explode.

Rudolf Sauter, his head hastily bandaged, leaves the Lakehurst Naval Air Station's infirmary, shortly after his escape from the Hindenburg fire.

Rudolf Sauter (left) and stewards Fritz Deeg (white coat, center) and Wilhelm Balla (white coat, right) leave Hangar One at Lakehurst after identifying bodies of fire victims, on or about May 7th, 1937

Aside from the cut on his head, Sauter was basically unscathed. The next day, he was back at the Lakehurst base with other surviving members of the crew, carrying out the ugly task of attempting to identify bodies recovered from the wreck. He remained in the United States for a few weeks after the disaster, testifying before the Commerce Department's Board of Inquiry. However, he later claimed that he and the others in the crew were ordered by Berlin to refrain from offering opinions to the Board. "Answer questions... no more," was the order that Sauter later recalled having been given. How true this is is unclear, however, as Helmut Lau, who was an officer in the SS, according to Captain Heinrich Bauer, gave the Board an incredibly detailed description of the origin of the fire.

In any case, Sauter returned to Germany where he worked on the new DZR ship, the LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin, flying on it as Chief Engineer when it was commissioned in 1938. He served his country as an aircraft mechanic during the war, and subsequently sold U.S. Army scrap and surplus materials after the war ended. Gradually, Sauter diversified into rental properties and spinning mills and was able to retire a wealthy man.

He also worked with Captain Max Pruss, the Hindenburg's former commander, during the post-war years to try and revive the Zeppelin airships. In the early 1950s, in fact, Sauter and Pruss drew up plans for a new Zeppelin and made the case to the West German government and the press that (in Sauter's words,) "The use of Zeppelins in air traffic is absolutely economical. The West German government is planning to spend 150 million marks on a new airline flown by airplanes. We would need only 50 million marks to build new Zeppelins." Sauter showed the new Zeppelin plans to Dr. Hugo Eckener, by then in his late 80s and retired. As Eckener later told a news reporter, "I told him that he had my blessing, but that I do not want to have anything to do with it. Today, a Zeppelin would not have a chance against an airplane."

This did not deter Sauter, however, and neither did the death of Max Pruss in late 1960. Sauter continued to try and rally support for a rebirth of the Zeppelin airship, supported by other former airshipmen such as former Hindenburg Captain Albert Sammt and Vice Admiral Charles E. Rosendahl of the US Navy. In an article written for United Press International by Pruss' son Klaus in July of 1965, Sauter highlighted the advantages of the Zeppelin as a long-distance cargo carrier. "They can carry 80 tons of goods to America in two and one-half days. They offer more storage room than the largest plane." All of this was, sadly, to no avail, as no substantial public interest (or, more importantly, investment interest) in a new Zeppelin was forthcoming.

Rudolf Sauter passed away in February of 1966.

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