Friday, February 13, 2009

Colonel Fritz Erdmann


Age: 46

Hometown: Unknown

Occupation: Luftwaffe Colonel

Location at time of fire: Passenger decks, starboard observation lounge

Died in wreck

Colonel Fritz Erdmann was born on January 17th, 1891. He was made Kommandant of the aviation section of the Military Signal Communications School in Halle an der Saale on March 1st, 1935, and was still serving in that capacity when he was assigned as a military observer aboard the Hindenburg's first North American flight of 1937.

Along with fellow Luftwaffe officers Major Hans-Hugo Witt and Lieutenant Claus Hinkelbein, Erdmann was sent along on the flight in order to observe the cutting-edge long-range navigational techniques and weather forecasting practices employed by the Hindenburg's command crew. This required the three Luftwaffe men to make frequent visits to the ship's control car – according to Major Witt, perhaps half a dozen visits per day.

Much has been made over the years of a claim made by author Michael Mooney in his 1972 book The Hindenburg that Erdmann, Witt and Hinkelbein were aboard the ship not as mere observers, but as security officers tasked with finding and stopping a potential saboteur. No evidence has ever surfaced to support this allegation, and in fact no second source has ever come out with a similar claim – all mention of and elaboration on this story (including, perhaps most famously, the use of Colonel Erdmann as the basis for George C. Scott's character in the 1975 movie "The Hindenburg") appears to be based strictly on Mooney's unsupported assertions. All credible evidence suggests that Erdmann and the others were aboard as nothing more than military observers, no different from the German and American military observers who had been aboard virtually every Hindenburg flight the previous year.

The three Luftwaffe men traveled in civilian clothes as passengers, however, as had been customary for military observers during the 1936 season. Fellow passenger Gertrud Adelt later recalled that Erdmann seemed none too happy to be making the flight. Just before takeoff in Frankfurt on May 3rd, Colonel Erdmann had his wife Dorothea paged and escorted onto the ship by a steward for one final goodbye. Mrs. Adelt's husband Leonhard, a veteran of several airship flights, quietly noted to his wife that he had never seen a guest brought onboard the ship this close to takeoff. Frau Erdmann appeared in the doorway of the passenger area and according to Gertrud Adelt she and Colonel Erdmann silently embraced for a minute or more. Frau Erdmann then left the ship without a word.

In all likelihood it was Erdmann's position in the Luftwaffe that made it possible for such a request to be granted. He later confided to Gertud Adelt that a "terrible feeling" had come over him, and that he'd had to see his wife one last time before the ship sailed. Thereafter, when not in the control car or elsewhere in the ship observing flight procedures, Erdmann tended to sit at one of the promenade windows on the passenger decks, staring glumly out at the overcast sky above the North Atlantic.

As the Hindenburg approached its mooring mast at Lakehurst on the evening of May 6th, Colonel Erdmann was in the starboard passenger lounge talking with Major Witt and steward Fritz Deeg. Deeg went to the port side promenade to get a better view of the landing operation and Erdmann stayed in the lounge, standing near the observation windows with Major Witt, Lt. Hinkelbein, and fellow passenger George Hirschfeld.

Colonel Erdmann's location in the starboard lounge at the time of the fire.

When the ship caught fire a few minutes later, Erdmann reportedly leapt from one of the observation windows, landed safely, but was then caught under a section of girders which collapsed on top of him. He never made it out of the wreck alive, and was later identified by his wedding ring.

Fritz Erdmann's body was returned to Germany aboard the steamship Hamburg on May 13th, 1937.

(An excellent history (in German) of the Military Signal Communications School at Halle/Saale can be found HERE.)

1 comment:

David72 said...

It's interesting that Col. Erdmann looks quite a bit like George C. Scott in his full "Col. Franz Ritter" regalia, although I do imagine from any other angle, or in different clothing, or minus the cap, there might be no resemblance at all. However, it is without question that Ritter was based on Erdmann, right down to the final goodbye at Frankfurt.