Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Josef Leibrecht

Crew Member

Age: 33

Hometown: Lindau, Germany

Occupation: Electrician

Location at time of fire: lower keel, base of stairs leading up to bow.


Josef Leibrecht was one of three electricians who flew on the Hindenburg's final flight, the other two being Ernst Schlapp and Chief Electrician Philipp Lenz. Leibrecht had served as an electrician on every one of the Hindenburg's flights, going all the way back to the ship's maiden flight on March 4th, 1936. On one occasion while in the United States in 1936, on the way back to the ship from enjoying a rather late evening in New York with some friends from Lakehurst, Leibrecht was involved in an automobile accident. As the Hindenburg was preparing to sail at dawn, a police cruiser pulled up, and two New Jersey state troopers escorted Leibrecht to the ship, fresh from the hospital and covered in cuts and bruises.


Josef Leibrecht, wearing his work coverall, poses next to the access ladder in engine car #1, starboard aft.

As the Hindenburg approached the mooring circle at Lakehurst at the end of its first North American flight of the 1937 season on May 6th, Leibrecht was off watch in the crew's mess when he was ordered forward to the bow, along with 5 other crewmen (engine mechanics Walter Banholzer and Alfred Stöckle, cooks Alfred Grözinger and Richard Müller, and assistant cook Fritz Flackus), to help to trim the tail-heavy ship for landing. Leibrecht took a spot on a small platform alongside the keel walkway right at Ring 233, at the base of the stairs leading up to the mooring station at the tip of the bow.

Josef Leibrecht's location at the time of the fire.
(Hindenburg structural diagram courtesy of David Fowler)

Suddenly, Leibrecht became aware of a "swishing" noise, and the stern of the ship dropped. He held onto an overhead girder for dear life and kept his eyes shut tightly as the ship seemed to stand on its tail and fire raced overhead towards the bow. For the rest of his life, Leibrecht would remember the awful screams of the men on the stairs ahead of him as they dropped from the ship one by one and fell to their deaths. "It seemed forever," in Leibrecht's mind, before the ship finally leveled out and touched the ground so that Leibrecht could finally let go of his handhold and stumble through the framework to safety.

Of the dozen men who were in the nose of the ship at the time of the fire, only Leibrecht and two others standing twenty feet or so behind him (Alfred Grözinger and elevatorman Kurt Bauer) survived. Leibrecht was burnt badly enough that he remained in Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City for well over a month after the crash, and was still not well enough to testify to the US Commerce Department's Board of Inquiry when investigators visited the hospital on May 28th to interview other survivors.

Josef Leibrecht being transferred via ambulance from Paul Kimball Hospital in Lakewood, NJ to Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, the day after the disaster.

Josef Leibrecht (at left) and Franz Herzog (right) visit with a friend following their release from Lenox Hill Hospital in the summer of 1937.

Leibrecht, along with fellow crew survivor Franz Herzog, was released from Lenox Hill in July or August of 1937 and  returned home to Germany on the steamship Bremen. Leibrecht’s hands, badly burned in the fire, were still bandaged during his voyage home, and continued to be a problem for him for quite some time afterward. In fact, his injuries seem to have prevented Leibrecht from joining his crewmates aboard the Hindenburg’s sister ship, the LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin, when it began to make flights in September of 1938, almost a year and a half after the Hindenburg disaster. According to a letter written by Franz Herzog to one of his American friends in late 1938, “Leibrecht’s hands are so bad that he cannot work anymore. He has bought a little house near the Bodensee in Lindau and is living there.”
Josef Leibrecht did, however, eventually regain enough dexterity to work again as an electrician, although hands and forearms would remain badly scarred for the rest of his life. He lived out the rest of his days in his home town of Lindau, and passed away on December 18, 1994. He is buried in Lindau's Friedhof Aeschach.

Josef Leibrecht in his later years.

Thanks to John Tabert for the portrait photo of Joseph Leibrecht as well as the photo of Leibrecht and Herzog. John's father was a patient at Lenox Hill Hospital at the same time that Leibrecht and Herzog were there, and they struck up a friendship and continued to keep in touch even after they had left the hospital. The 1938 letter from Herzog in which he mentions Leibrecht's ongoing problems with his injured hands was written to John's father.


Milan Zivancevic said...

"For the rest of his life, Leibrecht would remember the awful image of the men on the stairs ahead of him gradually losing their grips one by one and falling to their deaths."

Interesting... "gradually losing their grips one by one and falling to their deaths", but in the Alfred Stöckle section you wrote that "most of them jumped anyway, in a desperate attempt to escape the flames":

"When the Hindenburg caught fire a few minutes later, Stöckle and most of the others in the bow section suddenly found themselves engulfed in fire and at least 150 feet above the ground, unable to jump to safety. Most of them jumped anyway, in a desperate attempt to escape the flames. Stöckle appears to have done the same..."

So what was it then? Perhaps a combination of both...

P.S. We want the "Faces of the Hindenburg" book, come on! ;)

Patrick Russell said...

Hi Milan,

You know, I'm not really sure. There really are no first-hand accounts as to what happened in that part of the ship. I don't believe Josef Leibrecht ever actually wrote down his personal recollections of the disaster, and what I have is all second- or third-hand information from questionable sources like Mooney.

And of course, none of the other men from the bow section (except Bauer and Groezinger, who were about 30 feet aft of Leibrecht) survived long enough to tell their tales. Most of them can be seen falling from the ship in the newsreels, but it's difficult to tell if they're deliberately jumping or simply losing their grips and falling. (I suspect it's the former, though.)

I should probably edit that sentence in the Leibrecht article to more closely reflect what I've written in the Alfred Stoeckle article, though.

No idea when this will all be released in book form. Unfortunately, from a copyright perspective, it's a lot more difficult to publish photos in a book than on a non-profit web page like this. I have never quite figured out how I would work that out. For now, the web site approach works a lot better for my purposes.

But hopefully there will be a "Faces" book eventually!


Milan Zivancevic said...

Hello Patrick,

Thanks for the additional explanation. Now if I may bother you with just one more question; non related to this article (been meaning to ask you this for a long time now but kept forgetting): could you possibly add some info - ANY info - and a photo if you have of that ground crewman who was killed when LZ129 crashed? Yes, he wasn't aboard the ship, but somehow I've always felt that he should be part of your "Faces" family. Thanks to your monumental research I got to know all these 97 faces pretty good by now, but could never found anything on this man - except a brief mention in one recollection of the event by some other ground crewman (can't remember the source, but it's on Youtube), where he said something like "we were just underneath the ship when it caught fire, we ran for our lives, and sadly one of our guys was too slow / tripped on something and didn't make it".

Of course, you can just post the info in your reply here if the article idea seems a bit odd.

Kind regards from Serbia,


Patrick Russell said...

Hi Milan,

Actually, I've been gathering what info I can find on Allen Hagaman and will indeed eventually pull it all together into an article.

I never have found a photo of him, though. Hopefully one day.

Take care,

Allen Hagaman said...

My name is Allen E Hagaman and I am directly related and named after the Navy lineman Allen O Hagaman from Lakehurst, New Jersey, who was the only person on the ground to die in the Hindenburg crash.
An article on my great uncle's part in the Hindenburg crash would be very interesting. I am not sure if I could be of much help since I moved away from New Jersey when I was 11 years old in 1967.

Good day,
Allen Hagaman

Patrick Russell said...

Hi Allen,

I'm way ahead of you, my friend! I actually posted an article on your great uncle on my other Hindenburg blog last year.


I would have added it to the "Faces" blog here, but since I want to keep the top two articles here as the Passenger and Crew lists (since that helps everyone navigate the site) it'd have been tricky to post your great uncle's article here. So, it's on my other blog.

I'll also drop you a note at your gmail address.

Take care,